Short Film: Fly Through the Fourth Wall with Madcap ‘Thieving Magpie’

By  · Published on May 1st, 2013

Why Watch? Because it’s been far too long since you last watched a really good movie about birds.

The Thieving Magpie is the first of Emanuele Luzzati’s two Oscar-nominated short films, the other being 1973’s Pulcinella. This painter, illustrator and animator had quite the career, designing for the opera and pop concerts as well as making cartoons. There’s even a museum of his work in his native Genoa.

This medieval-inspired cartoon is one of his best. The set-up is simple – three kings, who have been warring for a century, decide to take a break and go on vacation together. How do they distract themselves? By killing birds. Yet there’s one winged creature who won’t fall to their arrows, a mischievous magpie that eludes and torments them.

It’s set to Rossini’s overture to “La gazza ladra,” also the Italian title of this short. The integration of the music and the animation is seamless, giving the film a spirited and hypnotic rhythm. Moreover, Luzzati exploits the intricacies of the score to make little jokes, assigning different repeated moments to the three kings. The visual style evokes medieval tapestries and woodcuts, vibrantly colored and expertly manipulated to represent menacing armies and flocks of birds. Yet the most exciting achievement of the short comes from the magpie itself.

This witty bird takes on the role of animator in its tricks on the men hunting it down, bringing thunderstorms and high seas simply by poking around the frame. It’s like Duck Amuck but with Daffy at the wheel rather than the unseen hand of the human artist. The bird is a privileged character, silently breaking the fourth wall through by cutting through Luzzati’s paper. This is the sort of creative reflexivity that shows animation to be an art form with unique capabilities of its own. It’s much more than just a flashy, technically complex form substitute for live cinema.

What Will It Cost? Just about 10 minutes.

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