Slick, creative animation and largely enjoyable music make “Cinderella the Cat” one of the best Italian animated films of recent years and a step up from co-director Alessandro Rak’s well-regarded 2013 debut, “The Art of Happiness.” This time, Rak and equal collaborators Ivan Cappiello, Marino Guarnieri, and Dario Sansone are again in Naples, using a riff on the Cinderella story to comment on the city’s failed promises while also making sly asides about Italian corruption in general. Jazzy numbers are the best in a full score, and the use of 3D software incorporated into the 2D format creates a fantasy world of evocative multi-plane imagery. Adult animation lovers will feel rewarded, and international distribution could result if buzz is strong enough.
Visionary scientist Vittorio Basile (Mariano Rigillo) lives on his vast ship in the Bay of Naples, where he makes plans for the betterment of the city. Preoccupied by grand projects and his imminent marriage to vixenish singer Angelica Carannante (Maria Pia Calzone), he’s entrusted the daily care of young daughter Mia to bodyguard Primo Gemito (Alessandro Gassmann). But just after the wedding, Vittorio is murdered by Angelica’s drug dealer lover Salvatore Lo Giusto (Massimiliano Gallo).
Years go by, and the once pristine ship is a rusting hulk where ghostly holograms from forgotten technology float in the air alongside the projections of frayed memories from happier times. Angelica, her five daughters and drag queen son Luigi (Ciro Priello) wait for the day when Salvatore will make her his wife, but he’s busy with plans to expand his cocaine business and turn Naples into the biggest money-laundering park in the world. Poor mute Mia has grown accustomed to abuse by her stepmother and family when not being neglected in the bowels of the ship, yet when she turns 18, Salvatore has new ideas about her that Gemito hopes to thwart.
There’s a sharp streak of cynicism running through “Cinderella the Cat,” made more potent when viewers have a bit of background knowledge about Italian politics. Salvatore’s origins as a cruise ship singer inevitably elicit parallels with Silvio Berlusconi’s early years, and the failed hopes for a resurrected Naples are painfully topical. The film plays on a number of clever riffs on the Cinderella tale, all in the darkest of veins, from the sadism of Mia’s step-siblings to Salvatore’s drug empire built on shoes made from soluble cocaine.
Appropriately sinister lyrics lend further grit to the overall picture, adding a surprise element to the generally up-tempo songs, notably a crooned celebration of Naples’ underbelly by the sleazy Salvatore. The time period is kept vague but with a distinct retro feel, as if set in a backward-looking present, and the painterly animation, full of reds and earth colors, straddles the line between new and old. A steady rain of falling cinders from Vesuvius acts as a reminder of the story’s Cinderella roots, while also conveying the impression of a city on the verge of nuclear winter. Together with the ghostly holograms, it lends the film a satisfying, magical multidimensionality.