It's just this little chromium switch, here... (derspatchel) wrote,
It's just this little chromium switch, here...
derspatchel

I hear hippos are very, very big on Broadway

It has been an interesting week or so for obscure and misunderstood films. To help keep from falling completely apart in the wake of Everything What Has Been Going On, Sonya and I have turned as we often do to film for escapism. (Sonya received an especially nice care package from handful_ofdust chock-full of DVDs, even.) Currently we're playing that game where we share weird films the other hasn't seen before but ought to. Sonya's mother has even played along; she was amazed that I had come thirty-eight years in life without seeing John Astin in Evil Roy Slade, and once I saw it I was amazed too. I'd also never seen My Favorite Year for all I'd heard about it, and it was absolutely fantastic. Mark Linn-Baker got typecast as Cousin Larry way too soon. Finally, Sonya showed me Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which turns out to be a fantastic portrayal of seafaring life much like Captains Courageous, only with Napoleonic-era warships in the South Pacific rather than whaling ships on the Grand Banks. That right there is a completely misunderstood movie, released too soon after Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Audiences unfamiliar with the Master and Commander book series went in expecting Johnny Depp and Captain Barbossa, only to watch a cabin boy have his arm amputated twenty minutes in.

So I guess now it's my turn, and I was very happy to make this discovery: Someone has seen fit to screw copyright and put up the full cut of Cats Don't Dance on YouTube, and for that I thank them. Sonya had never seen it before and I had seen it only once many moons ago when I had HBO, so naturally we had to watch it tonight. It is a fantastic animated musical which had the misfortune of being finished at a time when its parent company, Turner Feature Animation, had just merged with Time-Warner and the resulting offspring didn't want to have anything to do with previously-developed projects. That's Hollywood. Warner Bros released the film in March of 1997 with virtually no marketing, it made back one-tenth of its budget in its domestic release, appeared on VHS five months later and disappeared even quicker; and the only time it's been released on DVD in widescreen was in 2008. For Germany. And Belgium. And Luxembourg.

I don't know. Maybe they really like dancing cats in Luxembourg.

This is a total goddamn shame, because the film is brilliant. It was also Gene Kelly's last project; he worked as a choreography consultant but died before it was released. They have a nice dedication to him at the end and everything. It features the voices of Scott Bakula, Jasmine Guy, John Rhys-Davies, Don Knotts, Kathy Najimy, Rene Auberjonois, George Kennedy, and Hal Holbrook; Betty Lou Gerson, the voice of Cruella DeVille in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, plays a world-weary fish wielding a familiar-looking cigarette holder. Cats Don't Dance was the first non-Disney film to win an Annie Award for Best Animated Feature. And yet, Luxembourg.

At heart, the movie is a full-on transplanted Technicolor MGM musical from the fifties only animated, a touch more manic, and with anthropomorphic talking animals. The story is your classic 1930s-1940s Kid From Stix Makes Hit In Pix tale, this time featuring a young cat named Danny who leaves Kokomo for Hollywood with a dream in his heart and a five-day plan to stardom in his hat. ("Monday: Go to Hollywood. Check!") The cat is very much a Gene Kelly character: charming, headstrong, confident in himself yet unsure of the real world at times, and boy what a hoofer. Danny arrives at an animal talent agency, signs here-here-here-here-here-hereherehereherehereherehere and initials here, and finds himself on a soundstage in the chorus of a Noah's Ark musical number with one line: "Meow."

It should be noted that in this cartoon world, animals talk and act right alongside people which is why you have a fish with a cigarette holder and a nervous turtle who believes everything his fortune cookies tell him. However, animals are at the bottom of the Hollywood hierarchy. They're relegated to chorus roles and lines like "meow" and "moo" and "bark". Danny is unaware that animals never get to star in a film, much less act beyond their type. The working stiff animal actors, who attend literal cattle calls and wait around the agency for someone who needs a hippo, either resign themselves to this life or drop their dreams for other careers. I'll leave this pencil, ruler and protractor here so you can draw your own parallels.

Our heavy is the child star of the Noah's Ark film, a precocious curly-locked blonde with a mercenary streak named Darla Dimple. She is flat-out insane, a Shirley Temple by way of Norma Desmond right down to the starlet sunglasses and bald Teutonic companion. (This bodyguard, Max, is Erich Von Stroheim if he were built like a grain elevator, and has a habit of smashing through walls when summoned.) Darla, naturally, won't deign to allow mere animals to upstage her glorious role as friend to all God's creatures[1] in "Lil' Ark Angel", and spends the bulk of the movie trying to demolish the dreams of a dancing cat. Danny, meanwhile, just wants to sing and dance in the movies, and he goes around trying to get noticed by L.B. Mammoth, the human head of Mammoth Pictures.[2]

You then have a love interest in the form of Sawyer, a secretary cat at the talent agency. It comes as no surprise that she, too, had a dream of dancing in pictures, and she's very good, too, but that dream has been flattened. She's very much the archetypical MGM musical love interest; her first encounter with Danny is disastrous, she grows to like his roguish charm, all that. This also means, unfortunately, that she does not have much of a character beyond her interactions with Danny. She gets a brilliant torch song in the second act, but it doesn't make up for the fact that she doesn't have a single conversation that isn't about our hero. This is the weakest part of the film, and one cliché too common to count.

The MGM influence has its positive sides, too: the colors, for example, are deep and gorgeous and used well. In one early number Danny dances to cheer up his fellow actors and as each one gets the rhythm and dances along, their colors grow from dull, nearly monochromatic to richly saturated. It's not even punctuated with an extra effect; it just happens and that's what makes it so nice. There are also definite nods to the MGM animation department of the 50s in the form of Modernist backgrounds done in pastels with no linework, abstract sequences, action sequences which build to ludicrous scale and surreal sight gags. What else would inspire a climactic scene in which our cackling villain, intent on destruction, approaches a backstage panel with a gigantic electrical switch labelled "THE GRANDDADDY OF ALL SWITCHES"?

Cats Don't Dance was directed by Mark Dindal, an animator who got precious few opportunities to direct and more's the pity. His only other film of note[3] was The Emperor's New Groove, one which I went in ready to dislike to the point of indifference and came out amazingly satisfied. Dindal likes his sight gags bizarre, quick and from out of nowhere. He's got a bit of Tex Avery and Fred Quimby in him, only without the eyeball-popping takes and AH-OOOO-GAH sound effects. He can keep a manic pace without it growing too frenetic, he knows precisely when to throw a comic moment after a downturn, and he is wickedly funny. He also knows when to go surreal and when to adhere, however slightly, to reality: at times the cats simply behave like cats, composure-grooming after a nasty, fur-flinging, yowling shock. Like getting their tail caught in a door again. But then you have a fish who sardonically mutters "I need a drink" and throws a glass of water on herself.

Dindal also likes really, really, really batshit insane villains. Both Darla Dimple and Yzma in Groove are opportunistic, egomaniacal monsters at times just barely clinging to sanity. Their reaction takes are gloriously overblown, their proclamations big and loud ("KRONK! PULL THE LEVER!") and both have enormous yet dim sidekicks.[4] They keep their composed facades for only so long before the madness begins to seep through, yet they're colorful enough to keep any real menace at bay. You don't end up hating them, especially after they've received their comeuppance.

And in spite of all the insanity the story is still strong, the animation bright and fluid with only a few stray CGI enhancements looking out of place--the mid-90s was still relatively early as far as sweetening goes--and the dancing is terrific. That's why it is such a shame that Warner pretty much buried the film, much like they'd bury The Iron Giant two years later.

Yet Giant has gained a respectful following over the years, and Brad Bird has done many more wonderful things since. I wish Cats Don't Dance could find a similar respect, and Dindal given some much-deserved appreciation. While some of the film's studio-mandated pop arrangements sound hopelessly outdated now[5], the bulk of the soundtrack is authentic and that is what counts. It is clearly a labor of love for two artforms, one animated, the other musical. The whole thing ends with a montage of iconic movie posters featuring the now happily-employed animal stars. It is no coincidence that the first poster is Danny and Sawyer in Singin' in the Rain.

Find it on YouTube. Watch it fullscreen. Have a good time.


1. Except the unicorns, who sadly sink under the waves as Darla does a dance routine up the steps to the ark.

2. The animal head of the studio is quite literally that; an elephant with a wig and fake tusks who does the MGM lion shtick at the beginning of each picture and then goes off to his circus wagon for a spot of peanut tea and some barrelhouse boogie-woogie on his piano--presumably tickling someone else's ivories.

3. Dindal's third and final film was the 2005 Chicken Little, which I'd written off as Disney trying to ape Pixar. Perhaps I should take a look now that I know.

4. To be fair, Max isn't so much dim as he is mostly monosyllabic. His most complicated sentence is "What does the kitty say?"

5. Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson singing "Beauty and the Beast", anyone?
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