Friday, April 10, 2009

Iceberg Arena: The Cat Countdown Part II

This is the second part of a three part series counting down the best animated cat movies I’ve seen. The final part will feature canine and rodent cinema.

5. Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

“Night on the Galactic Railroad” adapts freely from the novel by the pre-war Buddhist writer Kenji Miyazawa about the poor son of sick mother, Giovanni, and his mysterious train voyage across the stars with his best friend Campanella. The galactic railroad takes them through themed constellation stations full of surreal landmarks and eccentric passengers, including a man who harvests herons for candy and the ghostly souls of the sunken Titanic. Giovanni begins to suspect that the train is taking Campanella to afterlife (the Southern Cross), a fear that is confirmed when he wakes up on Earth alone and learns that Campanella drowned during the night’s moon festival while saving the school bully.

Director Sugii’s lugubrious religious allegory unsettled fans of the original work who weren’t expecting the characters to be cats (an artistic choice never explained) and confused those unfamiliar with the novella (amongst them, me) even more. It doesn’t help that the chapter titles are given in Esperanto and the thick symbolism is at once heavy-handed (prepare yourself for a bevy of crosses) and inscrutable (what the hell is with the bird candy guy?). Yet what emerges from the gentle dreamlike flow of the adventure is a mature and emotionally resonant tale about a brave child’s imagination, curiosity, friendship and loss. The low-on-action pacing and atmospheric spiritualism hasn’t been welcomed by fans of conventional American or Japanese anime, but I find it, along with “Angel Egg,” to be a worthwhile experiment.

4. The Cat Returns (2002)

Ghibli’s semi-sequel to “Whisper of the Hearts” (of which “The Cat Returns” is something of a story-within-a-story) is a light-hearted fantasy about a schoolgirl named Haru who can understand cats. One day she instinctively saves the life of a cat in danger and learns that he’s the prince of Cat Kingdom. Amongst the many rewards she’d prefer to reject are dead mice and a marriage proposal that leaves both parties unhappy. A mysterious voice advises Haru to seek out the Baron, a cat statue come to life, and Muta, an obese feline rogue, to save her from transforming into a cat and losing her stake in the human world.

Like with other Ghibli films, especially the kid-friendly “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” this film is warm-hearted, sincere and appropriate for pretty much all ages. The plot can be a little too cute for its own good, but the characters are well-realized enough to add a necessary grounding in realism. It also helps that the visuals are so strong, with Ghibli’s trademark eye for detail, color and light bringing to life Japanese suburbs, Victorian alleys and magical kingdoms.

3. Cats Don’t Dance (1997)

Danny, a song-and-dance tomcat hoping to make it big in Golden Era Hollywood, steps on the shoes of Darla Dimple, “Hollywood’s Sweetheart,” when he improvise on his single line (“Meow”) while an extra in her star vehicle. He’s immediately blacklisted, framed in a studio disaster and rejected even by the other would-be sensations whose dreams have also been crushed by humanity’s lack of interest in animal stars. Though initially depressed, Danny contrives to stage a massive musical comeback that wallows gleefully in garish “final number” excess.

Warner Brother’s underappreciated gem was strangled in the cradle by executives who doubted its potential (much like in the plot), cutting off marketing funds and limiting the release. They managed to lock in a box office failure for themselves, which is sad given the film’s success as a self-aware throwback to classical feel-good backstage musicals and its polished “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” type wit. It walks the line drawn by Pixar, whereby the film appeals to kids with its bright colors, catchy tunes and non-stop action while amusing adults with razor-sharp studio-era references (Darla Dimple, a sadistically villainous Shirley Temple, is especially memorable). At least director Mark Dindal was able to go on and make Disney’s equally delightful anomaly “The Emperor’s New Groove.”

2. The Cat Who Walked By Herself (1988)

This obscure Russian film caught me by surprise. It’s an adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling pourquoi story (short origin tales that take the format “how the leopard got his spots” or the like). It’s narrated in silky whisper by a house cat to a toddler who’s pulled her tail. Apparently the child forgot that thousands of years ago, humans and cats came to an agreement not to do so. Mixing stop motion, cutouts and paintings, a primal fable about cavepeople’s evolution and dependence on animals unfolds, with the cat providing wry commentary.

Intricate constructions and an eclectic art design make this one of the most visually arresting cat films ever made, though few have even heard of it. It also manages to capture the personality of cats and the sense that they see themselves not as pets, but as masters of their domain (unlike dogs or horse, food and scratches behind the ears only buy temporary loyalty). Like in many of Kipling’s other writings, the atmosphere of unfathomable magic and exotic creatures foregrounds nature as an exciting power to be reckoned with and humanity as gruff interlopers in over their heads. The occasionally drab character designs and use of ritual repetition are notable flaws, but the craft, originality and wisdom behind the production won my admiration.

1. Felidae (1994)

Soon after arriving in a new apartment building with his owner, Francis begins to investigate a series of brutal sex murders in the neighborhood. His amateur sleuthing turns up a viscous gang, a deadly cult, a blind beauty, a brilliant technophile, a secret catacomb, feral femme fatales and evidence of an unethical research program carried out years ago that may hold the key behind it all. The closer he gets to the truth, the more bodies pile up around him, but the crafty killer is clearly playing a larger high-stakes game destined to force Francis into choosing between his mind and his morals. Felidae, by the way, is the scientific name for the family of cats.

The sinuous noir plot is the best on the list by far, with metaphoric implications that stretch from Nazi war crimes to modern scientific debates. Its dark tone, unsparing imagery and mature subject matter was a major risk for an animated film (Germany’s most expensive), but Akif Pirinçci source novel ensured an artistic pedigree high enough to pay off in its niche market. The animation is also stellar, aiming for realism (nailing cat mannerisms and their social hierarchy) to create real tension and intrigue. I’m not too sure about the title track by Boy George, but overall this is THE cat film to see.

Next week, top ten countdowns for animated dog and mice movies.


Mad Dog said...

I love Angel's Egg, but I can't really stand Night on the Galactic Railroad. I guess maybe I'm not a Kenji Miyazawa fan. I couldn't stand the anime biopic of him starring cats, either.

Dan Cowan said...

I'm trying to recall the name of an animated art film I saw at Mass MoCa museum sometime around 2002-2005 (?) which featured a female cat as the main character in a dreamlike, mostly black and white story which alternated traditional animation and some less-appealing computer-generated cityscapes in some scenes. Probably Japanese, although I could be totally wrong there. It did have a very cute anime style which featured a sudden change to vibrant, psychedelic colors towards the end and vaguely metaphysical subtext. Any idea? I'm trying to find if it was ever released, but I'm starting to doubt it. I consider it a cat film worth seeing, at any rate.

Dan Cowan said...

Sorry, I just read through your posting of Part One and found the title, Tamala 2010, listed as #6. Thanks for posting on this - now I have to try to find a copy!

FilmWalrus said...


Since there is no US distribution of the film, you can legally download it or watch it on youtube here:

You can also buy an unofficial copy here:

or an official copy sans subtitles here:

or you can try to decipher the website which I hear sells a subtitled version:

Enjoy or re-enjoy as the case may be!

Nate said...

Have you ever seen Catnapped? It's not going to unseat Felidae or anything, but it's notably insane for a kids' fairy tale:

Nate said...
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