La Freccia Azzurra (The Blue Arrow) is a film that uses computers in a highly refined manner; so much so, that one hardly notices. Guided by an electronic brain, its camera is able to execute tracking shots and pans which one only thought possible in a live-action movie; drawn with pixels, the film's characters are seen across 30-40 levels, with each one staying in perfect focus. This is one of the secrets to the basic "lightness" of a film like no other, one which tells an amusing and fun-loving fairy tale set in the 30s, with the touch of a modern electronic storyteller.
The technological aspect, in fact, is probably the main reason why the movie is so important. Having clearly got a late start with respect to other European countries (with France leading the way), Italy has quickly caught up over the past few years in terms of both equipment and professionalism; it has done it in such a way that the small but efficient structure known as Cartoonia (based in Turin and Terni) can present its business card as proof that it is able to compete head-to-head with other major European companies that supply digital ink-and-paint and computerized rendering. Cartoonia, which took on The Blue Arrow, was started in 1992 as an offshoot of Turin's La Laterna Magica, which produced the film.
The story line might seem fastidious if given in summary form. On the night of Epiphany, La Befana (an old hag who, according to Italian folklore, brings gifts at this time to children who have been nice and charcoal to those who have been naughty) falls ill and is unable to deliver her presents; her absence plays into the hands of Scarafoni, her evil assistant, who only wants to please the children of the rich, who have paid a fortune for their toys . . . only these same toys (one of which is a train called "Blue Arrow," hence the film's title) rebel and start a journey to give themselves to the children they choose. This leads to a long series of twists and turns, the last of which is the final--and predictable--defeat of the villain.
Luckily, Enzo d'Alò's production, which is what really counts, comes up dry, funny and fun, and is often done tongue-in-cheek. (Hats off to the voice work, in the Italian version, of Dario Fo as Scarafoni and Lella Costa as Befana.) It is brought off with the help of Paolo Cardoni's extraordinarily original drawings and production design; an illustrator whose trademarks are the two-dimensional aspect of color and the simplicity of his drawings, Cardoni adapts quite well to the requirements of filmic narrative.
An Act of Courage
An animated feature presented by a country undergoing a serious production crisis (a crisis which is even more endemic in animation) released in Italy in direct competition with Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame is certainly an act of courage. It is an act which is important not only for the challenge it presents to the current crisis and its powerful overseas rival, but more importantly for its chosen format. The Blue Arrow is, in fact, a genuinely original and autonomous project in the field of animation for children.
Neither Disneyish or anti-Disney, neither an overstated caricature or realistic, neither science-fictional or belligerent, neither tear-jerking (although there is a slight hint of philo-poverty inherited from the Italian leftist cinema of yore), it is a film which tells a fairy tale that is neither canonical or well known, but better yet one that is modern: one in which the fantastic is combined with the realistic, describing, almost stereotypically, the average Italian town (the writers used the Tuscan town of Orbetello as their model). This is a film which tends to shy away from the norm and go its own unique way; and it does so without the least bit of hesitation and with a great deal of perfectionism, professionalism and attention to detail (the film took more than four years to make). As a matter of fact, The Blue Arrow will probably be enjoyed by adults, who will appreciate its "deja vu" feel, apparently put in for those who have acquired a taste for modernism (of the 30s, implied though not openly stated). Paolo Conte's characteristically strong and elegant music helps evoke this atmosphere.
Even in its pronounced Italianism, The Blue Arrow takes pride in being a European production; the first example, in Italy, of a frame-by-frame feature film conceived, grown and nurtured by the major European Community's organizations which promote member co-productions. The Italian companies La Lanterna Magica and Eta Beta joined foreign co-producers such as Switzerland's Fama Film and Luxembourg's Monipoly, while artists in places such as Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Denmark (400 in all) were used (the unity of style was accomplished by the rigorous supervision of the Turin-based director of animation, Silvio Pautasso).
There is no doubt that the film's mood and style are tied to the traditions of European auteur animation, while there is a complete absence of the usual Hollywood or Broadway influence. All of this, under the umbrella of Gianni Rodari, who wrote the original story and is one of Europe's greatest writers of children's literature, made it all possible--though the reaction of various European audiences (the film has already been released in Germany and Switzerland) seems to indicate that it has honed in to the wavelengths of both adolescents and children.
One question remains: What role will The Blue Arrow play in Italian theatrical animation? We don't yet know the box office results yet, but perhaps it will mark the end of sporadic, improvised and often unfulfilling productions. La Laterna Magica has already scheduled a TV series based on the film; also, the Lega della Cooperative has proposed, in Turin, a project to be funded by both municipal and regional governments: an animation center in the royal city, consisting of production, research and most importantly professional educational facilities. While the animation industries around the world have been rapidly expanding, and now Italy, if it does not get bogged down with the usual inertia, may have reached the turning point where it can join the rest of the world.
La Freccia Azzurra (The Blue Arrow).
Adapted from an original story by Gianni Rodari. Screenplay: Enzo d'Alò and Umberto Marino. Director of Animation: Silvio Pautasso. Executive Producer: Maria Fares. Director: Enzo d'Alò. Italy-Switzerland-Luxembourg, 1996.