Friday, February 10, 2012

Une vie de chat (A Cat in Paris) Movie Review

Animation as a medium can be a wonderful and often beautiful way to tell a story. It’s a shame that more filmmakers don’t use it. Here in the United States animation tends to be thought of as a children’s medium and it is generally used solely for such. Feature film animation was the exclusive purview of Disney until the late 1990s when Pixar (acquired by Disney) and DreamWorks started producing their own imaginative, though still childish, films.

However, in recent years we’ve been seeing brilliant work from foreign filmmakers who specialize in animation being recognized here and almost every year since the inception of the Animated Feature Oscar, a foreign film with adult oriented themes has been nominated. There’s been the dark earth-toned work of Sylvain Chomet in The Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist, the Iranian film Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir from Israel. Two years ago a little known (in the USA) Irish film called The Secret of Kells made the Academy’s cut and received a nomination. This year they’ve gone outside the box again – the exclusion of Pixar’s Cars 2 – and nominated two films, one of which has not yet been released in the United States.

A Cat in Paris from France has not yet received a commercial release more than what was necessary to qualify it for Oscar contention. It’s directed by Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol from a screenplay by Gagnol and Jacques-Rémy Girerd. The film is not entirely adult themed, it’s probably suitable for older children with its elements of suspense and threats to a small girl named Zoé. It is noirish in nature, incorporating subtle hints of gangster films (I caught references to both Goodfellas and Reservoir Dogs) and Hitchcock, but never goes too dark. Perhaps the best thing about it is its trim 64 minute running time that manages to cram in a decent little story of a jewel thief, a little girl whose father was murdered sometime in the recent past, the crime lord responsible and a ubiquitous cat that saves the day more than once.

Zoé doesn’t speak, a kind of annoying plot contrivance written into the story so that at a crucial moment she’s unable to explain to her mother Jeanne, a police detective searching for her husband’s killer, who the bad guy is. Zoé’s cat goes out every night to its other owner, Nico, a jewel thief who scurries along the Paris rooftops to break into museums and such to acquire his loot. The city of Paris is rendered in simple line drawings that put the buildings at odd angles to one another giving it a sinister look that reminded me of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. With high angle shots that show the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower we know this is Paris, but at street level it’s not recognizable as the City of Lights, but as a place where danger is afoot around every corner.

The plot employs one of the (literally) biggest MacGuffins in film history – a gigantic museum-bound statue of the Colossus of Nairobi. The crime boss Victor Costa wants it for himself (I’m not sure how he plans to steal it or where he plans to hide it). He even uses the criminal codename “Colossus” on the job, an unsubtle metaphor for how Jeanne thinks of him. She has dreams of him as a creature with far-reaching tentacles that choke the life out of her. This is the kind of inventive and unique storytelling you don’t tend to find in animated films intended for small children. It gives the film more depth, both in terms of story and character.

A Cat in Paris is a sweet little example that we don’t need overblown computer animation and trumped up action sequences to tell a decent story with animated characters. These characters are hand drawn and have just as much life to them as what you’ll find in a Pixar film. For that alone, I suggest that it’s worth seeking out.

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