Italian cartoon character helping sell Fords

Italian cartoon character helping sell Fords

Familiar animated cartoon characters make us laugh and feel good, so when they try to sell us something, we're more inclined to listen. That advertising ploy dates as far back as at least World War II, when Bugs Bunny sold U.S. war bonds and the Seven Dwarfs encouraged Canadian bond sales (and when Donald Duck tried to sell Americans on paying their income taxes to fund the war).

It's an oft-used gimmick, but I was surprised recently to see TV ads for Ford's new C-MAX Hybrid feature a character I knew only from Italian cartoons. La Linea (The Line) is literally a line drawing — a male profile rising from and moving along a horizontal line that encounters other things and people similarly formed from deformations of that same line.

The whole cartoon comprises three elements: the horizontal line with its moving configurations, a single solid color background and the occasional intrusion of the animator's hand wielding a white grease pencil.

Whenever La Linea runs into something he can't handle himself, he looks up at the animator and mumbles an unintelligible (to the audience) but agitated appeal for help. The animator responds by adding to or changing the minimal scene.

La Linea was the creation of Osvaldo Cavandoli. Cava, as he came to sign himself, was a significant figure in Italian animation history in part because he worked on Italy's first animated feature, "The Dynamite Brothers" (begun during the war but first screened in 1949), which was also the first Italian film in color. After that, Cava turned to puppet animation for a decade or so.

But like many European animators, realizing he could not compete with the production values of Hollywood and especially Disney, he went in the opposite direction with a reduced drawing style.

(Though you might think one couldn't make an animated narrative any more spare, Cavandoli was in fact only the second-most minimalist major animator — after England's Phil Mulloy. He was definitely the most successful, however.)

The intruding hand of the artist, which blends two- and three-dimensional images and different levels of reality, is a device that harkens back to the very earliest animated cartoons but that had fallen out of fashion in the 1930s.

La Linea became enormously popular internationally (his mutterings did not require subtitles or dubbing to cross borders), appearing in films, on television and in comic books and winning awards at animation festivals. The films and TV spots were all short — less than three minutes — but could be combined into longer presentations.

I was somewhat surprised to find that La Linea also appeared on American television as children's programming: on "The Great Space Coaster" in the 1980s and on Nickelodeon more recently. I assume that not all of Cava's cartoons were used in those instances because some sported more "adult" themes.

Kids who watched the cartoons on "The Great Space Coaster" in the 1980s are buying cars for their own families now, so the possibly nostalgic tie-in does make some sense. The simple, hand-drawn style also perhaps suggests getting back to basics and simplifying life in the face of ever-more-complex technology as well as being ecologically minded (though hybrid cars are certainly the most technologically complex objects most people not named Gates or Branson will ever own).

La Linea, unlike most popular cartoon characters, actually started out as an advertising spokes-drawing. His first few cartoons had him pushing cookware on Italian television. And, perhaps ironically, the last La Linea cartoon Cavandoli worked on before his death in 2007 promoted an Icelandic bank.

The company that has handled licensing for La Linea for 30 years still controls use of the little guy and has worked closely with the agency doing the Ford commercials to preserve the character's "character." It strikes me that there might be a bit more detail in the Ford commercials than in most earlier Cavandoli-drawn cartoons, but La Linea thumbing his nose at other drivers as he cruises past them, though perhaps surprising to see in a commercial, very much keeps faith with the personality Cavandoli gave him.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

Topics (1):Film

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