INFESTATION: ANNECY ANIMATION FESTIVAL 2019: THE BEARS FAMOUS INVASION OF SICILY
This year at Annecy we were shown Lorenzo Mattotti’s adaptation of the Italian children’s book by Dino Buzzati, The Bears Famous Invasion of Sicily. I can only imagine “Famous” was put in the title to distinguish this invasion from all those other times an army of bears decided to invade the Sicilian borders trying to overthrow the government. Those other times were apparently either obscure or forgettable, but THIS one is notable and it sure made for a good movie, although not without flaws.
The film opens with traditional animation, as a father and daughter who work as traveling performers are lost in the mountains during a blizzard. They try to hide in a cave only to come across a gigantic bear that has just woken from his hibernation. To calm the beast and put it back to sleep, they try to entertain him by performing one of their stories “The Bears Famous Invasion”, a story so incredible that it switched the animation style of the film to more stylized CGI animation. The first half tells the tale of a bear King named Leonizio who ruled a pack of bears in the forests deep in the Sicilian valley. After Leonizio is led to believe that his son Tonio has drowned in the river (although he actually survived and was kidnapped by a group of circus folk) he falls into a deep depression. When the winter comes and the King realizes his tribe has no more fish, the bears decide to travel to the capital of the land to ask for some food. Unfortunately, the evil Grand Duke mistakes this for an invasion and sends his armies to stop the bears from reaching the city. When the bears succeed in fighting back against the army, the Duke sends his grand wizard to befriend the bears and sabotage their migration from the inside before they can reach the capital.
For the first half of the film, I have nothing but praise. Every frame of it looked like a painting coming to life. All the landscapes felt gigantic and created a very grand atmosphere, the architecture was rich with color and the oddly square shapes of the bears added an avant-garde and otherworldly element to the look. The story also had a great fairy tale feel of a world where the naïve and child-like logic of some of the characters felt very natural. The bears were a likable bunch, often breaking into dancing and celebrations. The wizard was amusingly bumbling and their adventures together were very imaginative and fun. There is a part where they spent the night in an abandoned castle and met the local ghosts who not only had a great design to them but their constant shape-shifting and surreal appearance felt like something out of the Pink Elephants on Parade sequence from Disney’s Dumbo. The animation was just so hauntingly amazing I didn’t want it to end.
The film doesn’t stray away from the darker moments either. At one somewhat frightening point, the bears face an Ogre who was very reminiscent of the villain from the original Puss in Boots story. This scene wasn’t unusual for the movie; for a children’s film it never sugarcoated things by much. Some characters are killed by guns and some are eaten by a gigantic monster.
One has to praise the direction and storyboarding, which were very cleverly executed indeed. When Tony performs the circus trapeze it’s one long shot framed like we were the circus audience watching it from the distance. The humor was very pleasant in its simplicity, as it never goes for slapstick or pop-cultural references and just sticks to the low-key character humor and absurdity. Even the constant switching from the bears to the father and daughter telling the story was handled entertainingly. They had a hilarious dynamic, the girl, in particular, having a “Commedia dell’arte” charm to her. I would love to see a short or another feature about these two, as their interactions were deeply amusing. The closest thing I have to a complaint about the first half is that the design of the Grand Duke stood out from the rest of the characters with an intended but unappealing Ralph Bakshi-esque ugliness to him. I guess he fit the story since he was meant to be a fairy tale villain, but something subtler seems like it would have integrated with the rest of the character designs better.
Somewhere in the middle of the film, the bear-invasion arc comes to its conclusion and a completely new story begins, with a minor character taking over as the main protagonist and even a new narrator thrown into the mix. The tone also changes, where the first half felt like a simple fairy tale, the second is more of a parallel satire. It’s hard to write about the plot of the second story without spoiling the ending of the first one so forgive my brevity in synopsizing. One character even describes it as a “sequel”.
Unfortunately, it’s just not as good as the first half was. It’s still clever, great to look at, and one can argue it’s a much more mature tale with some characters we’ve grown to like turning out to be jerks, a coming-of-age arc for one of the heroes, and some interesting social, if not political, commentary. The best way for me to describe it would be Babar the King of Elephants (a popular French book series) meets George Orwell’s Animal Farm. For me, the most impressive, imaginative and memorable story was the first, while the second was slightly duller, focusing considerably more on talking than action. Even the suspenseful climax, featuring a ferocious sea serpent, didn’t top anything I’d seen earlier with the ghosts or the ogre. Finally, the new protagonists are not nearly as interesting as the bear King. These halves of the film felt so different that I assumed that the second story was either from a book written by the same author years later or perhaps by some successor, but no, it was all based on the same novel. I couldn’t help imagining what this would have felt like if they had found a way to blend the halves more instead of feeling so separate. However, the end was very touching and brought it to a perfect conclusion for both stories.
Overall The Bears Famous invasion of Sicily was a charming experience. Even with my complaints that the second half could have been stronger, it’s still good and leaves you with the wonderful feeling of having just witnessed a proper spectacle. Both its animation style and its storytelling felt refreshingly different. It’s kind of sad to think what a rarity this kind of animated movie has become, just a simple fairy tale with no attempt to follow modern trends. Taking kids to see this, compared to something more commercial, like Hotel Transylvania or The Secret Life of Pets, might very well make them feel like they’re being presented with the animated equivalent of going to the ballet or the opera. But hey, there are some kids out there who find ballet and opera breathtaking. The world of The Bears Famous Invasion of Sicily enriches the imagination with every step, the use of Italian music creates a nice atmosphere, and the story is whimsical albeit with a very mature message. I recommend this to all families with kids who might dig on a bit more culture.