Film Review: ‘The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily’

Noted illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti’s feature debut is classic animation at its best, but the adaptation of the original children’s book opens itself up to problematic interpretation.

Lorenzo Mattotti
Toni Servillo, Antonio Albanese, Linda Caridi

Running time: 81 MIN.

A classic Italian children’s book from 1945 gets an update in master illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti’s feature debut, “The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily.” Beautifully drawn with bold colors and appealing shapes, the film’s style is classic animation at its best, clear and pleasing, calculated to charm children and adults alike. The revised storyline, however, about how bears and humans clash, make amends, and then realize they’re too different to live together, can lead to unfortunate and inadvertent interpretations neither Mattotti nor the original author Dino Buzzati intended. In addition, the narrative’s pace, whizzing by from one scene to the next, frustrates an adult’s desire to relish the often-striking images, making the film most suitable for kids incapable of critically engaging with metaphor.

“The Bears’ Famous Invasion” first appeared in print toward the end of World War 2, written and illustrated by the multi-talented Buzzati, whose novel “The Tartar Steppe” was adapted by Valerio Zurlini for his 1976 masterpiece “The Desert of the Tartars.” As usual with children’s stories created by intellectuals (think Jean de Brunhoff’s “Babar” and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince”), the book was ripe for interpretation: Was it saying that mankind had become so venal and corrupted that there’s no redemption? Was it a specifically political metaphor, creating an opposition between communists (the bears) and capitalists (the humans)? Given the way the world has changed in three-quarters of a century, what’s the message now, and is there a danger of it being misinterpreted?

Mattotti and his fellow screenwriters made numerous changes to the storyline, largely to streamline the plot and make it more suitable to a feature-length narrative film. They’ve added a framing structure in the form of an itinerant showman, Gedeone (Antonio Albanese), and his young assistant Almerina (Linda Caridi), who seek shelter from the winter cold in a cave, and accidentally awaken an old hibernating bear (Andrea Camilleri). To ensure he remains friendly, Gedeone and Almerina entertain him with a story from long ago, before bears (apart from this one) disappeared completely from Sicily.

Back then, bears lived in the woods guided by their king Leonzio (Toni Servillo). When his son Tonio (Alberto Boubakar Malanchino) gets swept down the river and captured by humans, Leonzio’s grief is overwhelming and he neglects his duties as leader. Winter sneaks up on the bears before they’ve had a chance to store up food, so it’s proposed they go to the town where they can eat and look for Tonio. The nasty Grand Duke (Corrado Invernizzi) assumes it’s an invasion and sets his troops against the bears, who are temporarily helped by the ruler’s sycophantic wizard De Ambrosiis (Maurizio Lombardi) after the Grand Duke abuses him once too often.

The battle scenes are enchanting, as in the moment when packs of wild boars suddenly turn into balloons and float away, or later when the bears send enormous snowballs down a series of cliffs, each scene beautifully imagined in primary colors. Ultimately, Tonio is found in a circus, the Grand Duke is overthrown, and bears and humans live harmoniously with Leonzio as the King of Sicily. Concord is short-lived however, as some of the bears become corrupted by the worst of human traits and the animals return to the forest: After all, bears are bears and men are men, and mixing only leads to strife.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: separate but equal? For Americans, the concept has an unfortunate ring, redolent of segregation. In addition, given the heinous rhetoric coming from anti-immigration politicians in Europe as well as the U.S., the notion of “invaders” entering a city, intermingling, and then leaving en masse (resulting in a bear-less Sicily) has ill-timed connotations. This certainly wasn’t Mattotti’s intent; indeed, it’s likely his idea was to show the damaging nature of humans in relation to their environment, implying that though some people are good, the bad ones have an infectious effect that’s best isolated. Yet given the opportunity for misinterpretation, it’s a shame the filmmakers didn’t find a way of reworking the story to ensure the taint of anti-immigration rhetoric couldn’t be applied to what’s designed as a children’s tale.

Though this is Mattotti’s first feature film, he’s justly celebrated for his inventive illustrations, which include scores of memorable covers for The New Yorker magazine, as well as posters, comics, illustrated books, and a short film featured in the animated omnibus “Fear(s) of the Dark.” The pictorial concept of “Bears” is unmistakably his own, with diverse influences ranging from Renaissance painting to Expressionism and De Chirico (the latter also an important influence on Buzzati’s work). Unfussy shapes in warm colors have a delightful rhythmic flow while holding their own equally well as frame grabs. Eliminating a few scenes and elongating others would have allowed for a deeper appreciation of the imaginative visual treats.

Film Review: 'The Bears' Famous Invasion of Sicily'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 21, 2019 (also in Annecy, competing). Running time: 81 MIN. (Original titles: “La famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia,” “La fameuse invasion des ours en Sicile”)

Production: (Animation – Italy-France) A BiM (in Italy), Pathé (in France) release of a Prima Linea Prods. presentation of a Prima Linea Prods., France 3 Cinéma, Pathé, Indigo Film with Rai Cinema production, with the participation of Canal Plus, Ciné Plus, France Télévisions. (Int'l sales: Pathé Int'l, Paris.) Producers: Valérie Schermann, Christophe Jankovic. Co-producers: Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima, Carlotta Calori, Ardavan Safaee.

Crew: Director: Lorenzo Mattotti. Screenplay: Thomas Bidegain, Jean-Luc Fromental, Lorenzo Mattotti, based on the novel "La Famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia" by Dino Buzzati. Graphic design: Mattotti. Editor: Sophie Reine. Music: René Aubry. Animation: Julien Dexant, Laurent Kircher, Jean-Christophe Lie, Antoni Mengual-Llobet.

With: Toni Servillo, Antonio Albanese, Linda Caridi, Maurizio Lombardi, Corrado Invernizzi, Alberto Boubakar Malanchino, Beppe Chierici, Roberto Ciufoli, Nicola Rignanese, Mino Caprio, Corrado Guzzanti, Andrea Camilleri. (Italian dialogue)

More Film

  • Choas Charles Mansion and the CIA

    Amazon Studios Takes Film Rights to Manson-Centered Drama 'Chaos' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the grisly murders executed by the followers of Charles Manson, Amazon Studios has optioned film rights to a nonfiction title about a journalist who spent decades obsessively following the case. The studio will adapt “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties,” from [...]

  • Sword of Trust

    Marc Maron on 'Sword of Trust,' Lynn Shelton and Conspiracy Theories

    Marc Maron has interviewed everyone from Bruce Springsteen to President Obama, so he’s probably learned a few things about being a good interview. Of course, as he points out, he generally has over an hour to talk leisurely speak with his guests in his home and draw out stories beyond the public narrative; it’s a [...]

  • Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - The

    Andrew Lincoln's ‘Walking Dead’ Movies to Be Released Only in Theaters

    The first planned movie centered on “The Walking Dead” character Rick Grimes will now run in theaters rather than on AMC. The announcement was made with a brief teaser video played at San Diego Comic-Con on Friday, with the video ending with the words “Only in Theaters.” The film will be distributed by Universal Pictures. [...]

  • Jennifer Beals The Last Tycoon

    Jennifer Beals Seeking SAG-AFTRA Board Seat as Matthew Modine Ally (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jennifer Beals is running for a SAG-AFTRA national board seat as a member of presidential candidate Matthew Modine’s progressive Membership First slate. Beals is best known for starring as Bette Porter on the Showtime series “The L Word” and for her lead role as Alex Owens in the 1983 hit “Flashdance.” She’s starred in the [...]

  • Alamo Drafthouse Opens New Downtown Los

    Alamo Drafthouse Storms into L.A. with New Location

    “Cinema is alive and well tonight!” Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League declared at the theatrical venue’s ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday night, where a gathering of 160 employees cheered and sliced into a strip of 35mm film in keeping with the company’s tradition. Despite dire predictions heralding the end of the theater-going experience, League was upbeat [...]

  • The Lion King Teaser

    'The Lion King' Leaping to $185 Million North American Debut

    Disney’s “The Lion King” is heading for a dominant $185 million opening weekend in North America, early estimates showed Friday. Should that number hold, “The Lion King” will record the second-best opening of 2019 — and give the sagging domestic box office a badly needed boost. “The Lion King” would replace “Incredibles 2,” which launched [...]

  • Joe Anthony Russo

    Russo Brothers Announce 'Grimjack,' Live-Action 'Battle of the Planets' Adaptations

    Joe and Anthony Russo are looking to their youth to populate the development slate at their production company AGBO. A relatively obscure comic book called “Grimjack” will count the Russos as producers for an adaptation, they announced at San Diego Comic-Con. They’re also cooking up a live-action adaptation of the animated show “Battle of the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content