The Rabbi’s Cat is noticeably lumpy, perhaps because its adapted only from volumes one, two, and five of Joann Sfar’s popular comic-book series of the same name. Its ending is so abrupt it barely qualifies as one, while its characters remain somewhat unknown to us as they weave wildly in and out of the freewheeling narrative, as if the film’s directors, Antoine Delesvaux and Sfar himself, assume our familiarity with everyone’s backstory. Even the setting—Algeria sometime in the 1920s, or possibly the ’30s—feels presumptuously laid before us. And yet, there isn’t a pandering bone in the film’s overstuffed yet nimble body. The 3D presentation vividly amplifies the handsome and perceptively drawn details of the 2D animation, and the rambling story feels rhymed to the movements of its titular character, a kosher feline who acquires the ability to speak after scarfing down his master’s parrot.
Enough can’t be said about the old-fashioned animation. That vine that crawls from a pot and up the sides of a building, the seemingly inch-thick gaps between the cobblestones the rabbi’s cat runs across, the ornate patterns that decorate walls and floors and surround doors and fountains—this is a world of organically realized details, and one in which the characters feel completely and credibly immersed. Shadows practically have a life of their own, as does the crescent moon, which casts its distorted reflection onto water from its perch in a Van Gogh sky. Everyone, cat and human alike, regardless of race, dreams in their own wondrously unique style.
The story, perhaps too hurried to do full justice to all the tensions constantly flying about, isn’t without its riches. The cat, who dramatically yearns for a bar mitzvah after the rabbi almost kiddingly takes him away from his daughter, is an amusing Greek chorus to a journey that will take him and the rabbi from multi-ethnic Algiers to Ethiopia, where a stowaway Russian Jew hopes to find the Jerusalem of Africa. There will be danger, a funny Tintin reference, a fascinating articulation of the revenge motive that begins on pins and needles and ends in a show of camaraderie between Jews and Arabs, and above all else, a thoughtful consideration of the politics of Jewish identity, compromise, and engaging scripture. Despite its flaws, the film is at least a consistent vision, attesting through both its story and animation to the rabbi’s right to be different while also striving for human solidarity.