Joann Sfar’s scattered storytelling style has been praised as a strength and derided as a weakness. The French comics writer-artist has dozens of books under his belt, many of them translated into English—the Dungeon series (written and drawn in partnership with fellow traveler Lewis Trondheim), Little Vampire, Vampire Loves, Sardine In Outer Space, and more. Each of his stories starts with a whimsical premise and then wanders radically, without much sense of internal logic, but with marvelous inventiveness and wry humor. The downside is that his stories never have a strong through-line or a powerful payoff; the upside is that they’re unpredictable and immensely colorful, the perfect antidote for formulaic A-to-B narratives. And while the scenes don’t always fit together thematically or tonally, each one is its own polished gem.
So it goes with The Rabbi’s Cat, Sfar’s first animated film (he made his directorial debut in 2010 with the live-action Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life), and winner of the César, the French equivalent of the Academy Award, for Best Animated Film 2011. Drawing on an assortment of sequences covering about half of the series’ five books—released in America as The Rabbi’s Cat and The Rabbi’s Cat 2—the film version wanders considerably, encompassing interspecies religious dialectics, a runaway Russian artist, and a cross-continent quest. But the film, which Sfar adapted from his comics and co-directed with longtime French animation producer Antoine Delesvaux, improves greatly on his books. It smoothes out the jumpy narrative and erratic art, replacing the latter with a gloriously rich, sleek, hand-drawn look that renders its environments in lush depth, or streamlines them into thrilling dream sequences. And it adds a joyous energy that’s vital without being hyper. The story begins in 1920s Algeria, where Jews and Arabs live together in relative peace and equality. When a rabbi’s cat eats a talking parrot, he gains the power of speech, but his first words are a lie, denying his crime. Incensed, the rabbi tries to teach the cat morality by making him study the Talmud, but the cat calmly, knowledgeably dissects his beliefs with logic and science.
From there, the story flowers in several directions, with a series of episodic events: The cat demands a bar mitzvah and offends the rabbi’s teacher; an escaping Russian Jew turns up in a shipment of Russian books; the rabbi’s cousin and his pet lion come to visit; the rabbi and various associates mount a months-long quest for a fabled African Jerusalem, supposedly the homeland of all blacks and Jews. The story sprawls, but the perky tone, sharp dialogue, and easy comedy keep the film moving, and the eponymous cat provides a strong central point of view. Like the story itself, he’s protean—devoted to the rabbi’s voluptuous daughter, loyal to the rabbi himself, and generous toward those in need, like the Russian painter, but also sly, vain, self-serving, and amoral. In other words, a cat.
To the degree that the movie has a theme, it returns again and again to the idea of varied types living together and expressing their differences openly—Jews and Arabs, humans and animals, Caucasians and Africans, the young and the old, and people steeped in various cultures, languages, and beliefs. Some of their differences spark confrontations or fatal clashes. Others turn to banter and acceptance. Still others—as when the rabbi and his friends encounter Hergé’s famous comics character Tintin, and find him patronizing, dim, and irritatingly perky—just prompt eye-rolling tolerance. But in each case, The Rabbi’s Cat makes its points through illustration and observation, rather than spelling out its messages head-on. There’s no forced moral to Sfar’s work, just an observation of an infinitely diverse and unlikely world, spinning randomly under the benevolent eye of a God who is, as one character says, just “a decent guy.” For all its wanderings, The Rabbi’s Cat holds to this perspective, holding all differences as interesting to explore, but more of a capricious gift than a burden.