An animated film with the cozy charm of an advertisement for Starbucks French Roast, A Cat in Paris—or, A Cat’s Life, translating the original title with more accuracy—is all design and no danger. It has a likeably aritsanal quality, despite the fact that computers were obviously used to slap it all together (the awkward distances between foregrounds and backgrounds make certain scenes look like the pages of a pop-up book); the colored pencil textures and long-nosed, slit-eyed faces provide hand-drawn relief from Disney/Pixar/DreamWorks’ three-dimensional human blobs. But at their best, cartoons achieve a harmony of form and narrative, wherein the distinctions of their visual style dictate, or at least appear to complement, the storyline’s action. (Take Sylvain Chomet and his almost-speechless Triplets of Belleville; he draws withered, lanky bodies that seem intended for eye-popping abuse.) And while A Cat in Paris begins with a suitably threatening plot (the mute daughter of a police officer-cum-widow owns an itinerant black cat who becomes a burglar’s accomplice by night), the storybook aesthetic dampers what could have been a marvelous noir-in-pastels.
In a smattering of moments, the movie nearly succeeds at this uneasy mix of children’s lit and Dashiell Hammett. Halfway through the running time, we’re introduced to a beak-nosed, broad-shouldered, and hot-tempered mob boss who kidnaps the cop’s daughter and drags her to a darkened basement. In a fit of frustration, he fires his gun into a corner, and we’re shown the fretting of various anthropomorphic vermin; it’s as though someone’s taking a loaded pistol to a Richard Scarry book. But the girl escapes, and despite her being followed with several firearms, we’re never worried that the movie’s universe will allow for her, or any characters with a modicum of decency, to come to harm. (Even the burglar eventually falls under the category of “good,” and once he resists the antagonist, his larceny is never again shown, and never punished; parents screening this with their children might want to explain afterward that theft is rarely so readily forgiven.)
The grand finale, which happens atop a giant Parisian church, sadly fails to rustle up the sense of dread necessary to make such a sequence compelling. The figures in whom we’re supposed to be emotionally invested defy gravity with their lissomeness; the mob boss, on the other hand, is predictably leaden. The reductive geometry remains quaint to this valedictory moment, but directors Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol have smoothed the conflict out of their script to the point that it resembles their primitive caricatures. By the end, my inner child was bored.