Illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti makes his feature directorial debut with The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, a well-mounted, perfectly diverting adaptation of the cult 1945 children’s book of the same name. It’s refreshingly classical in form and content, using old-fashioned 2D animation to paint a tale of kindly wizards, wicked kings, court jesters, and vaudeville acts. Inspired by traditional European fairy tales and commedia dell’arte, and pitched at the register of a bedtime story, The Bears Famous Invasion of Sicily is unlikely to win over any adult fans — as far as highfalutin animation goes, it lacks the allegorical heft and complex thematic underpinnings of, say, a film by Sylvain Chomet — but as far as children’s entertainment goes, it offers a refreshing break from the jokey pandering of Dreamworks and Blue Sky.
When travelling entertainer Gedeone and his daughter Almerina shelter in a cave to escape the wintry storm outside, they find themselves threatened by a huge, ravenous bear (Jean-Claude Carrière). Fearing for their lives, the pair regale the beast with the tale of how the bears came to occupy the Sicilian court, complete with hand-drawn backdrops, props, and puppets. The film alternates between this framing story and the tale itself, which follows an aging bear named Leonce, king of his tribe, who journeys across the land to find his son, Tony, after he is flushed away by a harsh waterfall. In the process, Leonce is befriended by a high-strung magician who is anxious to use the two wishes left remaining on his wand, and finds an enemy in The Grand Duke of Sicily, who has formed a widespread military campaign against the bears. This bare-bones narrative provides the foundation for a series of encounters with a variety of colourful characters, as the bears are lead into the clutches of a duplicitous innkeeper, reconnect with their dead peers in a haunted castle, and are nearly eaten by a monolithic sea monster.
Although this is his debut film as a director, Mattotti has enjoyed an astonishingly esteemed career as a visual artist; his drawings have been published in magazines such as The New Yorker, Vanity and Le Monde, he has designed posters for previous editions of the Cannes Film Festival, and he has illustrated countless children’s books. The nuanced, sumptuous aesthetic of The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily reflects this breadth of experience, combining elements of medieval painting, Baroque art and Mitteleuropean folk illustrations into an expressionistic whole which seems remarkably unified. The characters are positioned small against grand, sweeping landscapes, with pitching, calligraphic trees against sharp geometric medieval architecture. Each set-piece takes on a distinct colour palette appropriate to the tone and subject matter, as Mattotti constantly shakes up his vibrant visual scheme.
Still, even with a short runtime of eighty-five minutes, The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily feels far too long; after the narrative proper has been wrapped up, the film sets up an extended epilogue which drags endlessly, switching the ravishing, multifaceted quest structure for a plodding melodrama set at the Duke’s court. It’s not that this segment is outright bad (although it does play down the satirical edge of the novel in service of pure fantasy), but it feels like an unfortunate gear shift which completely stalls the otherwise brisk pace that been established. Perhaps The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily would have worked more effectively as a duo of short films rather than two disparate ones fused together.