Allegro non troppo – The Italian Fantasia

Fantasia is a work of genius. Apart from the obvious (and the intermission), its greatest similarity to the sort of grand concert being reflected through its interpretations of classical musical, is the ability to command you marvel at its artistry. It’s a display of mad invention, the technical height of animation let loose from the limitations of expectation, conventional storytelling and audience appeal in a manner you could only pull off without the boss breathing down your neck about grosses.

That’s because at Disney there was no one higher up than Walt, and Fantasia was something of a passion project, the pinnacle of the man’s ambition and vision (his best qualities as a filmmaker). Only the company’s third animated feature, Fantasia was hugely expensive, but its roadshow release did not add up to a profit (through rereleases it would come to be the 23rd highest grossing film of all time in the U.S.). Despite initially appearing to have been a misfire, certain images have remained indelibly affixed in pop culture (most everyone is familiar with the sight of Mickey Mouse in a Wizard’s pointed hat, or maybe the demon Chernabog still visits their nightmares), but Fantasia is hardly one of the Disney classics people are prone to revisit religiously. That doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the studio’s greatest achievements.

Another way to create whatever you like with no overhead is to make a project so niche and odd that no one involved feels the need to pretend that bowing to popular tastes would save it from relative obscurity. Enter Allegro non troppo.

Allegro non troppo is (often, but not always) bizarre, comical, sad, dramatic, unsettling and overtly sexual. An orchestra comprised of chattering old ladies performs six pieces of classical music, led by a brutish conductor who’s kept an animator chained up in a dungeon below the concert hall, and only brought him up for the moment to doodle sequences in time with the music. We return to this lot between the animated sequences, which range from astonishing to juvenile, but which crucially always remain visually mesmerising).

Director Bruno Bozetto (well worth looking into if you’ve got an interest in animation) began the film as a tribute to Fantasia, though it morphed into a parody during preproduction. Parody may be overstating it, sequences from Fantasia aren’t directly spoofed (save maybe the prehistoric march set to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), but Allegro non troppo operates in the same fashion (employing a variety of visual styles), while irony rears its head through some of the film’s sillier interjections clashing with the inherently dramatic tone of the classical pieces guiding the rhythm of its animation. The title typifies this tongue-in-cheek approach; taken from the tempo mark Allegro ma non troppo, which means “Fast, but not overly so”, dropping the ‘ma’ to reduce the formal instruction to “Not so fast!”.

The first segment gives little indication of the intricacy still to come, but the ebbs and eventual melancholy of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune render the story of a geriatric, sexually-frustrated satyr a hair glummer than it is immature. Next, Antonín Dvořák’s brash Slavonic Dance No. 7, Op. 46, swinging from tranquil simplicity to mockingly extravagant echoes, adds to the frustrations of an abstract, roughly drawn little caveman who leaves his modest community behind to build his own hut. They follow suit. He is displeased. Repeat, till insanity is achieved.

The segment built around Maurice Ravel’s Boléro was the launching point for the film’s inception and is easily the most impressive and dreamlike. When astronauts leave a coke bottle behind on a barren planet the residue develops sentience, beginning to evolve; morphing, oozing and striding in time with the relentless march of Ravel’s piece. The creature changes in sudden and unpredictable ways, eating a line of its own variations, and descending beneath a Cambrian sea, or to the depths of a cavernous technicolor core. The fluidity of motion, sense of character and visual spectacle of this 15-minute sequence are unbelievable and rival the work done on Fantasia.

The gentle and tragic Valse triste by Jean Sibelius accompanies one of the saddest scenes I’ve seen in any animated film: alone in the ruins of an apartment complex, a tabby cat recalls happier days spent with the families who once occupied the desolate and failing structure. By now we have strayed so far from the inanity of the Satyr sequence, we may as well have entered a different film entirely.

The levity resumes when Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in C major, RV 559 seems the perfect accompaniment to a fussy bee’s ornately prepared picnic, only for the occasion to be rudely interrupted by a couple having a dalliance, plopping their enormous selves onto her handiwork. What’s a bee to do? Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite plays over what seems to be a retelling of the Garden of Eden, which veers off course as Adam and Eve refuse the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, leaving the serpent to partake instead, and be confronted by corrupting influences (Satan, violence, sex, television, etc.)

Each of these episodes evolves and concludes on an eccentric note. The epilogue to the film involves several endings and therefore several pieces of music, though I won’t spoil that either. At the time of release, Allegro non troppo had trouble finding distribution, even within its own native Italy. It stood no chance of being released as a regular animated film (since the public presumed those to be exclusively for children) and wasn’t “pornographic enough” for the underground adult animation circuit, per Marco Bellano. In time, Bozetto’s film grew in stature, though it remains on the fringe of the popular animated canon. This hardly seems fair. It may not be Fantasia, a monolith if ever there was one, but it gets the job done in half as much time, and is more than half as good.