This year, the Best Animated Feature Oscar nominees were a wild bunch indeed – in addition to the big budget studio fare (things like “Puss in Boots” and eventual winner “Rango”), there were two independent, foreign language films (and nothing from powerhouse Pixar). One of those animated films was “A Cat in Paris,” originally released in France way back in 2010, and it’s a charming, darkly hued trifle that offers some truly gorgeous, wholly unique visuals and reasonably emotional storytelling.
“A Cat In Paris” (which is preceded by a fantastic, incredibly DIY animated short film called “Extinction of the Saber-Toothed House Cat”) has a really wonderful concept at its core – it’s about Dino, a lovable house cat belonging to a young girl named Zoe, who at night goes out on the prowl with a burglar named Nico (Steven Blum). In the morning, back from his night spent capering, Dino kills lizards and gives them to Zoe, who keeps them in a tin can. During the day she’s left with her caretaker Claudine (Anjelica Huston), while her mother Jeanne (Marcia Gay Harden), goes to work as the superintendent of a local police station. Zoe is mute, emotionally traumatized by the death of her father, a detective, at the hands of villainous gangster Costa (JB Blanc, doing his best Ray Winstone). You can tell this movie is not your average animated kiddie fare when Jeanne, looking at a black-and-white photo of the bad guy that happens to be on the kitchen table in front of young Zoe, says, “Yes, that’s the man who murdered your father.” Spit-take!
Much of the movie is a prolonged chase sequence with a number of moving parts. When Zoe goes out one night to find out what Dino is up to, she gets embroiled with Nico (who, somewhat predictably, has a heart of gold) and, of course, runs afoul of Costa and his goons, while her mother is on the search for Nico, who is wanted for a string of recent burglaries. (The grandmotherly Claudine might have a secret or two herself.) While much of the film is pure motion – people leaping across rooftops and firing guns, it’s peppered throughout by smaller moments that bring out the movie’s humor and humanity. In particular, there’s a great scene where Jeanne is interviewing a witness and she slowly realizes that it’s her cat that has been accompanying the bandit. Another standout is a running gag where Costa assigns nicknames to his lackeys (dubbing one “frog” before finding out that he can’t swim, etc), which casually brings to mind Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.”
Sometimes the dynamism of the film gets bogged down by the interpersonal melodrama of the characters – now and then it seems overwrought, bordering on the soap-operatic – but there’s little that can stifle the movie’s amazing sense of design and its terrific, distinct animation style, ingeniously orchestrated by directors Jean-Loup Felicoli and Alain Gagnol (Gagnol also wrote the script). Initially it’s hard to peg down what, exactly, the movie looks like – it’s certainly European, and its chalky texture calls to mind a children’s drawing done in colored pencil. The character design is stark and graphic, with the titular cat looking like a hieroglyphic on some ancient pyramid wall. The film owes a certain debt to German expressionism and the exaggerated world of film noir, as inky shadows leap across the screen and characters are often silhouetted against the sharp Parisian skyline. Nico glides in and out of rooms like the goop inside a lava lamp. Occasionally the movie’s extreme artiness acts as a barrier to truly getting involved in the action – for instance, there’s a moment where the characters are running on rooftops and you never feel that anyone will slip up or fall or really be in danger because everything is so beautifully laid out. Although, a couple of scenes later you have Costa violently strangling Janette, which is a moment of shocking brutality – it’s like when Kirk Douglas slaps the shit out of Jan Sterling in “Ace in the Hole,” but animated… and involving a cat.
Another exceptional sequence is when several characters are in a room and the lights go out – at first things are pitch black, but then when they start moving around, you see them in white outlines, like drawings on a chalk board. These moments not only convey information in a playful and stylish way, but also cement directors Felicoli and Gagnol as filmmakers willing to boldly take chances. You can tell they are both tipping their hat to animation of the past (to sequences like the “Elephants on Parade” number in “Dumbo”) while also trying to shake things up with their decidedly European flavor.
There’s also a fair amount of emotional resonance at the end of “A Cat in Paris,” which is nice because, for all its exercises in stylistic embellishment, the movie could have ended up being rather empty and trite. Instead, there’s a much needed dollop of heart towards its conclusion that makes the entire experience of the film seem fuller and more satisfying. From the beginning, it's a cool-looking movie, but by the end it becomes a cool-looking movie that tugs on your heartstrings in a very real way. Which is a more impressive feat than any design choice or esoteric film reference. [B+]