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Animation First: U.S. Premiere of The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, Lorenzo Mattotti Discussion

Kelly N. Barahona reports on the U.S. Premiere of The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, the Lorenzo Mattotti art gallery display, and Lorenzo Mattotti in conversation with Françoise Mouly, all of which took place at the Animation First Festival 2020 on February 7-10, 2020.




THE MOVIE

Before We Bare Bears: The Movie, there was another animated film about anthropomorphic bears and their (sometimes silly) interactions with the human world, all while strengthening family bonds along the way. Indeed, the movie The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily proves to be quite the colorful and creative movie that adds another positive mark not just for bears in films, but for hand-drawn animation and fairy tale type stories as a whole.

The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily premiered in the U.S. at the Animation First festival on February 7, 2020. The festival’s opening night proved to be a full house with 300 people who were seated in the Florence Gould Hall Theater, with ages ranging toddlers to the elderly. The movie was presented in partnership with the Italian Cultural Institute and introduced by Francesco Genuardi, Consul General of Italy. The speaker excitedly said that both the film and its director brought Italy much pride.


The film’s director, Lorenzo Mattotti, based the animated picture on an Italian book from 1945 titled La Famosa Invasione Degli Orsi in Sicilia. The original book, written by Dino Buzzati, featured poetry and artwork alongside the narrative. The book has, as a 2004 Publishers Weekly blurb put it,

A fun, retro-European feel.


To follow suit in that feel, The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily animated version has a fairy tale flair with many story elements: the presence of talking bears, a professor that can conjure up magic, a gigantic beast that can transform into a cat that eats any living creature, a hydra monster that causes destruction, and more.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, what is this film about?

The movie is actually a story within a story. The frame narrative is about two travelers named Gedeone and Almerina who spend the night in a cave. There they meet a bear and, not wanting to waste a chance to perform, decide to tell the bear a story about bears invading Sicily.

The story is of a King of bears named Leonzio who lives a peaceful life with his son Tonio and the fellow bears up in the mountains in the Sicilian wilderness. One day, Tonio ends up missing and no one is able to find the child. King Leonzio, heartbroken, stands on the mountaintop and resigns himself to doing nothing else but staying still in the cold weather. Eventually, the king’s closest companions, who notice the king’s somber mood, suggest that Tonio possibly is in the human village. The king eagerly agrees, and thus begins the bears’ march into town.

King Leonzio and his fellow bears marching through the mountains

However, not everyone is excited to have bears come in for a visit. The Grand Duke, a pompous ruler, considers the bears an affront to his domain. The Duke consults with his sorcerer and ex-astrologist named Professor De Ambrosiis. The Professor holds a magic wand that can be used a limited number of times, so he sparingly uses actual magic spells. The Duke orders the Professor to stop the bears from getting too far on their journey.

What follows is a battle between the bears and the Duke’s army. While this plot point sounds like it belongs in war-drama, the actual presentation is fairly endearing. The bears, for example, use giant snowballs to roll over the army. Then, once the bear army wins, they start wearing human clothes and items. However, the bears do not come out fully unscathed as Leonzio’s elder mentor figure, Théophile, gets fatally wounded and passes away. This affects Leonzio very deeply, but still determined to find his son, he and the remaining bears continue on their quest.

Leonzio speaking to the ghost of his friend Théophile

The professor next tries to guide the bears into the home (and mouth) of a shape-shifting cat that eats anything and everything. However, Leonzio quickly realizes the trap and the bears join forces to fight off their foe. The professor, having both failed his Duke and betrayed the bears, finds himself in an uncomfortable middle ground.

Through some more trekking, King Leonzio and the other bears find themselves in the capital city of Sicily. Once again they find themselves fighting off the Duke’s forces and march on into the theater. They find that The Duke himself is enjoying a show here, and this performance features the dancer Almerina and Tonio.

Leonzio, at last, has found his son, but the Duke orders his guards to shoot at the younger bear. The professor, riddled with guilt and the cruelty of his higher up, uses his final magic spell to revive Tonio. Father and son reunite, the Duke gets overthrown, and the bears come to peacefully coexist with the human citizens of Sicily.

The Professor and Leonzio arguing about the use of magic

Gedeone and Almerina’s story in the cave comes to an end. The bear who was listening turns out to speak human. He explains that yes, the bears did in fact come to rule Sicily, but while it was a good thing, it did not last.

The second half of the film heads back into the story-within-a-story by showing the bears ruling the island nation and how the reign changed bears and humans alike. Initially, harmony was the standard: the bears had adopted a more human-like way of dressing and all were civilized. Tonio was especially close to Almerina and other humans, which made Leonzio extremely uncomfortable.

However, King Leonzio’s partner Salpetre was letting power get to his head, much as the former Duke had. Through a misunderstanding, the Professor gets framed for a crime he did not commit and is sent to prison. Leonzio trusts Salpetre’s opinion that this is the right call. Tonio and Almerina, both feel that something is fishy; the Professor has saved Tonio in that past, so it doesn’t add up that he’d turn to criminal activities. The duo decide they wish to prove the Professor innocent. After getting some clues, Almerina and Toniohead to a secret night and gambling club that proves to be an intoxicating experience in more ways than one. Leonzio walks in on the scene at a bad moment. Believing that his son has become degenerate, the father throws his son into jail.

Young lady Almerina speaking to Tonio and the Professor in jail

Almerina is convinced that something sneaky is at play. She visits the Professor and Tonio in their cell to think of a plan to fix things. The Professor directs her to a hidden spell that can call forth a monster from the deep seas. The plan works as expected -- the water beast surfaces and starts causing a violent storm on the coasts. The bears work together to expel the creature, Salpetre is outed as the one who framed the Professor and Tonio, and is marked as a traitor to the King, and peace is restored once again. Alas, Leonzio is weakened from the fight and is placed on his death bed. His last wish is for the bears to go back to the wild, as in the process of becoming civilized they have forgotten who they really are. The bears oblige: they say their good-byes to the humans, remove all their clothes and objects, and begin the march back into the mountains.

And so the movie ends with Gedeone and Almerina thanking the old bear for his continuation of the tale. The two storytellers leave the cave at the crack of dawn and wonder upon the identity of the sagely bear that spoke to them of the famous bear’s invasion of Sicily.


OPENING NIGHT RECEPTION & LORENZO MATTOTTI’S ART WORK

Following the movie’s premiere, the kick-off party began. People of all ages, from foreign filmmakers to students to curious citizens, were at the reception Friday evening. The reception had a slight Mediterranean flair -- red and white wine, spinach puffs, feta cheese, olives, were all on the menu in addition to more standard hors d'oeuvre like sliders and (of course) an apple swan.

A delightful apple swan (photo courtesy of AFA Correspondent Nina Balton)

Alongside the food stood the Lorenzo Mattoiti exhibition. This section showed off Mattotti’s illustrations for the covers of The New Yorker magazines from the past several decades. This display was roughly in chronological order, and common themes were clear. Much of Mattotti’s work features the human form in abstraction. Mattotti’s The New Yorker days would be further explored in a panel discussing later at the Festival.

Exhibition of Lorenzo Mattotti’s illustrations for magazine covers (photo by Kelly N. Barahona)

More of Mattotti’s magazine covers (photo by Kelly N. Barahona)


MATTOTTI IN CONVERSATION WITH FRANÇOISE MOULY


Two days following the movie’s premiere, Animation First held the talk titled “Lorenzo Mattotti in Conversation with Françoise Mouly”. Mouly is an editor for The New Yorker and has worked numerous times with Mattotti.


Françoise Mouly (image courtesy of stamps.umich.edu/)



Lorenzo Mattotti

Mattotti started the chat by emphasizing the importance of ideas in illustration. For a magazine like The New Yorker, time is limited for all staff. When it comes to art concepts, Mattotti stated that,


One idea must be [a] good one.



Mattotti continued by talking about his children’s illustration work. From Pinocchio to Hansel and Gretel, Mattotti’s work strives to tell a story with every image. His art varies from colored illustrations to black-and-white sketches, and both are formats Mattotti presents much experience in. If colors are used, as Mattotti himself pointed out, it is with the goal to communicate without words. His Hansel and Gretel black and white sketches, with their intense shadows and rough outlines, were intended to speak about fear.

Mattotti explaining a black and white sketch for a Hansel and Gretel book project (photo by Kelly N. Barahona)
Next, Mattotti showcased some concept art from The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily. As a comic artist with several years of experience, Mattotti discussed that storyboarding for an animated film was helpful in pinpointing the story. The original book did contain illustrations, but not for each scene or each moment that the story mentioned. The storyboards allowed the animators to see how a potential animated scene would be positioned, colored, and timed. Mattotti interestingly mentioned that he had tried 3D techniques for the film, and even made a CGI demo. However, the costs of high quality, picturebook style 3D animation for a feature-length film proved to be too costly. Some 3D elements are present in the film; the sea serpent, for example, is CGI blended to match the color scheme of the hand-drawn. For the majority of the movie, though, hand-drawn animation led the way. Mattotti humorously added that sometimes,

[3D animation] can be a slave of the technique.”

Concept art of character from The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily (photo courtesy of Kelly N. Barahona)
One interesting tidbit to note is the presence of Almerina in the film. The original book had no female characters (or at least none that were named), which is something many staff of the film noticed. As was also mentioned in the “Women in Animation” panel at the Animation First Festival, it was the suggestion of the film’s producer Valérie Schermann to add a female character to make the story more accessible to people of all ages and genders. Thus was born the character of Armerina.

Almerina interestingly has a dual role in the story. She and Gedeone tell the fable of the bears invading Sicily in the movie; this is her “real world” persona. Yet she is also a character within the fable being told, a person of equal importance to Tonio and Professor De Ambrosiis. She becomes a self-insert character to make the story of the bears being told more relatable, both to the old bear in the cave and to the actual audience watching. She is also a character with more than one age and character model depicted, making the passage of time between the two halves of the movie much more clear. In short Almerina’s addition to the film proved to be both beneficial narratively speaking and compelling in the larger context of the whole movie.

Concept art of scene from The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily (photo courtesy of Kelly N. Barahona)
The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily is a wonderfully crafted film by a director whose artistic finesse makes hand-drawn animation both classic and groundbreaking at the same time. Of course, 2020 has not been a perfect year for a variety of reasons. Prima Linea Productions, the animation production studio in France that helped make this film a reality, sadly stopped operations. That is too bad, for this film’s style is one that other filmmakers can and should take inspiration from down the line. One can only hope that at the very least, more people see this movie and appreciate the hard work that went into it. (Whether one sees it before or after We Bare Bears: The Movie is not as important, although there’s a good chance that both films would make a great double feature night once they are made widely available.

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