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'Cats Don't Dance,' but they sure are funny

title April 5, 1997
Web posted at: 7:00 p.m. EDT

From Movie Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Those of you who regularly read my reviews might well imagine that a cartoon musical about a star-struck tomcat would be about as appealing to me as a big, heaping bowl full of fish-flavored Little Friskies, but I'm here to say that "Cats Don't Dance" is a blast.

This is the story of Danny, the song and dance cat, who ventures from Kokomo to Hollywood, a move that turns his life into a surprisingly acerbic version of a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland backstage musical.

movie icon (1.1MB/30sec. Clip-"Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now)
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The aggressive wit should come as no surprise, though, considering the songs are by Randy Newman, who, if he were a clue on Jeopardy, would be described as "that guy who wrote 'Short People.'" Well, he did write "Short People," but Newman also happens to be one of the most biting, brilliant pop songwriters of the past 25 years.

He comes from a lineage of big-time Hollywood composers (his Uncle Lionel won nine Oscars for everything from "Mother Wore Tights" to "Camelot," in which Richard Harris wore tights), and his songs have often mated Fred Astaire-like tunes with a stinging, sometimes downright nasty sarcasm. His melodic approach is perfect for this story, set in the 1930s, and it's a welcome surprise that he's been allowed to push the limits of lyrical good taste a little bit in what is normally considered a medium designed for children.


Soon after hitting Hollywood, Danny (the voice of Scott Bakula) meets up with an assortment of down and out, would-be movie star animals at a local "animal talent agency." We quickly meet all the main characters, including Cranston Goat (Hal Holbrook!), a hippo named Tillie, and the love interest cat, Sawyer, who speaks like Jasmine Guy and sings like Natalie Cole.

This is studio-era Hollywood, and, like the Looney Tunes cartoons of that period, assorted movie star caricatures make cameo appearances. The opening number includes goofy burlesques of Jimmy Durante, Mae West, Bette Davis, and Laurel and Hardy, among others.


There's a pleasing luminescence to the animation, with colors that glow like neon throughout. The streets of Hollywood, for instance, are literally paved with gold when Danny first arrives. I guess when parents take their children to the movies they like them to learn a lesson along with killing 90 minutes of their young lives, so the theme here is that all that glitters isn't gold, and you can achieve anything you want as long as you keep trying.

We adults, of course, know that that theory magically transforms itself into a crock when you hit Tinseltown, but unless your kids have been perusing your copy of "Hollywood Babylon" when you're not looking, they'll probably take the bait. Just to be certain, block this review from their Internet access.


Danny and the other animals at the agency are soon cast in a Noah's Ark epic (called "Lil' Ark Angel") starring gap-toothed Darla Dimple, America's Sweetheart. Darla (hilariously voiced by Ashley Peldon) is a truly classic cartoon villainess, a cross between Shirley Temple and post-possession Linda Blair. Darla gets all the best lines, and, as could be expected from Newman (whose last album was an update of the devil-made-me-do-it Faust legend), she gets all the meatiest songs.

Her first big moment is a Busby Berkeley re-telling of Noah's story in which Newman decides to tunefully clue the audience in on the fact that all the people drowned in the downpour, as well as a lot of the animals. The Disney equivalent would be Quasimodo getting his good eye poked out. Or, God forbid, a historically accurate version of "Pocahontas."


Danny, who sings his simple "meow" too dramatically, soon gets singled out for abuse by Darla's monstrous butler, Max. Imagine Eric Von Stroheim in "Sunset Boulevard" after a 12-year diet void of anything but horse steroids, and you'll get a general concept of Max. He has a big scar on his face, too.

Needless to say, all the struggling animals group together at the end to put on a big show that convinces the studio head, L.B. Mammoth, that they're more talented than that mean old Darla. This comes shortly after a wild, almost surreal chase scene involving Max, Danny, and a 100-foot-tall balloon likeness of Darla that had been hovering over the star-studded premiere of "Lil' Ark Angel" like a hateful Hindenburg. Groovy, to say the least.

As if that isn't enough, "Cats Don't Dance" is preceded by "Pullet Surprise" a brand new Looney Tunes cartoon directed by the legendary Chuck Jones. This one stars Foghorn Leghorn (one big rooster) and, amazingly, my favorite cartoon character of all time, a little-known guy named Pete Puma.

To put it politely, Pete is brain-challenged. The plot consists of Foghorn convincing Pete that he is pursuing a "Venezuelan racing chicken," which he is not. Pete gets pushed and pulled through itty-bitty knot-holes, slammed in the behind by a bull, and just generally beaten silly by Foghorn. Oh, I forgot to mention the ever-popular anvil on the head. I laughed so hard I thought I was going to shoot my milk and cookies through my nose.

I get paid for this.


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