'The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of the Cannes Film Festival
A folkloristic work of the imagination for under-14s.

Italian illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti directs an animated feature set in a Sicilian neverland where bears and humans go to war.

Eclectic Italian artist and illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti has designed everything from comic books to New Yorker covers in his long and acclaimed career, but The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily (La famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia) is his first venture into feature filmmaking. Based on novelist Dino Buzzati’s (The Tartar Steppe) only children’s book, which takes its cue from local traditions like the wandering minstrel and storyteller, it is a colorful fairy tale for children that won't keep them up at night. Exactly why the Franco-Italian co-production ended up in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section needs to be explained. (Maybe because it goes so well with the festival theme music, Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals?) It is a film that would have found an adoring audience in Berlin’s Generation sidebar.

There's not much adult material here. There is fighting, but bloodshed is not in evidence in a film this gentle and non-confrontational. Whereas another animated film in UCR, The Swallows of Kabul, included a heart-stopping scene of an Afghan woman being stoned to death, most of the violence in The Bears’ Invasion is perpetrated by ghosts, ogres, a giant cat and a humongous sea serpent, all of whom are quickly and roundly dispatched by our heroes.

Thematically, the film spins around the eternal clash between humans and other members of the animal kingdom. When the bear cub Tonino is captured by hunters, his father, Leonzio, the king of the bears, leads his thousands of brave subjects into the city to search for him, and also to rustle up some food. The encounter between Leonzio’s easygoing bears and the army of the evil Duke who rules the city highlights the naivete of the bears in thinking they would get a fair shake out of humans.

The story is framed by the wandering storyteller Gedeone (Antonio Albanese in the Italian voice cast), who takes shelter in a big cave one inclement day with his young daughter and assistant, Almerina (Leila Bekhti). They are surprised to wake up a huge old bear (Andrea Camilleri in the Italian version; Jean-Claude Carriere in the French), who listens to their tale about the bears’ invasion of Sicily. The storyteller reappears several times in the film, keeping the tone light.

The early scenes are joyfully drawn as King Leonzio (Toni Servillo) attempts to teach his beloved son Tonino (Alberto Boubakar Malanchino) to catch salmon in a mountain stream. When the boy is swept away by the current, Leonzio is heartbroken. But rallying himself from melancholy, he announces that the bears will go looking for his son, and they all burst into a surreal bear dance.

An old wizard who only has two spells left in his magic wand warns the vain, murderous Duke that they are about to be attacked. Seeing a chance for some killing sport, the Duke leads his army (drawn like toy soldiers) into the mountains to exterminate the bears. It is the wizard who saves the hairy creatures by transforming an attacking army of wild boars into balloons that float off into the sky.

The next battle is at Demon Rock, a sinister castle where ghosts are sent to attack the bears. No fear: in a sequence reminiscent of early Disney films, ghostly octopus figures join red bears in a dance against abstract backgrounds. This imaginatively retro style continues in a theater scene where seals, ballerinas and acrobats perform to Rene Aubry's wildly enthusiastic music. And there, on the tightrope, they find little Tonino.

But there’s more to the story, and now it’s the old bear’s turn to enlighten the storyteller with “the bears’ sequel.” In this continuation, Leonzio takes the place of the Duke as king of the city, inaugurating a golden age in which humans and bears live in idyllic harmony. Prince Tonino cavorts with a young lady named Almerina, and the wizard finds a way to recharge his wand, before the battles against the king's internal enemies begin.

Production companies: Prima Linea Productions, Indigo Film, France 3 Cinema, Pathe Films
Italian voice cast: Toni Servillo, Antonio Albanese, Thomas Bidegain, Andrea Camilleri, Lida Caridi, Jean-Claude Carriere, Arthur Dupont, Corrado Guzzanti
Director: Lorenzo Mattotti
Screenwriters: Thomas Bidegain, Jean-Luc Fromental, Lorenzo Mattotti, based on the novel by Dino Buzzati  
Producers: Christophe Jankovic, Valerie Schermann
Editors: Nassim Gordji Tehrani, Sophie Reine
Music: Rene Aubry
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
World sales: Pathe Films
Screened with Italian dialogue
82 minutes