“A Cat in Paris,” recently nominated for the best animated feature Oscar, is a lovely surprise. Best of all, it’s a lovely surprise in 2-D. You do remember 2-D, don’t you?
Both a French and an English version are getting theatrical release. I saw the English version, accompanied by the voice work of, among lesser lights, Marcia Gay Harden, Anjelica Huston, and Matthew Modine. Whichever version you end up seeing, the star attraction here is the quietly elegant, occasionally near-abstract visual design, with its links to artists as diverse as Picasso, Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn, Modigliani, and Matisse.
These visual references are for the delectation of the cognoscenti, but directors Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol aren’t conducting a tutorial here. The references function as art history in-jokes and touchstones; but even if you don’t pick up on them (as most children won’t), it doesn’t really matter. It also doesn’t matter if you don’t recognize the vast array of allusions to classic Hollywood film noir movies, or neonoirs like “Reservoir Dogs” or “Goodfellas.” Either way, this cornucopia works for all ages, all levels of learning.
Dino is a cat with a double life. A housebound kitty by day, he lives with Zoe in the Paris apartment she shares with her mother, Jeanne (Harden), a police superintendent whose husband, also on the police force, was murdered by big-shot gangster Victor Costa (J.B. Blanc).
Traumatized by the loss of her father, Zoe has been mute ever since. By night Dino slips outside through Zoe’s window and makes the rounds with fleet-footed cat burglar Nico (Steve Blum), who adopts the cat as a kind of mascot. When Zoe decides to follow Dino, she falls into the clutches of Victor as he is simultaneously being pursued by Jeanne for her husband’s murder. It takes the combined efforts of Jeanne, Nico, and Dino to wrest the girl free and save the day (and night).
If all this sounds unnaturally dark for a PG animated film, I should point out that, except for very young children, there’s nothing in here I expect would scare kids. On a dramatic level, I would take issue with the way the filmmakers overload the story with noirish filigree, but this is only because the nongangster elements are the film’s most successful achievement. In any case, the French have always had a love affair with hard-boiled American gangster movies. As “A Cat in Paris” demonstrates, that love extends even into the animated realm. And why not?
Felicioli and Gagnol give their moody fantasia a languorous, jazzy feeling. (The terrific score is by Serge Besset, with added delights on the soundtrack such as Billie Holiday’s recording of “I Wished on the Moon.”) When Nico and Dino are slithering across the Paris skyline, they have an off-kilter grace that’s reminiscent of Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot. The hushed, rapt atmosphere of the night city is both beckoning and ominous.
The film’s big climax is a battle beginning atop Notre Dame cathedral, and the filmmakers make very clever use of the jutting gargoyles as the combatants are bumped and poked on the way down. There’s a particularly inventive sequence in a cellar when the lights suddenly go out during a gangland search and all the characters turn into white stick figures against a pitch-black background.
Very little in “A Cat in Paris” compares with, say, the best in “Persepolis,” “The Illusionist,” or “The Triplets of Belleville” – the three most inventive 2-D animation movies of recent years that weren’t directed by Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”). But it’s a sweet and disquieting excursion made by filmmakers whose eyes and ears and imaginations are in marvelous sync. Grade: A- (Rated PG for mild violence and some thematic material.)