‘Cat Burglar’: Bringing Tex Avery–Style Cartoons to the Interactive Gaming Era

Creators Charlie Brooker and Mike Hollingsworth break down Netflix's new interactive special and violent slapstick cartoons.
CAT BURGLAR. James Adomian as Rowdy in Cat Burglar. Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021
"Cat Burglar"

Before Netflix launched a gaming platform, they experimented with interactive specials such as “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” and “The Boss Baby: Get That Baby!” But its new interactive gaming special, “Cat Burglar,” offers a new wrinkle: a nostalgic Tex Avery–inspired cartoon complete with a full orchestra, which plays like an extended Looney Tunes short.

“It’s about an hour and a half, which we treated as basically a feature-length Tex Avery cartoon,” said director and co-creator Mike Hollingsworth, a producer on “BoJack Horseman.” The result is just like what you’d find in a “Tom and Jerry” or a Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoon. It follows a cat named Rowdy (James Adomian), who tries to steal a priceless piece of art from a museum while attempting to evade a security guard dog named Peanut (Alan Lee).

Each playthrough is the length of a classic theatrical cartoon short, lasting between eight and 15 minutes, with the viewer answering a series of quizzes to determine whether Rowdy advances to his next big paycheck, or dies a horrible death. With delightful cartoonish violence, slapstick humor, and a healthy dose of chaos and mayhem, the special feels like a long-lost piece of classic animation, down to its look and sound.

“It felt important that the finished product, even though it’s 16:9, should have the small details that capture the tone of those cartoons,” added co-creator and “Black Mirror” producer Charlie Brooker. “You get it with the film grain and the little scratches and little jumps that are added to give it the same texture and authenticity, but we were careful not to make it feel too degraded.”

Music was also essential to that sense of authenticity. For “Cat Burglar,” composer Christopher Willis worked with a full orchestra in London that could capture the sound of an Avery cartoon. “The score was like an additional character in all those cartoons,” Brooker said. “It’s commenting all the time on what’s going on and follows the gags.”

CAT BURGLAR. James Adomian as Rowdy in Cat Burglar. Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

Like most Avery cartoons, “Cat Burglar” is also rather violent. Each time you answer a question incorrectly, you die violently and hilariously, from being impaled, to defenestration, to being mummified. While emulating Avery’s cartoons was the goal, there were some noteworthy exceptions. “Understandably, we couldn’t depict guns, but Daffy Duck gets shot straight in the face like 70 times in each cartoon,” Hollingsworth said. “There are a lot of these classic cartoon elements that we were happy not to bring along to 2022.”

Though “Cat Burglar” is still as violent as the classics that inspired it (sans guns), it is a rather tame cartoon in the era of “Itchy and Scratchy” and “Happy Three Friends,” where gore and guts flow like water. “We didn’t have blood,” added Hollingsworth. “Those early cartoons were smart enough not to include blood, because blood would take those gags to a more serious level. Characters can get blown to pieces or shot, but we only see perfectly round holes with no splatter or blood.”

Of course, “Cat Burglar” is not only an homage to classic cartoons; it’s also an interactive game. Every scene involves the viewer answering three quiz questions correctly before the timer runs out. Once you lose your three lives (Rowdy already lost his first six) you go to heaven, but get kicked out right before entering the pearly gates because it is your destiny to steal some paintings.

“After ‘Bandersnatch’ I wanted to use interactivity in a more animated way like ‘Dragon’s Lair,'” said Brooker. But unlike “Dragon’s Lair,” you don’t dictate what the character does. If he succeeds or fails, that’s it. “When you’re making interactive stories where you’re controlling the main character, it becomes quite hard to have a character that’s consistent, because if the viewer decides what the character does, it has no agency, in a weird way.”

CAT BURGLAR (L to R) Alan Lee as Peanut and James Adomian as Rowdy in Cat Burglar. Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

Indeed, many video games that feature a scripted narrative but let the player roam run into a problem where the player’s actions run contrary to the story being told, like accidentally wandering into a pig den in “Red Dead Redemption 2” and being forced to kill a bunch of animals right before an important and tender cutscene. “So the idea with ‘Cat Burglar’ was to find a way of using interactivity to influence the outcome of a story that is slightly separated from the characters,” Brooker said.

Also, rather than having a lot of game mechanics, the quiz aspect granted “Cat Burglar” a sense of accessibility. According to Brooker, the language of video games is constantly evolving, but pressing a single button to choose an answer is something everyone is familiar with. “It’s like a quick time event in a game — you’re just pressing buttons, you kind of know what you’re doing,” Brooker said. “But we then added the time limit to induce a bit of panic in the viewer.”

It’s been almost 90 years since Avery worked on “Looney Tunes,” but the spirit of ’30s cartoons is very much alive and well. This month also saw the release of the Fleischer-inspired “The Cuphead Show!” from Netflix, while March brings Amazon’s “The Boys Presents: Diabolical,” an animated anthology spin-off series of “The Boys” that includes an Avery-inspired episode. “Animators love those cartoons,” said Brooker. “And there’s hopefully an element on something like ‘Cuphead’ and ‘Cat Burglar’ marrying the style of classic cartoons with an interface from 2022, in a fusion of different styles and eras.”

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