In yet another summer movie season packed with 3-D superhero spectacles and slickly regurgitated sequels to kiddie flicks such as Madagascar and Ice Age, a film like A Cat in Paris sounds, in theory, like a simple, elegant antidote to CGI overload. The animation team of Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol presents an aesthetic that feels like an old-school storybook, with a pared-down plot that winds across the quaint rooftops of Paris.
But even though A Cat in Paris delivers on its promise of simple entertainment, it doesn't quite live up to the sophistication you'd expect from a movie that trades so heavily in French aesthetic.
The film centers around Zoe, a young girl who has stopped speaking after her father, a police officer, was killed in pursuit of Victor Costa, an evil, art-obsessed mobster. (Only in Paris.) Her mom Jeanne, the city's police superintendent, is a single-mother stereotype. She's torn between her child and her job, which in this case is to arrest Costa, thereby avenging her husband. Zoe's only friend appears to be her black cat — le chat noir, naturally — which spends its days snuggling with Zoe and antagonizing her nanny.
By night, however, le chat tiptoes out of Zoe's bedroom window and into the nearby home of kindly cat burglar Nico. Together, they move ninja-like across Paris's rooftops and into museums and private homes, foiling security guards, encountering sleepwalkers, and setting up a series of predictable near-misses.
One night, Zoe follows her cat on its nightly prowl and winds up in the clutches of Costa. Nico inexplicably sets out to save the girl, alert her mother, and generally use his prowling powers for good. Much climbing of walls, prancing across skylines, and dangling from stone gargoyles ensues.
A happy, shiny Pixar piece this is not. And in some ways, that's a nice change of pace. Felicioli and Gagnol's animation looks like a storybook come to life, with grainy pencil strokes moving fluidly across the screen. The filmmakers' goal isn't to imitate real life, but to simultaneously reduce it to sketchbook form and expand the possibilities of that pared-down world. Nico, for example, moves like a ghost, floating across rooftops and curling his body around corners. His catlike movement is his defining characteristic and most interesting quality. When he leaps across impossible gaps between buildings, it's a sign there's more to him than petty larceny.
But that's where A Cat in Paris's improvements over blockbuster CGI end. Its animation may be unique, but its characters and plot offer predictable stereotypes. Zoe, a little girl who spends much of the film pouting in silence, is far from an ideal heroine; as she's passed between Nico and Costa, the story treats her as a prize, more like the jewelry and artwork the thieves steal than a sympathetic character. Jeanne, despite her role as the leader of Paris's police force, also appears to have very little power; she's tormented by visions of Costa strangling her, and at one point a witness she questions refuses to answer her and responds only to her male colleague.
The men of the film are the real power players, but they're as loosely sketched as the animation. All we know about Nico is that he's a thief who has a thing for cats and little girls. Why does he steal? What does he do with his contraband? Who knows? Costa, on the other hand, is a caricature of a mobster, traveling with a pack of underlings who've lifted all their material from the Three Stooges. There's even a scene straight out of Goodfellas between Costa and one of his dimwitted accomplices; instead of "You think I'm funny?" it's "You think I eat quiche?" Because it's French, get it?
If this expertly animated film were solely intended for young audiences, its hokey jokes and predictable plot wouldn't matter so much. (The treatment of its female characters as damsels in distress would still be questionable at best.) But given characters smoking cigarettes and shooting guns at each other, parents on this side of the Atlantic might hesitate to bring their kids in for this particular ride, especially when there's so little entertainment value in it for the adults themselves. Part of Pixar's success stems from its appeal to both adults and their children, and A Cat in Paris misses the grown-up market entirely.
It's hard to imagine children clamoring for more of le chat, either. Today's youngsters expect the dazzling light shows of Pixar and its competitors. Without those, an engaging plot, or a young character to idolize, kids won't enjoy the film any more than their parents.