Italian director Alessandro Rak ('The Art of Happiness') and three colleagues directed this animated update of the fairytale, aimed at adults.

The classic fairytale gets an unexpectedly dark and adult update in Cinderella the Cat (Gatta cenerentola), a strikingly animated tale from the Italian directorial foursome Ivan Cappiello, Marino Guarnieri, Dario Sansone and Alessandro Rak (all newcomers except for Rak, who earlier directed European Film Award winner The Art of Happiness). Set almost entirely aboard a retro-futuristic ship in the harbor of Naples, the story re-imagines Cinderella as a 17-year-old, vaguely emo-punk chick who’s about to be married off to a megalomaniac drug dealer who wants to turn Naples into the crime capital of the world. Of course, there’s an evil stepmother who’s raising her own children as — what else? — cabaret dancers, and also a heroic policeman who might be able to give this crazy, music-filled and intentionally somewhat chaotic ride a happy ending.

After its premiere in the Horizons section of the Venice Film Festival, this will hit Italian screens Sept. 14, where all its socio-political references will be most readily understood even despite the use of the Neapolitan dialect. Internationally, Cinderella the Cat could also appeal to the small arthouse segment that’s also into animated films for grown-ups, though it might be a tough marketing challenge to convince them to come and see something with Cinderella in the title without their kids.

Cinderella is here actually called Mia and she’s been mute since the death of her inventor and shipping-magnate father, Vittorio (Mariano Rigillo), seen in the film’s opening. He was a visionary who patented a technology that can “reproduce reality” much like holograms and he had great plans to turn the harbor of Naples into a new hub of “science and memory”. After his offscreen demise, the story proper kicks off some 15 years later, when Mia’s stepmother, Angelica (Maria Pia Calzone), and her band of five daughters (Federica Altamura, Chiara Baffi, Francesca Romana Bergamo, Anna Trieste) and one gay son (Ciro Priello), are still living on the ship, though it is in a state of disrepair and blue-striped holograms from the past float through the air as unprompted ghosts.

Angelica’s inamorato is the oily and scheming Salvatore (Massimiliano Gallo), who has eyes of two different colors. He’s an international drug kingpin and also the star attraction of the ship’s nightclub stage, where he loves to sing his lungs out (he doesn’t seem to have a heart). The Neapolitan cruise-ship crooner’s double career is a not very subtle nod to the origins of a certain fairly recent Prime Minister of Italy, who also started his career as an on-board entertainer before becoming a wealthy and powerful man as well as a magnet for scandals of all sorts. Further references to especially Naples’ situation in Italy also pepper the story, though most of these will fly over the heads of non-Italian viewers.

Despite the title, the film’s hero is the all-work, no-play Primo Gemito (Alessandro Gassmann), who used to be Vittorio’s right-hand man. Now a policeman, Primo is too down-to-earth and practical to be considered a Prince Charming substitute. He’s thus reduced to saving the mute title character from the claws of Salvatore — this drips with irony as Salvatore means “Savior” — and thus turning the film into something that’s perhaps even more chauvinistic than the original fairytale (which was first recorded in Giambattista Basilere's Pentamerone in 1634 in the Naples era, natch).

The rather male vision of the four male directors also comes to the fore in the design of especially the female characters, who are all fantasy figures with heaving bosoms and tiny waists. Indeed, an evil stepmother has never looked so good. Even Mia, the odd one out, is allowed just a hint of tomboyish looks and attitude. The far-reaching decision to make her a silent character makes it hard to put her at the center of the action or get a sense of her psychology, with everyone around her not only talking but also singing. In practically every possible sense, this film is the antithesis of Disney's mainstream-oriented, live-action Cinderella directed a few back by Kenneth Branagh.

In terms of its overall look, Cinderella the Cat blends blocky, videogame-like 3D/CGI animation and voluptuous, watercolor-like 2D animation. It shouldn’t work yet it does create a coherent universe, perhaps because what unites the different layers are all the things constantly floating through the air, from the holograms and memories of the past to the ashes of the Vesuvius volcano that seem to suggest that the end is nigh. The design of the locations is similarly an unlikely hodgepodge of influences that together create a kind of indeterminate retro-future, as if the engravings of the complete works of Jules Verne and The Triplets of Belleville director Sylvain Chomet had mated and birthed a new style. Songs and music are also very eclectic, ranging from Neapolitan-style songs to blues-and-jazz-like pieces to a shockingly modern electronic work during the film’s rather violent finale.

Production companies: Mad Entertainment, Rai Cinema, Big Sur, Skydancers, Tramp, O’Groove
Cast: Massimiliano Gallo, Maria Pia Calzone, Alessandro Gassmann, Mariano Rigillo, Renato Carpentieri, Ciro Priello, Federica Altamura, Chiara Baffi, Francesca Romana Bergamo, Anna Trieste
Writers-Directors: Alessandro Rak, Ivan Cappiello, Marino Guarnieri, Dario Sansone
Producers: Luciano Stella, Maria Carolina Terzi
Production designers: Barbara Ciardo, Annarita Calligaris, Antonia Emanuela Angrisani
Editor: Marino Guarnieri, Alessandro Rak
Music: Antonio Fresa, Luigi Scialdone
Sales: RaiCom
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)

In Neapolitan, Italian
No rating, 86 minutes