Thursday, January 30, 2014

Cats Don't Dance (Turner Feature Animation/Warner Bros., 1997)

The year were aught-ninety-seven. A 13-year-old Brian Lynch was perusing the VHS selection at the Arnold Schwartz Memorial Library. Since he was to be watching this movie with his younger brother and sister, he was in the kids section. “No matter,” said he, “For, after all, I still like cartoons. Why, 16 years from now, I’ll probably be writing a blog about them, whatever one of those is. What‘s this? ‘Cats Don‘t Dance‘? I‘ve never heard of such a thing. It‘s about a cat who wants to be a dancer? How foolish! How silly! Clearly this is an inferior animated product, designed only for the easily amused. I‘ll get the Little Nemo movie instead, there‘s a good life choice.” And time and again he went to that library, rolled his eyes at “Cats Don’t Dance”, and moved on, getting classic films like “The Saint”, “Phantoms”, and “Nothing But Trouble”. But that child is older now. He drives a car, and teaches at the school where he once was a student. He has traveled, sailed the ocean, and seen not one, not two, but six X-Men movies, three of which were pretty good. He has kissed girls, and done other things with them as well. He has finally gotten around to reading the one Wizard of Oz book the library didn’t have. And he has, at the age of 29, finally seen one of the finest animated films of all time.





I’m not kidding about that. I’ve been aware of Cats Don’t Dance for its entire existence, and I never even gave it a moment’s thought. It looked to me like one of those straight-to-video bashed out quickies, a video babysitter. I mean, a cat that wants to be a dancer? That sounds like a parody of a children’s book you’d see on a sitcom.

"Here is the elephant; he's happy with his balloon. Oh no! It's gone! Where is it? It's not behind the rhino!"

So imagine my surprise when I found out that this movie is actually kind of amazing. I initially started watching it about 20 minutes before I was going to go to bed one night, figuring I’d watch the first few scenes and see the rest the next day. I was so captivated by the opening, I wound up watching the entire thing.

One of the first things I was impressed by was the voice acting. I had known Scott Bakula was the lead, and while he’s a winning enough actor, I wasn’t expecting much out of him in terms of a voice performance. But good gravy, he nailed it. In retrospect that shouldn’t have surprised me. While his “tall, somewhat goofy Midwesterner” appearance keeps him playing fairly bland roles in live action, Quantum Leap was always finding excuses for him to sing and dance and otherwise show off. His love interest is voiced by Jasmine Guy, who does well, with Natalie Cole doing the singing. Cole is close enough to Guy to avoid my usual annoyance with singing voices. Plus, come on, it’s Natalie Cole. What are you going to do, tell her not to sing in your movie? The villain, played by a pair of unknown child actors, also has a singing voice and a speaking voice, but it’s seamless, both of them are phenomenally good, and with child actors you have to make more allowances for this sort of thing. The supporting cast, though, is where the actors get really impressive. The cat’s fellow struggling animal actors include Hal Holbrook (goat), Betty Lou Gerson (fish), Don Knotts (turtle), John Rhys-Davies (elephant), and Kathy Najimy (hippo), and the humans who run the show include George Kennedy, Rene Auberjonois, and Frank Welker.

How is he gripping the sign?

The plot actually is “a cat wants to be a dancer”, so my judgmental younger self was right about that. But it’s a plot that’s developed wonderfully. It’s set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the summer of 1939, to be precise. Danny, a starry-eyed young cat from Kokomo comes to California with a goofy hat and a pocket full of dreams. When he arrives, though, he learns that there are plenty of eager animal actors, but the humans that run the studios never give them a chance to star. The best bet for an animal performer is Mammoth Pictures, who frequently use animal extras for the films of their child star, Darla Dimple. Danny thinks he can impress Darla and the director with a bit of showboating, but Darla turns out to be a psychotic tyrant who rules the studio with an iron fist, and when Danny’s showboating ruins a take on her latest movie, she vows to destroy his career, and those of all his animal friends.

So the plot is solid. It’s also formulaic and clich├ęd, but that’s not always a bad thing, when it’s done well, and this is done amazingly well. Because in addition to being a solid story, it’s also really funny. The director, Mark Dindal, is primarily a special effects guy, but he’s got a killer sense of timing as a result of that, and the film is full of perfectly executed wordplay and physical gags. Dindal also directed The Emperor’s New Groove, and this film contains much of the wild abandon that one showed, and the magnificent use of cartoon physics. He also directed… Chicken Little? That can’t be right. Okay, moving on.

Chicken... Little...

Apart from the comedy being on point, the animation itself is really beautiful. Turner and Warner poured a lot of money into this, and it shows. The characters are smooth, slick, and expressive, and the dancing is extremely well done. It was partially choreographed by Gene Kelly (his final film, in fact) and this ties it to the actual days of classic dance movies. Filtered through the talented animators, the moves of Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Fred Astaire, and their contemporaries look marvelous. These dancers always looked like they could defy the laws of physics, and now they actually can.

The songs that accompany those dances… Well, they’re mostly quite good, and a few are fantastic. Some of them are just a little generic, if still enjoyable. It’s Randy Newman at his most medium. Of course, inserting generic songs into a movie is a hallmark of Golden Age Hollywood, so it’s allowable as a reference. And the ones that do stand out are phenomenal. “Little Boat on the Sea“, Darla Dimple‘s song for her terrible Noah‘s Ark movie, has some wickedly funny lyrics, and Danny‘s arrival song, cleverly titled “Danny‘s Arrival Song“, is thoroughly catchy. The hands down champion, though, is “Big and Loud”, Darla’s villain song, which begins as false encouraging advice to Danny, and turns to shrieking megalomania as soon as he leaves. There are also several music-only numbers which Newman really lets himself get creative on, and those are always enjoyable.

Okay, here’s the thing: This movie bombed HARD. With a budget of about 38 million, it earned about 4 million at the box office. Part of the reason for that is the merge of Turner and Warner Bros. This was originally developed at Warner a modern-set live-action and animation hybrid starring Michael Jackson and the Looney Tunes, until they farmed the idea out to Turner and made their own “Iconic Michael J./Looney Tunes” movie. Once it landed at Turner, it was midway through production when Warner bought them out and a rotating series of executives tried to put their stamp on it, including one that attempted to tell Dindal to take the half-finished movie and make it about 1950s rock and roll. Dindal, correctly assuming that these execs would be reassigned, alternately talked them down and ignored them. But by the time the movie was finished, it was dumped into theaters with one poster, one trailer, no TV spots, 2 kids’ books, and a line of kids’ meal toys… at Subway.

Subway! Who gets a kids' meal at Subway!? It's the promo toy version of a landfill!

But I have to say, it doesn’t seem like the film was particularly a victim of mismanagement, it just got lost in the studio shuffle. So while it stings that it made only a third of what “Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie” made (opened on the same day), at least I can be happy with the movie I got. Speaking of the studio shuffle, it turns out my research was a little off, and this was the only Turner/Warner co-production, so we’ll be moving from this straight into the solo films of Don Bluth. FINALLY.


* Mammoth Pictures is pretty obviously a parody of 1930s Hollywood’s biggest man on campus, MGM studios, only with an elephant instead of a lion. The best part is MGM’s pretentious Latin logo, “Ars gratia aris” (Art for art’s sake), becomes “Optimum est maximum” (Bigger is better). I appreciate a film that tailors jokes for people who speak limited Latin and know film history. Why didn’t this make any money again?

Those that worked on the film were given sweet jackets...

And thoroughly sarcastic T-shirts.

* Speaking of references that are totally accessible to the film’s target audience, the greatest character in the film is Darla’s butler, Max, a clear reference to Erich von Stroheim’s character in Sunset Boulevard. Like that film’s Max, he is intimidating, creepy, and psychotically devoted to his boss. Unlike that film’s Max, he is a fifteen foot tall Frankenstein-looking monster. He’s also a real achievement in animation and comic timing, only moving whatever body parts are required for a task, up to the point of speaking by sliding his lips from side to side. And he’s voiced by Mark Dindal, on what was supposed to be a scratch track for the animators until they ran short on time and money and decided to keep it.

* And speaking of Sunset Boulevard, I’d like to break my loose “no cussin’” guideline to relate my favorite Classic Hollywood story. You always hear about these classic stars and directors and the witty one-liners they came up with on the spot, and this bit of wordplay is my favorite. After the premiere of Sunset Boulevard, studio titan Louis Mayer (the second M in MGM) was so offended by its portrayal of the movie business that he viciously berated director Billy Wilder outside the theater afterwards for betraying the industry that made him. Wilder, a known master of the clever insult, quickly assessed how much effort he thought Mayer was worth, walked up to him, and said, “I directed this picture; why don’t you go fuck yourself?”

"Get hot, Mr. Wilder."

* While Max keeps every body part isolated for maximum comic effect, the rest of the film does not agree, featuring an incredible amount of background business and character tics. Darla in particular is just a big pile of quirks and mannerisms which are always hilarious and not infrequently kind of terrifying.

* Lauren Faust’s first job as an animator was on this movie! She’s awesome!

A '90s animated movie that actually puts its actors in the opening credits? CRAZY!
* Okay, I did have one problem, but it was less with the movie than with the film industry in general. It has been said that the experiences of the animals reflects the experience of black actors in Hollywood at the time this movie was set, which is largely true, which is kind of annoying. I mean, how many movies have we seen where Fantasy Group X is supposed to stand in for Marginalized Group Y, and yet we don’t see any examples of Marginalized Group Y on the screen, thus keeping them marginalized. “Oh, the aliens in this movie are supposed to stand in for Native Americans! Let’s make sure we don’t hire any Native actors.” Or “The mutants in this movie represent gays. But all of the characters are straight. And most of them are white guys. And when we set a movie in the civil rights era, the only minority mutants were killed or turned evil by the halfway point. We‘re not very good at this?”

* That, however, is a problem with society and the entertainment industry at large, and doesn’t really diminish the enjoyment of the movie until it’s done and you think about it and get a little annoyed. Here, read this article about representation in media. It‘s good for you.

Speaking of bad treatment of black actors in 1930s Hollywood, references to this movie kept popping up. Probably not a coincidence.

* As a result of my confusion as to the nature of the relationship between Turner and Warner, I‘ll be moving my review of “The Pagemaster” to a later point on the schedule than originally intended. Also, I’ll be adding the Tom and Jerry movie, because apparently I’m a masochist.

* Speaking of Gene Kelly, Danny stole his job, as the end credits show some posters for the movies the animal actors made after hitting it big, and Danny was in Singin' in the Rain. Interestingly, the poster parodies are played completely straight, with the pictures just being completely accurate copies of classic movie posters with the film's characters put in place of the actors. I actually really liked this, as it showed an affection for the classic films, which included not only '40s and '50s movies, but went into the '70s, '80s, and '90s, without falling into the "Here's something popular right now!" trap. Except The Mask, I guess. And Twister. But still, that Grumpy Old Men poster makes it all worthwhile. Anyway, here's a link to a gallery of most of them.



  1. I am so glad that you liked this movie because it probably would have broken my heart if this review had been negative. This was one of my favorite films growing up, and I actually found out one of my mother's old high school friends worked on it in some capacity that I can't remember other than knowing I was pretty annoyed when I found out. I think I need to go rewatch my old vhs for the thousandth time after reading this review!

  2. I'll need to watch this movie. Black Books rocks (favorite "I'm a prostitute alien from the future). What was the one Oz book the Dunellen library didn't have? If WB were to retro-act it's canon, now that it has a feature animation division, which movies should it consider?