If you’ve been entertained by internet cat videos — and, let’s face it, we all have — chances are strong that you will find something amusing about “Lil Bub and Friendz.” Then again, the entry point for appreciating this light-headed look at viral phenomena, produced by Vice’s ever-expanding media empire, begins with the videos themselves, particularly those featuring the adorably toothless Bub. The movie embodies the awesomely silly, indisputably stupid appeal that cat videos have garnered in the YouTube era, but never manages to coalesce into much beyond its inherently amusing qualities.
Playfully introduced in an opening sequence that imagines Bub arriving from an alien world, the malformed creature is revealed to belong to Indiana-based musician Mike Bridavsky, whose struggling career was rejuvenated by his pet’s sudden viral fame. From there, directors Andy Capper and Juliette Eisner expand their survey to explore the recent explosion of cat videos and the subculture that has formed around them. Talking heads point out the community of cat lovers finally able to engage with a like-minded community, as dog lovers have been able to do for ages with the convenience of a walk in the park.
“Experts” weigh in on the industry that has developed around viral cat celebrities, including an actual talent agent for the critters, who makes the case for their stature as major pop stars. His absurd analogy places pioneering viral star Keyboard Cat as Elvis and the digitally-created Nyan Cat as The Beatles. I suppose that might make Grumpy Cat the Dylan of our time, while Thomas Edison’s ancient kinetoscope short of Boxing Cats into the Irving Berlin of the art form. It’s amusing to listen as experts, including a hilariously deadpan cat sociologist, bat around various conceits.
But there’s barely enough material here to sustain the 65-minute running time, and eventually the padding shows, with various strange digressions — chief among them, Bub’s random visit to an animal sanctuary and recurring B-movie fantasy sequences that find the cat riding his cheesy spacecraft. The filmmakers find some semblance of narrative intrigue in the development of the first Internet Cat Video Film Festival at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, as well as the drama involving Bub’s physical disabilities that endanger her life even as they secure her fame. Capper and Eisner, who originally saw reasonable potential for a 10-minute short film, have instead crafted a series of decent ones that don’t quite flow together.
Once the fundamental charm wears off, the movie remains tethered to its simplistic limitations — essentially becoming a footsoldier in a war fueled by what the founder of the I Can Haz Cheezburger empire terms “weapons of mass cuteness.” Despite the fleeting presence of MIT media scholar Sam Ford, “Lil Bub and Friendz” puts the idea of a serious investigation into the nature of cat videos in air quotes.
While not beholden to the standards placed on the format that Jean-Luc Godard brought when he included cat memes in “Film Socialisme,” the production still takes a pretty feeble stab at investigating a major cultural phenomenon. Unlike “Winnebago Man,” which intelligently probed the nature of internet celebrity with a clearly defined arc rooted in credible emotions, “Lil Bub and Friendz” settles for goofiness. That’s a tough agenda to criticize if you see the underlying appeal of the material, but one has to wonder if a better movie might have gone greater lengths to demystify the subject matter. Instead of peeling back the veil on cat videos, it more or less is one.
Criticwire grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A crowdpleaser at the Tribeca Film Festival, the movie has a built-in fan base that is likely to devour the documentary in digital release, if not theatrically.