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Animation lifts ‘Cat in Paris’ above plot clutter

Fri., July 13, 2012

LOS ANGELES – “A Cat in Paris” is as sly and slippery a creature as Dino, the fickle feline at the center of this animated caper who meddles with at least nine lives – none of them his own.

Directed by Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, with Gagnol writing the script as well, “Cat” is a tale of things lost and found – from favorite objects to love and life itself. The bluish-black cat with pink tiger stripes and a teal nose is never far from the action. There are serious problems afoot, including a mute child with a dead father, an obsessed mother, a cat burglar and a mob boss. It’s not your typical animated fare, but since the filmmakers can’t quite decide whether its tale should be serious or silly, “Cat” trips and stumbles unsteadily between a bit of both.

The animation, however, is absolutely certain of itself. A modernist dream, hand drawn and more lyrical for that personal touch, it is as if some of the surrealist spirit of Salvador Dali has been brought to life. The look is no doubt what helped land the French movie an Oscar nomination for animated feature film this year (a prize ultimately won by Gore Verbinski’s “Rango”).

It comes to theaters here for the first time with a new, English-speaking cast handling the voices, including Marcia Gay Harden, Anjelica Huston and Matthew Modine.

The story itself is intended to be a nod to classic Hollywood noir, and allusions are thrown in everywhere just waiting to be discovered (“Reservoir Dogs” is the easiest to spot).

The film revolves around Dino, who leads a double life. By day he is pampered by Zoe (Lauren Weintraub), a young girl whose policeman father was slain. His nights belong to a clever cat burglar, Nico (Steve Blum), who is on the loose and causing the police all sorts of distractions with Dino tagging along. Zoe’s mother, Jeanne (Harden), is the police commissioner and consumed with finding her husband’s killer. With the help of a detective (Modine), Jeanne is determined to get the goods on the gangster Victor Costa (JB Blanc) who murdered her husband.

Costa’s devious plans and the dolts in his gang drive much of the film’s action and antics. The mobster is eyeing a rare piece of African art, his personal passion and a style that certainly lends itself to being drawn in both real and dreamlike fashion.

Jeanne is closing in on him, but before things get too serious, the film follows Nico on some of his break-ins. As he outwits some half-wit guards, he employs some evasive tactics that are charmingly cheeky. His thieving might be wrong, but everything else about Nico is right – he’s something of a renaissance man and a sensitive sort who ends up crossing paths with Zoe, Jeanne and Costa’s gang.

With Jeanne’s long hours, Claudine (Huston) is Zoe’s main caretaker. She is a woman of a certain age who operates with an air of mystery as well. But her hair, which swoops and swirls in the most tightly constructed way, is even more memorable than her acerbic attitude; it very nearly speaks its own language.

The filmmakers, who have collaborated for 15 years on animated shorts and are making their feature debut with “Cat,” are definitely more at home during the night hours. Days seem to be spent taking care of filling in all the details of the various crimes and criminals that Jeanne is tracking. Nights are for slinking over rooftops, down alleyways and through windows, with everyone finding a reason to be out and about in the very dark City of Light. There is something about the shadows and the shady activity that makes for the best drama and fun.

There are wild chases and fever dreams, and sometimes the thieving and the thieves become a muddle. But the animation of “A Cat in Paris” itself is so artful, it steals the day.


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