Easily Italy’s most imaginative feature film cartoonist, Naples-bred Enzo D’Alo brings his characteristic respect for children and a strong social p.o.v. to his third feature, “Momo, the Conquest of Time.” More elaborate in story, concept and drawing than either “The Blue Arrow” or his $9 million-grossing smash “Zorba and Lucky” (1998), this yarn about a little girl who saves the world from the Gray Men intent on stealing people’s time is the thinking child’s alternative to Hollywood Christmas fare. The sole holiday release in Italy for the Cecchi Gori Group, it stands a fighting chance against seasonal competition from “Atlantis” and the Italian-made “Aida of the Trees,” with all the credentials for doing fine biz internationally.
Pic is based on a novel by the late Michael Ende; the 1984 live-action adaptation of his book “The Neverending Story” became a worldwide hit under Wolfgang Petersen’s direction. This parentage gives a strong narrative backbone to the delightful fantasy of D’Alo’s animators.
Waif-like, mop-top Momo in her oversize coat appears out of the blue in a peaceful town and soon makes friends with the local kids — especially Gigi, a boy who works in a barber shop — and with Beppo, a warm-hearted old street-sweeper. With their help, Momo slips past a stern policeman and makes her home in the ruins of an ancient amphitheater.
A villainous convoy of limos driven by an army of identical businessmen — the Gray Men — roars into town. Wearing bowler hats, carrying briefcases and puffing on fat cigars, they use advertising cliches to persuade the populace that time is money, and that love and friendship are a waste of time. Hypnotized by their spiel about putting saved seconds into a time bank, the townsfolk turn into workaholic robots. Even the kids are persuaded by the time-snatchers: Instead of playing imaginative games after school, they rush to after-hours lessons “where they teach us how to play.”
Soon, the Gray Men pursue Momo, who never forgets the value of friendship. She is lifted on a bubble into the kingdom of a kindly, godlike Time Master. He explains that only she can put a stop to the Gray Men’s theft of people’s time — in a fantasy that tips its hat to Dali, Magritte and Escher.
Convincing in his portrayal of the world of children, D’Alo also alludes to grownup themes like consumerism, standardization, manipulative advertising and misplaced values. The monstrous dolls Bibi Girl and Bobo Boy, who can only say “I want more things,” are a neat put-down of the Barbie and Ken era; and in Italy at least, the Gray Men plotting power-moves in their boardroom inevitably bring to mind Berlusconi-style managers and salesmen.
Pop star Gianna Nannini contributes a rousing rock track that anchors the animation firmly in the contemporary world. Editor Simona Paggi opts for an unusually brisk pace, particularly at the beginning, that barely gives auds time to take in the blooming array of animation, but which keeps pic’s running time down to a fast and enjoyable 78 minutes.