Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s A Cat in Paris was, if you recall, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature back in February. Thanks to maddening American release schedules, it is finally being shown in America starting Friday. And while there may still be a few Oscar-obsessives (like me) who have been itching to see this obscure and stylized little movie, I think the only people who will still bother to take notice are animation historians and cartoon buffs. A pity, really, as it’s always so refreshing to be offered anything that subtly whiffs of an alternative to the bloated CGI animated films of the Hollywood child entertainment factory.
That said, A Cat in Paris feels, somewhat disappointingly, like a trifle. At a practically anorexic 67 minutes (beefed up with an adorable if not forgettable short film called The Extinction of the Sabre-Tooth Housecat), it offers more style and color than it does depth or wit. The story does involve death, crime, revenge, and inexplicably British gangsters, but it doesn’t feel adult or edgy. Indeed, it feels kind of quaint. Calming even. It’s the kind of film you, an American mom, will try to talk your kids into seeing in order to expand their horizons beyond the violent video games and sugar-fueled, bug-eyed cartoon shows they’re used to. They’ll go, provided you get them enough candy. And they’ll enjoy the film a bit, but it won’t set their world on fire. Yours either.
A Cat in Paris is rather lovely, in a Mexican painting sort of way. The colors clash and burst from the screen. The skies are never merely blue, but a comforting and electric turquoise. Rooftops are a bright ceramic orange. No one wears mere yellow, but a shimmering goldenrod. Paris itself takes on a painterly quality. The city’s design is not intended to merely capture the complex 3-D spaces within the streets, offering us an impressive but utilitarian geography. The design is, rather, an expressionistic labyrinth of flattened neo-Cubist architecture, turning every city corner into an ever-unfolding greeting card of vibrating life.
The character design is unlike anything I’ve seen. The characters all have highly-placed, rather alien looking eyes, peering blankly out of elongated and decidedly un-cartoonish faces. They all tip around on their toes, and have pasta-limp limbs that coil and spring about. Some of the scenes of Nico, a gentleman catburglar who serves as the film’s hero, snaking his way along ledges, windowsills and catwalks are positively reptilian.
Sadly, this striking style is all but undone by a kind of plain story, and, even worse, a really bad dubbing job. A young girl, Zoe, stopped speaking when her father was killed a few months ago. Her mom, a hardworking cop, has vowed to track down the evil gangster Victor Costa who is responsible. Lurking about the edges is Nico, the thief, who teams up with a cute blue-and-orange housecat to pull off his robberies, a housecat that lives with Zoe during the day. There a few twists in the plot, but they’re not too significant.
The film will be released with its English language dub, and it’s one of the worst I’ve heard. Nico, as played by Matthew Modine, sounds like a radio announcer who is trying to seduce a little girl. Marcia Gay Harden plays the mother, and has an equally flat and resonant radio announcer voice. The gangster characters all have baffling accents, and Costa is a gruff cockney whose constant grating voice made me claw at my legs. I don’t know if it will be an option, but you’d do well to see A Cat in Paris in its original French.
Come for the film, stay for the urban-mural visuals, leave vaguely satisfied.