The Academy Awards’ Best Animated Feature category has been surprisingly controversial, with complaints about how it might be designed to ghettoize animated features out of the Best Picture category, or how it draws from too tiny a pool of features for many of the nominations to be meaningful. But over the past few years, at least, the former complaint hasn’t been an issue—Pixar’s Up and Toy Story 3 both earned Best Picture nominations—and the Academy seems to have gone out of its way to ameliorate the latter problem by looking to other countries to widen its reach. Best Animated Feature nominations for the Irish/French/Belgian co-production The Secret Of Kells, France’s The Illusionist, and Spain’s Chico & Rita have brought smaller films to broader attention, turning “Never heard of it” into “Hey, we should see that, it’s Oscar-nominated.”
The latest Best Animated Feature nominee to receive a belated American theatrical release—preceded by a cute short about the extinction of “the saber-toothed housecat,” and remastered for some markets with a new English-language dub track—doesn’t necessarily merit the international acclaim. France’s A Cat In Paris is a barely feature-length diversion that lacks the energy to grip younger viewers or the depth to impress adults, but it earns respect with its makers’ dedication to old-school craft. Co-directors and long-time animation-studio partners Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol work in hand-drawn animation, in a geometrically inspired but fluid style reminiscent of comics artist Richard Sala. Their central character, a suspiciously intelligent cat named Dino, spends his days comforting the mute girl Zoé, whose policeman father was killed by criminal mastermind Victor Costa (JD Blanc). At night, Dino slips off to play sidekick to easygoing jewel thief Nico (Steve Blum). Meanwhile, Zoé’s mother Jeanne (Marcia Gay Harden), a Paris police superintendent, pursues both Victor and Nico without seeing any connections—or realizing her charming nanny (Anjelica Huston) is a member of Victor’s gang.
A Cat In Paris has an unfortunate habit of reveling in form without giving enough attention to content. The sequences where Nico and Dino slip as silhouettes along rooftops or as white outlines through a pitch-black room look spectacular, and the brooding, smoky jazz score of the opening sequences evokes classic noir. Felicioli and Gagnol get a good deal of mileage out of matching characters’ emotions to visual style, whether Dino is cuddling up to Zoé or Victor is experiencing a startlingly vivid break with reality. But the tone vacillates widely, with the filmmakers mining pathos from Jeanne’s grief and fury at Victor one moment, then spending leisurely scenes on Victor’s consciously Reservoir Dogs-inspired chatter with his dumb-cluck minions the next. Jeanne is the only character with a grounded motivation, which leaves the film feeling cute but arbitrary—especially at the extremes, when the characters swing from comedic to crazy, or make choices that might be surprising if the audience had any sense of who they were before those choices were made. Nico and Victor in particular are as thin as the paper on which they were hand-drawn, and when neither the villain nor the heroes can provide a center, the film spins off in random tangents. It’s stylish, pretty fun, but not the kind of ambitious effort that should make the world sit up and take notice.