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