Movie: Cats Don’t Dance (1997)

One my favorite of the millions of throwaway gags in the early years of The Simpsons is a movie marquee showing one of the titles playing is SING MONKEY SING!!!  I like to ponder what that film would have been like, if it had been real. 

That title came to mind when I first heard of 1997’s Cats Don’t Dance.  Not sure why, but “animated musical” was not the genre which immediately leapt to my mind, though that is what this turned out to be.  Even then, the title left me asking such questions as “That’s true, but do they want to dance?” and “Is there some sort of law against cats doing this if they wanted to?  Is this picture going to be like Footloose but for felines?”

The reason I was so confused is because I was completely unaware of the movie at the time of its release.  I wouldn’t have been the right age for it at the time, but I have always tried to be aware of what is in the theater.  I guess it isn’t any surprise this got stomped at the box office, because I don’t think anybody who might have been interested knew it existed.

But who would be the ideal market for this?  Here is a tribute to the musicals of the 30’s and 40’s and set in that era.  There are celebrity caricatures of the most famous faces of that day, but would most of the audience in the late 90’s have a particular fondness for Mae West or Bette Davis?  I (think I) got all the period references, but only because I have intensely explored that era of film in the past decade or so.

So I guess the target market is old film nerds like me.  As we don’t buy many Happy Meals, the choice of subject matter seems incongruous with what most animation studios hope to achieve.  Not a lot of merchandising potential here.

Which is fine by me, because I had the best time watching this film.  My face hurt from smiling so much.  Not only do they not make movies like this anymore, but I’m not sure they ever did.  It is a treat for the eyes and deeply funny, to boot.  There’s all manner of little surprises, and I’m already wondering what I missed which I will discover in future rewatchings.

The film takes place in a world of humans and anthropomorphic animals.  Scott Bakula voices Danny, a singing and dancing cat from podunk who goes to Hollywood with the dream of becoming a movie star.  He quickly discovers the studio system only allows animals to play animal roles in their films, which I found a tad odd as I do not recall seeing any non-anthropomorphic creatures.  I suspect this plot is a metaphor for the lack of substantial roles available at the time to those were not of Caucasian descent.

Helping Danny in his struggle to change that system is a hippo voiced by Kathy Najimy, an elephant played by John Rhys-Davies, Hal Holbrook as a cantankerous old goat and Don Knotts as a fretful turtle who was once an action star.  There’s also Matthew Herried as a cute little penguin who mostly works as an ice vendor.  There’s a small gag I really like where he’s going out of town, and the only thing in his hobo kit bag is a block of ice.

With the exception of Najimy’s hippo, these characters aren’t given much to do, even as comic relief.  But that hippo steals nearly every scene she’s in, and is consistently given some great little bits of comedy.  One moment which surprised me is when she sits at the base of a diner and accidentally moves the entire building off its foundation.  Looking embarrassed, she quickly reaches under the diner and moves it back into position.

But the most important character for me, even more than Danny, is a cat named Sawyer.  Voiced by Jasmine Guy, she is smart and cynical, a shell of a person who has had their dreams crushed too many times.  She is initially resistant to Danny’s charms and fearful of ever getting her hopes up again.

Danny’s nemesis comes in the form of a psychotic child star by the name of Darla Dimple (Ashley Peldon).  This is a great role, and there are some excellent jokes around the character.  Darla and various animals are starring in a retelling of the Noah’s ark story, where she plays the lead.  It is titled The Ark Angel, which would be an apt nickname for her.  It turns out she hates animals, as emphasized in a scene where she snacks on animal crackers, but only biting the heads off each one.

This immediately preceded a scene where she does an entertaining and overblown musical number where she convinces Danny he needs to pull out all the stops for an audition she intends to sabotage.  Randy Newman composed this, and the other songs in the picture, so you know the music is solid, even if the tunes aren’t very memorable. 

Another key musical moment comes when Danny tries to rally the other animals to pursue their lost dreams.  The drawings for each character start out in muted colors; however, as each animal becomes more enthusiastic, those colors become more vibrant.  This is an excellent, and pleasantly subtle, way of expressing emotion.

Which leads me to the animation.  I liked the style of illustration, which is a flavor of mid-century modern.  This works well, despite the picture being set a couple of decades before that was in vogue in real-life.  Animation is fluid throughout, and the characters are cartoony enough without compromising the audience’s ability to identify with them.

One brief moment I loved is when Sawyer unexpectedly slides down a fire escape ladder.  This is a character with great restraint who is the very definition of a cool cat.  But she’s so startled when she hits the ground that she is momentarily all arched back and spiked fur.  After a couple of quick glances to see if anybody witnessed this faux pas, she restores herself to her usual nonchalant demeanor.  I loved this insight into the character, as well as a certain “catness” it captures.

Lastly, and far from leastly, I can’t believe I have yet to mention Max, Darla’s thuggish all-around assistant.  Voiced by the director (Mark Dindal), this gargantuan butler is Eric Von Stroheim by way of King Kong.  This character is part of a great many visual gags and I will not spoil any of them here.

I could go on and on and on about Cats Don’t Dance. I’m sure many would say I’ve already said too much.  All I can hope is somebody might stumble upon this essay and become encouraged to check it out.  As for myself, I not only know I will be watching it again somebody, but I already can’t wait until I do.

Dir: Mark Dindal

Starring Scott Bakula, Jasmine Guy, Natalie Cole (singing voice of Sawyer)

Watched on Warner Archive blu-ray