What’s with animation movies and classical music? The love affair seems as old as animation itself, a notable high point being the 1940 Walt Disney film ‘Fantasia’ with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski, a deliberate marriage between the two genres.
And animators have much comic material to draw from opera in particular, with its over-the-top emotions, the often ridiculous plotlines, the airs and graces of prima donnas, and the tendency of both the classical music profession and their rarefied audience to often take themselves much too seriously.
A while ago, I had written a column on the use of the aria ‘E lucevan le stele’ from Giacomo Puccini’s opera ‘Tosca’ in ‘Happy Feet 2’. I had stumbled upon this only because my son was watching the film, and I happened to be with him at the time.
And the same circumstances applied for ‘Ice Age: Collision Course’. He was keen on seeing it, and it fell to my lot to chaperone him to Inox. The film is the fifth in the Ice Age franchise, and quite frankly the franchise ought to have been ‘put on ice’ after the very first episode. But box office considerations seem to trump even the basic need for a genuine spark of creativity. Far easier to keep creating sequels and milking an old idea rather than think of a new idea.
Buck the weasel (given voice by Simon Pegg, who is Benji in Mission Impossible III) is an addition to the menagerie of Paleolithic (and the franchise has received a lot of criticism for not even attempting to be scientifically accurate about chronology and timelines) in the third instalment of the series Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009).
He gets written out of part four (Continental Drift 2012) but makes a swashbuckling return in Collision Course. And how does he make an entrance? With the Figaro aria.
The aria itself is actually titled “Largo al factotum” from Gioachino Rossini’s opera “Il barbiere di Siviglia” (The Barber of Seville) based on the comedy play Le Barbier de Séville by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799). It, in turn, is part of a trilogy of ‘Figaro’ plays, of which Le Barbier de Séville is the first, followed by Le Mariage de Figaro (better known today as a basis for Mozart’s famous opera of the same name, but in Italian) and La Mère Coupable (The Guilty Mother).
All the plays are centred on the character of Figaro. It is thought that Beaumarchais thought up the name Figaro as a phonetic transcription of the words ‘fils Caron’, therefore a creation or ‘son’ of his own.
Beaumarchais himself had much in common with his character Figaro in terms of intelligence, quick-wittedness and versatility: Beaumarchais was at various points in his life horologist (inventing a timepiece that was accurate to the second and tiny enough to fit into a ring), inventor, playwright, satirist, musician, publisher, horticulturist, diplomat, spy, arms dealer, revolutionary (playing a role in both, the American and French Revolutions) and financier.
At preliminary examination, the content of the plays seems innocuous enough, following a pretty traditional Italian Commedia dell-arte structure, with Figaro modelled upon the character of Brighella or Arlecchino. Both belong to the zanni (from where we get the English word ‘zany’) or comic servant characters in Commedia dell’arte. Figaro too is a former ‘comic servant’-turned barber who is capable of doing everything. Brighella is essentially Arlecchino’s smarter and older if somewhat more vindictive brother in the Commedia dell’arte cast of characters. Both Brighella and Arlecchino have a striking resemblance to Buck the weasel in Ice Age, in that all are mask-wearing, club- or sword-wielding characters. I am not sure whether these were deliberate additions to Buck’s appearance to prepare him for Figaro, or mere coincidence.
What made the plays so revolutionary was the subterfuge of the social order, with the servant clearly shown to be smarter and more resourceful than the master, and even prompting the master’s decisions. Louis XVI was prophetic when he said of Le Mariage de Figaro: “For this play not to be a danger, the Bastille would have to be torn down first.” Napoleon Bonaparte called it “the Revolution in action.’
In the Rossini opera, like Buck in Ice Age Collision Course, Figaro bursts upon stage with the Largo al factotum aria. The title literally means “Make way for the factotum”, factotum being a sort of jack-of-all-trades, deriving from the Latin for “do everything”.
The aria is a virtuosic showpiece for any baritone, one of the most difficult in the repertoire to perform, on account of its allegro vivace, almost nonstop singing of tongue-twisting lyrics set into the rhythm of triplets in 6/8 metre, and having to make it look effortless while gesticulating and acting out the lines. It is Rossini arias just like Largo al factotum that so inspired the Victorian-era theatrical partners, librettist-composer Gilbert and Sullivan to write their ‘topsy-turvy’ comic operas that so cleverly interwove lyrics and music.
This is where Buck’s aria in Ice Age falls far short. The English lyrics are lame, just not as witty or funny as they could have been. The English National Opera routinely performs the operatic repertoire in English, and their translations are done with much imagination and thought. The text to Buck’s aria however seems to have been put together in a slapdash manner, perhaps in a hurry to meet a deadline. It attempts to be a pastiche or parody of the original, but ends up being neither.
Contrast this with the much older Tom-and-Jerry “take” on Largo al factotum, where there is such humour in the delivery and the exploitation of the music score to dictate what happens on screen. Timing is everything in comedy. This is truly brilliant animation. For all its 3-D effects, the weasel is not a “patch” on that cat and mouse.
That said, Buck’s aria will familiarise young audiences with classical music, even if this is just a few minutes of it. Bollywood actor Arjun Kapoor does the voice-over in the Hindi version of Collision Course, thus widening its reach even further.
(An edited version of this article was published on 14 August 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)