“A Cat In Paris” (which is preceded by a fantastic, incredibly DIY animated short film called “Extinction of the Saber-Toothed House Cat”) has a really wonderful concept at its core – it’s about Dino, a lovable house cat belonging to a young girl named Zoe, who at night goes out on the prowl with a burglar named Nico (Steven Blum). In the morning, back from his night spent capering, Dino kills lizards and gives them to Zoe, who keeps them in a tin can. During the day she’s left with her caretaker Claudine (Anjelica Huston), while her mother Jeanne (Marcia Gay Harden), goes to work as the superintendent of a local police station. Zoe is mute, emotionally traumatized by the death of her father, a detective, at the hands of villainous gangster Costa (JB Blanc, doing his best Ray Winstone). You can tell this movie is not your average animated kiddie fare when Jeanne, looking at a black-and-white photo of the bad guy that happens to be on the kitchen table in front of young Zoe, says, “Yes, that’s the man who murdered your father.” Spit-take!
Sometimes the dynamism of the film gets bogged down by the interpersonal melodrama of the characters – now and then it seems overwrought, bordering on the soap-operatic – but there’s little that can stifle the movie’s amazing sense of design and its terrific, distinct animation style, ingeniously orchestrated by directors Jean-Loup Felicoli and Alain Gagnol (Gagnol also wrote the script). Initially it’s hard to peg down what, exactly, the movie looks like – it’s certainly European, and its chalky texture calls to mind a children’s drawing done in colored pencil. The character design is stark and graphic, with the titular cat looking like a hieroglyphic on some ancient pyramid wall. The film owes a certain debt to German expressionism and the exaggerated world of film noir, as inky shadows leap across the screen and characters are often silhouetted against the sharp Parisian skyline. Nico glides in and out of rooms like the goop inside a lava lamp. Occasionally the movie’s extreme artiness acts as a barrier to truly getting involved in the action – for instance, there’s a moment where the characters are running on rooftops and you never feel that anyone will slip up or fall or really be in danger because everything is so beautifully laid out. Although, a couple of scenes later you have Costa violently strangling Janette, which is a moment of shocking brutality – it’s like when Kirk Douglas slaps the shit out of Jan Sterling in “Ace in the Hole,” but animated… and involving a cat.
There’s also a fair amount of emotional resonance at the end of “A Cat in Paris,” which is nice because, for all its exercises in stylistic embellishment, the movie could have ended up being rather empty and trite. Instead, there’s a much needed dollop of heart towards its conclusion that makes the entire experience of the film seem fuller and more satisfying. From the beginning, it's a cool-looking movie, but by the end it becomes a cool-looking movie that tugs on your heartstrings in a very real way. Which is a more impressive feat than any design choice or esoteric film reference. [B+]