Undercooked Spaghetti: Italian Animation in the 80's & 90's
Next month we have the treat of sharing Lucky and Zorba, a heartwarming Italian animated film from the 90's based on a children's book of the same name. It is a beloved classic in Italy, and can be seen as particularly exemplary if held in contrast with the rest of Italian animation of that era which one could say brings to mind a pile of under-cooked spaghetti. Let's make one thing clear: Italian film is amazing. Now let's make another thing clear: modern Italian animation typically is not. With the exception of the '77 cult classic Allegro Non Troppo, not many animated films have come out of Italy, and even less have come to the United States. However, there's one film studio that has managed to break through that threshold, and perhaps not for the best of reasons...
It's the year 1985: Orlando Corradi is a visionary, an animator, a story-teller; and what he lacks in talent, he makes up for with his sheer enthusiasm when it comes to producing wholesome, non-violent content for kids. He forms the animation studio "Mondo TV" in Rome, which becomes one of the largest European animation companies, still today raking in €16.5 million in profits yearly. Fancying himself a Walt Disney type, Corradi even now oversees script-writing and plotting as well as developing and producing the animation itself. And he certainly churns it out, with 1600 TV episodes under his belt with 75 feature-length films. What a catalog! But how can he create that much original content? To get an idea, take a look at this gallery of Mondo TV films below... Look familiar?
The funny thing is, while most of these ripoff films may bear a surface resemblance to their US cousins, most feature completely madcap plots that simply make no sense, and the production quality is shoddy at best. (Side note: Cinderella will stand til the end of time as having the worst sound editing of any film I've ever seen in my life. It is comically horrible, and worth a watch if you want to cry laughing slash want to rip your own eyes out.) Mondo TV makes most of its profits from distributing Japanese animated films in Europe, a clever move that Corradi pulled off at a time when Japanese animation wasn't on the radar, and now he gets to profit from it. Interestingly enough, their other golden goose is an ongoing TV series entitled "Puppy in my Pocket" that accompanies a collectible toy line. With that money, it seems, they have managed to "make it", as well as churn out an astounding number of cheesy educational films featuring religious and historical figures from Jesus Christ and Mother Teresa to Ulysses and Genghis Khan. But all of their works evidence the production company's greatest strength: its relentless moral compass.
Back in the 90's, Mondo TV was a cornerstone in the European film market for kids. They dominated the arena to such a point that even their worst films had English dubs and were released in the US, whether straight to VHS or aired on TV. Even despite their many flops, some of their films are still fan favorites, even if only for the nostalgia and, of course, the lols. For example, their most (in)famous film to date is "The Legend of the Titanic" which quite literally jumps the shark when it turns out rather than getting hit by an iceberg, the titanic gets jumped by a gang of talking sharks.
The only project of theirs that is even remotely interesting to watch is the swash-buckling "Black Corsair", a 26-episode TV series based off a collection of Italian novels of the same name. Part Corto Maltese, part Mysterious Cities of Gold, this series has a unique visual style and is a work that stands on its own without being a ripoff or a sequel. That said, the animation is still bad, the dialogue is clunky, and the plot suffers for it. But, there's PIRATES! Dashing, sword-fighting pirates...
Of course, as much as I wanted to subject you all to sit through a movie so comically bad it is almost psychologically painful (see: Cinderella), I prefer to present films that are interesting works of art that add something unique to the broad scope of the genre. Lucky and Zorba, while falling into the same trappings as other 90's Italian animation (in that it is schlocky and a bit derivative), has a couple of serious strengths. Some of the animated sequences are real artistic achievements and showcase the freedom to make creative flights-of-fancy in a way that is unique to traditional animation. There are two segments that clearly are a raw artistic expression of the animators that will stick with me, and have apparently stuck with the Italian public. Another unique trait of the film that sets it apart are the themes of chosen family and acceptance, which embody the fundamental wholesomeness that is so central to Italian animation at large.
Lucky and Zorba was produced by the much smaller studio Lanterna Magica, headed by Enzo d'Alo. In contrast with Mondo TV, Lanterna Magica has consistently released original, innovative feature-length films, and specialize in 2D digital animation. The studio rose to fame after their first big hit La Freccia Azzurra (tr: the Blue Arrow), which you may recognize under the name of its US re-release, The Toys Who Saved Christmas. Through the success of their English localization and redub, within two years they were able to come out with a second film, Lucky & Zorba, which became an instant hit. Due to its popularity in its home country, it was quickly bought up by Sony for an English languge release, where they did a full English-cast redub as well as re-recorded the soundtrack. Nowadays, it is considered next to Allegro Non Troppo as an example of Italy's best animated films. Unfortunately, an Italian language version with English subtitles is virtually impossible to come by. So this October, we're going to be viewing the film on a VHS Tape from 1998 when it was first released in English by Columbia Tristar! While this means it won't be in its native language, it does capture the energy and spark of the original, as well as the cheerful plot.
Do you have any favorite Italian animated films? Are you secretly a diehard fan of the Legend of Zorro? Did you make it through the sequel to the Legend of Titanic, In Search of the Titanic? How about the final arc of the trilogy, Tentacolino? Let us know! We always want to expand our understanding of these outer areas of animated film and would love to hear what you think. Ci vediamo il prossimo mese!