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I like most films. I love cats. I like when filmmakers try to do
something different with the medium. So I really wanted to like this
film. I kept hoping I could give it at least a 5, but I just couldn't
bring myself to do it. Even a 4 is probably too generous.
Cats: the Movie! is shot on video and it looks like it. Many people on Netflix have commented that it plays like a 70-minute YouTube video, which is apt. Many scenes appear to be nothing more than Susan Emerson--who is fittingly credited as the "writer", "director" and "director of photography"--following around some cats (probably her own or belonging to friends) and birds, a couple squirrels and such, at and near her home with a camcorder.
The only adults in the film either appear in the frame in a way that seems accidental, while Emerson is shooting animals in the neighborhood and adults happen to be around them (although I would suspect that if they're not really "extras", they at least had to sign a release to be in the movie), or you usually only see the bottom of their legs. The dialogue in the film is provided by actors "talking over" the footage of the animals, as if they're supposed to be telepathically communicating. Since this is just home video footage, their mouths never move. The dialogue is sometimes confusing given the nature of the film. Characters "speak" who do not appear on screen in time to make it clear who is talking. This might particularly confuse young kids. The dialogue is also frequently cartoony, a bit over-the-top, as if the voice talent had been under the impression that they were reading for an animated film.
As you'd expect with home video footage, the video quality isn't so hot, shots frequently go in and out of focus, the framing isn't so good, the lighting is often bad (occasionally she gets lucky on some outdoor shots), and there is no production design to speak of. It looks even worse on a large HD TV.
I would bet dollars to donuts that how the movie came about was that Emerson initially had lots of footage as above that was intended to be nothing more than home movies of cats. She or someone she knows decided it would be fun to edit some of it together to make it slightly more interesting and less tedious than home movies typically are. Then someone she knows, probably joking around, started to "narrate" some of it, speaking along with it as if it's what the cats were "thinking". That would spark the thought, "How fun would it be to do a whole movie this way!" So using the footage already shot, they concocted a rudimentary and tenuous overarching plot, manipulated the animals into 15-20 minutes of footage that Emerson hadn't "accidentally" shot already, making sure they had at least 60 minutes of material for the story (the credits run about 10 minutes and are padded out with "life after the story" cat footage), and then voila, they were done.
Some of the manipulated footage is slightly more interesting. These are primarily the scenes involving a subplot about an abandoned cat, Pinky. Cats have to jump over fences, around a construction site and equipment, and so on. And if you're a cat lover, these cats are cute and can be interesting to watch--just as it might be moderately entertaining to watch someone's home movies of their cats.
But the script and voice-acting never really rise above the level of Mister Rogers' forays into the "Land of Make Believe" (when the trolley would take you to the land populated by King Friday and Lady Elaine). Rogers' writing and performances during those segments had a certain amount of charm, but always seemed a bit like your slightly wacky uncle was making up some material for 2-5 year-olds on the spot, in his basement, with his hand puppets. Given Rogers' aims, this was intentionally so. The show was targeted at very young kids, and Rogers was fostering imaginative play with very non-threatening dialogue.
The more I think about it, comparing the quality and tenor of Rogers' "Land of Make Believe" scripts to Cats: The Movie! might be insulting to Rogers (as I'd surely rate his shows more than a 4/10, even from an adult perspective), but it should give prospective viewers some idea of the tenor of the script here, including the almost complete lack of material aimed at adults.
More problematic is the fact that Emerson seems to be advocating letting your cats run loose around suburban neighborhoods--as long as they're wearing a collar, and young kids watching this film might begin to pester you to let your cats go outside. Cat lovers know that this isn't recommended. It introduces many dangers into your cat's life, including accidents, poisons, malfeasance, and exposure to parasites and diseases.
What I can't understand is how the heck they got the voice talent that they did. Not that they're A-list actors, but this is less than a Sub Rosa quality film (Sub Rosa is one of those super-low-budget, shot-on-camcorder horror film companies). You do not see actors with resumes like Jeremy Sisto's in Sub Rosa films. Just what kind of blackmail material does producer Paul Williams have?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
CAT'S THE MOVIE, while long overdue, was well worth the wait. Prior to getting married, I had no use for cats: they were there, I was here, and never the twain had met. My wife's cat, Jezebel, was... touchy, to say the least: make the mistake of petting Jez and- pft- you were cut. Not a gusher, but a razorblade slice that stung and would, in due time, begin to drain until you bled out. I suggested we visit the local pound (which was not a no-kill facility) and liberate one of the inmates so we could find out what a non-schizophrenic feline might be like. We ended up with Poe, a newborn whose curiosity would become the stuff of legend. Like all animal children, he had a lot to teach us and I can honestly say that I've rarely in my life known the kind of love I knew with Mr. Cat. When little Louie came along, Poe took the child under his wing and became a big brother/father figure to him. Jez and Poe are gone, now, and Louie is alone, but we'll see to it that he has all the love he can stand for as long as we live.
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