Animation remains a much loved and often maligned form of filmmaking. While everyone looks back fondly on childhood favorites, the perception that animation is for kids alone has proven a hard one to shake. That it’s often treated as a genre rather than form of film is a key part of this problem. Cartoons are for kids, adults watch something else, and that’s often how it remains on cinema screens.
Not that A CAT IN PARIS (a surprise Oscar nominee, at least until you see it, for Best Animated Feature in 2011) isn’t a child friendly film. That universal and faintly suspicious description – for all ages – applies to the debut feature from Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli. Kids turning up are going to get a delightfully charming French tale of cops and robbers, bumbling goons, thrilling escapes and a cute cat. But this is not just for children, nor in fact do you need to drag one along to justify watching the film. Adults will get the same delightfully charming adventure, and are just as likely to end up chuckling away, clutching seat arms during rooftop chases, and ultimately falling in love with a brisk and beguiling mix of adventure and drama.
The plot is straight forward, as are many of the character arcs, and lying right at the center is the titular cat. The original French title is slightly different, Une vie de chat, translated as a cat’s life. Tweaking it for English language audiences makes sense if for no other reason than to emphasize the location, but the original is a more apt name. The cat in question, Dino, a short-haired black animal with little orange dashes, lives a double life. In the day he curls up in a handsome apartment with Zoé, mute since the murder of her father. Her largely absent mother, Jeanne, works for the police and is hell-bent on tracking down infamous gangster Victor Costa, the man responsible for the killing.
Here, Dino is as one would expect from a cat. He brings in lizards hunted off roof tops, snaffles food under the table, and spends most of his time sleeping, often snuggled up in Zoé’s arms. The only real disturbance to this life is the awful perfume of the housekeeper Claudine, producing an endearing sneeze. At night though, everything changes. Dino wanders across the roof to a nearby house where he follows Nico, a cat burglar, about his business. This man moves with sinuous grace, arms stretching and bending as he flows smoothly across buildings. Dino’s nights of adventure are far removed from his days of leisure.
It’s also his responsibility to unite these two worlds, for the burglar, criminal though he may be, proves a charming man stealing for fun and not profit. Loneliness abides in both halves of Dino’s life. Zoé misses her father, and quite often her mother Jeanne who can’t see past the desire to catch Costa. Nico is also alone, crying out for companionship. A CAT IN PARIS thrusts them together, colliding stories as Zoé is kidnapped by Costa with only Nico and Dino available to save her.
Gagnol has talked in interviews of a love for classic American film noir and it seeps into this feature debut. A jazz inflected score plays over a number of shadowy escapes and exhilarating chases, and for the most part character stereotypes hold. Costa is a typical villain, sneering and violent, surrounded by a bunch of mindless lunks. Nico comes on board as the dashing anti-hero, a gentleman thief who steals for sport and knows when morality dictates he back the other side.
Breaking these characters down into something more detailed isn’t really the point of the film. Running a little over the hour mark, there’s nothing to detract too much from chases through zoos, cranes and cathedrals, and daring nighttime escapes, but Gagnol and Felicioli still throw in a few details to subvert their characters. Costa, villain though he may be, is obsessed with an ancient statue, The Colossus of Nairobi. He dreams about it and has done since he was a child. Attempting to steal this is what brings him into contact with everyone else. His crew is not given the same treatment, but they are mostly around for laughs, something their hapless incompetence delivers consistently.
Jeanne is also given a nice degree of agency that seems unexpected at first. She’s a put upon and bereaved single mother but she’s also a dedicated police officer determined to catch Costa. Even incapacitating nightmares can’t stop her, and although Nico has to rescue her daughter, it’s Jeanne who rescues Nico, and ultimately takes on Costa. The forward thrust she’s given is unexpectedly vigorous.
A CAT IN PARIS manages to carefully add all this without reducing narrative momentum, or distracting from the stunning animation. Herein lies the true magic. Gagnol, Felicioli and their team eschew slick and interchangeable CGI to craft a beautiful hand drawn adventure. Their Paris is not one of accurate location mapping. It’s a dream city in which buildings jut out at odd angles and famous landmarks suddenly loom from nowhere. Characters move in keeping with their personality; Costa sharp and aggressive, Nico as if he’s flowing downstream. They use strong colors and boldly outlined shapes, avoiding unnecessary detail. This is not a perfect rendering of real life, it’s the human imagination running free.
Good animation has the capacity to create its own unique environment, and A CAT IN PARIS does just that. You’d be hard pressed to find a film more charming than this. And if you’re not a cat lover when it starts, you must surely be by the time the credits roll.