First Thoughts on Allegro non troppo (1976)

*All reviews contain spoilers*

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Welcome, everyone, to the next instalment in the First Thoughts series! Animation has a long tradition of using classical music to its advantage, and one piece I’ve long been aware of but had never seen until now was Allegro non troppo, an old Italian parody of the even older Disney classic, Fantasia (1940). Directed by Bruno Bozzetto, the title of the film is a music term which instructs musicians to play something “fast, but not too fast” – in this context, it thus translates roughly to “Not so fast!” Additionally, since allegro means “joyful” in Italian, the title could also be taken as “Joyful, but not too much”, which just makes me love it even more.

Europe & Italy

My first experience with Bozzetto was back in the early 2000s, when I discovered a couple of his flash videos on Albino Blacksheep (you can now also view them on his official YouTube channel). At the time, I’d never heard of him, so I just assumed he was a twenty-something American like most of the site’s other creators; imagine my surprise when I learned his true identity years later! Even with my limited experience of his works prior to this, I still recognised his distinctive style in places, with the Dvořák section in particular feeling very familiar – but we’ll get into that below.

Allegro_non_Troppo_LOW

Much like the original Fantasia, Allegro non troppo is basically a package film, created by weaving several animated shorts together and connecting them with a series of live-action scenes presented by a host and conductor. Of course, this being a parody, the film pokes fun at Fantasia’s pretentiousness; where they had Deems Taylor and Leopold Stokowski, Allegro has comedian Maurizio Micheli and “maestro” Néstor Garay, whose manic energy keeps the audience on their toes between the even zanier animated parts. They also anticipated Fantasia 2000 by having the “animator” himself present onstage, represented here by Maurizio Nichetti.

The live-action scenes were supervised by Maria Grazia Grossi and were filmed in black-and-white, to create a deliberate contrast between them and the animation. Filming took place over about four days at the Donizetti Theatre in Bergamo, with the “orchestra” consisting of a troupe of old women from a local retirement home; many of the other performers in the piece were friends brought in by Nichetti. The hammy, slapstick comedy style was inspired by the antics of Laurel and Hardy (or Stanlio and Olio, as they’re known in Italy), and personally, I also felt the influence of the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers at times, especially in Nichetti’s performance – he’s the double of Groucho! For some reason, these live-action parts were dropped from some versions of the film, which I think is a real shame as they’re a total riot – Osvaldo Salvi’s random appearance as a gorilla tickled me pink, and I hate to think some audiences never saw these parts of the film.

Allegro non troppo wide shot of the orchestra

Of course, the main purpose of the live-action scenes is to support the animated segments, which are what we’re all really here for. Each one therefore includes a piece of action which leads directly into the following animated segment, and at one point, Bozzetto’s most famous creation – Signor Rossi – makes an appearance, only to be burned up as the paper he’s standing on gets set alight by the careless Garay. This was apparently an affectionate jab at the character from the animators, who felt they’d been “chained” to him for long enough!

Speaking of the animators, most of them were from a studio called RDA 70, where Angelo Beretta was the animation supervisor (for some reason, the studio is not listed in the IMDb credits, so I’m guessing it’s now defunct). Other key animators included the likes of Guido Manuli, Paolo Albicocco and Giovanni Ferrari (what a fabulously Italian name), with Albicocco also creating many of the film’s unique backgrounds alongside Giuseppe Laganà and others.

Allegro non troppo is rather breezier than Fantasia, which clocked in at a hefty two hours and change and is still the longest film in the Disney canon. The old film contained seven distinct segments (or eight, if you consider the last one as two separate parts), not including the interlude where the animators play with the “Soundtrack” and of course, the live-action scenes of Deems Taylor. In Allegro, we have six animated segments, plus the live-action gaggery and an epilogue.

First on the programme is Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) from 1894, which is a direct parody of the Pastoral Symphony segment from Fantasia. If any of you remember my review of that film, you’ll recall how much I loathed that part for its tackiness… so naturally the Debussy was one of my favourite parts of Allegro. In it, we follow an aging satyr who longs for romance, but his faded looks repulse the nymphs he comes across and he cannot manage to win their affections, in spite of various “cosmetic” treatments.

Allegro non troppo satyr wooing nymph

Honestly, I couldn’t make up my mind how to feel about the little guy; one minute I’m aching with sympathy as he totters along with a lonesome look on his face, the next my skin is crawling as he chases after some girl with an evil, lecherous grin on his face. The overall effect was rather melancholy, made all the more powerful by the soothing Debussy melodies underlying it all, with the satyr’s plight seemingly a commentary on the artificiality of beauty and the human longing for a meaningful connection with others. The artwork makes the female form into an abstract, expressionistic space which surrounds and yet eludes the little satyr, with an unsurprisingly hallucinatory edge to it that was typical of seventies animation. Undeniably, there is some objectification going on, but the ladies have the last laugh as the satyr ultimately ends up alone, so dwarfed by their massive bodies that he doesn’t even realise he’s walking across one. (Apparently, the green nymph being pursued by the satyr for much of the piece was modelled by a nude actress for the reference footage, which made the artists deeply uncomfortable!)

Allegro non troppo caveman from the Dvořák

Next up, we have Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No. 7, Op. 46 from 1878, which accompanies one of the shortest segments. It’s a brief but hilarious critique of mob mentality and conformity, as we watch an innovative caveman move out of the caves to begin constructing increasingly elaborate homes for himself. Much to his irritation, he’s soon followed by every other caveman in the community, who proceed to copy his every move – our lead quickly takes advantage of this to form them into an army and tries to lead them to their deaths like lemmings off a cliff, but they finally prove smarter than they look and simply moon him en masse. This jaunty little piece is the sketchiest and most simplistic in terms of the actual animation, but it also got the biggest laughs from me.

Allegro non troppo bottle in Boléro

After this, we get to one of the big showstoppers, an animated segment chronicling the evolution of life on Earth set to Maurice Ravel’s Boléro from 1928. This is a direct parody of the Rite of Spring from Fantasia, and it is from this sequence that the film’s famous cover image of the Coca-Cola bottle comes (which reminded me a lot of the opening from the following year’s Rescuers, incidentally). The artists used Arabic gum to give the bottle a more three-dimensional look, and the tracking shot up to the top of it took over a month to create, requiring six tries and 800 frames for the final take. Boléro was one of Allegro’s most artistically ambitious segments, taking about two years in total to shade and animate; Ward Kimball, one of the Nine Old Men, personally considered it one of the greatest pieces of animation he’d ever seen and recommended it to his students.

Allegro non troppo creatures from Boléro

I couldn’t help comparing it to the style of Fantastic Planet, given that I’d just watched that so recently, as they share a similar psychedelic flair on their creature design. That said, I much preferred Boléro, which did more with its designs and had greater fluidity to its animation – it made me smile to see the nod to Rite of Spring, with the lines of prehistoric creatures marching resolutely in time with the monotony of the tune. Of course, the sinister ape is the star of the show, standing in for mankind as he slinks alongside the other creatures in the shadows, viciously beating the odd one out of line to turn them into raw materials for his own use and eventually mastering fire. That last shot of him leering out of the towering human “disguise” he’s donned is truly chilling, if not particularly subtle.

Allegro non troppo cat from Valse Triste

After Boléro comes one of the film’s more solemn pieces, a tragedy set to Jean Sibelius’s Valse Triste from 1904. The simple story follows a stray cat who has returned to the ruins of its former home and indulges in dreams of the comfortable life it once had there, until it finally disappears in the shadow of a wrecking ball. This piece was inspired by an incident involving the director’s wife’s cat, which also wandered back to their old home before disappearing one day, presumably having died there. Adding to this personal connection to the story, Bozzetto cast some of his own friends and family to act out the phantom family members envisioned by the cat during its fantasies. As for the ruined house, that was based on a real one Bozzetto found beside the Monumental Cemetery in Milan, which he took reference photos of before the animation began.

This short is quite sweet and colourful, but the drastic change in tone made it hard for me to connect to it, personally. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very much a cat person and I did feel for this one, especially when it nearly tumbled off the ledge after getting carried away in its daydreams. The trouble is, I think such a tragic piece was hamstrung by the general comedic tone of the rest of the film; by the time this one arrives, you’re having so much fun that you don’t really have time to get into the right mindset to be properly moved by it. At least, that was how I felt.

Allegro non troppo bee from Vivaldi

Now we get to the penultimate piece, set to Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in C major, RV 559, which is from about the 1710s. Disney never used any Vivaldi in their Fantasia films, unfortunately, so I was delighted to find some here. This is another of the film’s simple segments, tracking the efforts of a bee to enjoy a fancy dinner for one while being continuously interrupted by an amorous (and gigantic) human couple, who roll around in the grass as she desperately tries to salvage her silverware. This one reminded me strongly of the Bumble Boogie segment from Melody Time, itself a Fantasia reject, but I didn’t have much to say about that in my older review as it was a little too abstract for me to get into it. The fact that this piece has a narrative, however scanty, helped enormously – the little bee is one of my favourites of the film’s animated characters, and I loved seeing her get her revenge on the people at the end.

Allegro non troppo snake with Adam and Eve in Firebird

To close us out, the artists once again anticipated Fantasia 2000 by bringing in Igor Stravinsky’s trusted favourite, The Firebird Suite (specifically The Princesses’ Khorovod and The Infernal Dance of King Katschey movements) from 1919. Surprising how often this crops up, isn’t it? I only referenced it in my last review, and now here it is again. In a fittingly grand use of the music, the accompanying animation depicts the Biblical serpent swallowing the apple himself, after Adam and Eve both refuse it – he is then taken on a nightmarish journey through evolution and corruption until he winds up as a modern-day “average Joe”, complete with suit and tie.

ARGH! ILLUMINATI!

Together with Boléro, this was another of the film’s most artistically inspired segments, even including some stop-motion animation done in plasticine, courtesy of Master Programmi Audiovisivi S.R.L. to depict God “moulding” Adam and Eve into creation (this part also features some rather random Illuminati symbolism, but I digress). To create the postmodern mishmash of images that torment the snake, Bozzetto went out with an old, hand-cranked camera to shoot footage of advertisements on Milan’s Pizza del Duomo, which he combined with more adverts filmed from videotapes on TV screens. It’s all very unnerving, but for me, the best part is the hideous, squishy “demon” who bursts into life with the music’s famously startling orchestra hit – you don’t know whether to laugh or scream at the expressions on its fleshy face.

Allegro non troppo demon in Firebird

After the snake has made it back to Adam and Eve, he disdainfully spits up the apple and returns it to the ground, and we return to our live-action performers for the finale. By this time, though, their antics have plunged the theatre into chaos and destroyed the planned ending, so host Maurizio Micheli is forced to stall while they struggle to patch together a kind of epilogue, using the assistance of a lumbering, animated Igor-like monster named Franceschini who is tasked with choosing a new finale for them. I was in stitches as he watched various pre-made “finales”, especially the one where a gleeful Juliet-like figure must continuously chuck her poor, crippled Romeo off a balcony, as the curtains fall over and over again in an endless cycle.

During these last crazy scenes, you can hear further snippets of classical music, such as Johannes Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 (1869), Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (c. 1700s, and another nod to Fantasia, which also used this piece), Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (1851) and a repeat of the Dvořák from earlier.

Allegro non troppo Franceschini chooses a finale

On the whole, I enjoyed this one immensely; it may even be my favourite of the series so far. There was a lot of good-natured “shade” being thrown at Disney that appealed to my fanboy side, from the host butchering his name (“Frisney? Pisney? Grisney?”) to his final idea of making another film about seven hard-working “midgets” in a coal mine and a “sleeping beauty”, but the artists did clearly have a lot of respect for their predecessors. The chemistry between the live-action performers was also excellent and really helped to sell their parts of the film, with the comedic timing of Néstor Garay’s Orchestra Master and Maurizio Nichetti’s Animator deserving of special mention. Even Nichetti’s shy attraction to Marialuisa Giovanni’s Cleaning Girl is engagingly handled, uniting them against Garay; I can’t believe some viewers find these parts boring.

Allegro non troppo Maurizio Micheli hamming it upAllegro non troppo Maurizio Nichetti and Nestor Garay slapstickAllegro non troppo Artist with Cleaning Girl

That said, it’s the animation that you watch Allegro for, and it delivers in the zany fashion of all the best classic animated slapstick. The thing that surprised me, after going into this with almost no expectations, was how much it gets you thinking; there seemed to be a clearer theme to these shorts than the more abstract, plotless ones in Fantasia, with each one dealing with ideas about the inevitability of change through aging, structural progression or evolution, or the damage people are doing to the environment (already a hot topic even then). The whole thing felt like a critique of modernism and capitalist society, keeping it highly relevant even now, almost half a century on.

Sadly, like many arthouse animated films of the day, Allegro struggled to find a distributor at first, as potential parties couldn’t decide what audience to market it to. It ended up taking three years after completion before an Italian distributor was secured; although it debuted in a limited run in spring of 1976, it was only after several appearances at film festivals and a successful run in America during the summer of 1977 that it finally got a wider release in Italy. Nowadays, it is apparently a staple of Christmas programming there, so I’m sure any Italian readers will already be familiar with it. If you haven’t yet discovered the delights of Allegro non troppo, please do check it out; it’s charming, thought-provoking and brimming with imagination, even if the subtitles do contain more than a few spelling errors!

Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this review! I’ve had a great time with this one, and I’m looking forward to the next instalment, The King and the Mockingbird – it’s known for suffering from one of the worst cases of Development Hell in film history. First, though, I’ll be covering Frozen II, unless of course that ends up taking forever and a day, in which case I might bump Mockingbird up. We’ll see – as always, the goal is to get the next full film review done as soon as possible, but I have another busy run coming up at work, so I can’t promise anything. Until next time, take care and staaay animated!

{But seriously, watch this – a gorilla does the Charleston with an old woman and the animator gets locked in the piano with a prostitute, it’s absolutely nuts}.


References

All images capped from my own copy of the film

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4630043 – credit for poster

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegro_Non_Troppo – Wiki page

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074121/ – IMDB profile

6 Replies to “First Thoughts on Allegro non troppo (1976)”

  1. Mmmm….I really have to remember that one. I plan to go through the part live action part animated movies which have been created through the time. Granted, I ranked Fantasia in the purely animated part of that excercise, but that was mostly because I felt that the live action segments weren’t that dominant and that it would have been odd to just skip on of the Disney classic movies.
    This sounds though, as if the live action segments play a way bigger role, so it should be a good pick for the fairly short list I have so far….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think it would qualify. The live-action scenes are apparently dropped in some versions, but my DVD had them. They were like better versions of the comedy intros from Fantasia 2000; I know comedy is very subjective, but I had a great time with them! Allegro’s comedy seems to draw a lot of inspiration from silent era slapstick, it was fun.
      I bet Roger Rabbit and Enchanted will be on the list; I’ve got those coming up on my own list in a few months, looking forward to them.

      Like

      1. Well, from Disney for sure Bedknops and Broomsticks, Mary Poppins, Song of the South, Roger Rabbit, Enchanted and maybe Victory through air power. I might also discuss Harryhousens work in general, but more as the starting point for special effects. The topic is a little bit difficult, because nowadays pretty much every big blockbuster is partly animated, since that’s what CGI actually is, part animation.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I know, it really blurs the line. I don’t like considering the Lion King remake as “animated” for instance, because they were striving so hard to make it look like live-action that it sort of defeats the point… but nevertheless, it is technically animated.

        Like

      3. Well, no humans in it, so at least I don’t have to worry about that….Jungle Book will most likely make the list, though. I am still considering, though. Maybe I will just specify “Traditional animation” with a small segment regarding stop motion.

        Liked by 1 person

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