You know how, at Oscar time, there’s always at least one foreign nominee in the animated-picture category that doesn’t win, never gets a U.S. release, and lingers in your mind only as “the one that looked good in the montage?” The French nominee A Cat in Paris was my 2011 “one that looked good in the montage,” and though it didn’t win (the prize went to Gore Verbinski’s Rango), an English-language version of the film has now found a limited release in the United States, with a possibility of opening wider later in the year. I hope A Cat in Paris, directed by Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, does well at the box office even if it’s no Gallic miracle a la Triplets of Belleville, because it would be a fine thing to have more chances to see foreign animation on American screens. This elegantly hand-drawn caper doesn’t have a lot to it—a little girl and her cat help break up a Parisian crime ring, un point c’est tout. But it moves to a different rhythm than the animated spectacles we’re used to—it’s sparer, less hectic, less cute—and the difference feels welcome and refreshing.
Though A Cat in Paris is visually sleek, with simply drawn, elongated figures that recall the picture books of Maira Kalman, it errs on the overstuffed side when it comes to plot. There’s a lot to keep track of: In the main plot, a little girl, Zoe (voiced by Lauren Weintraub), has gone mute with grief after her father’s murder. Zoe’s mother, Jeanne (Marcia Gay Harden), a police detective, is leading the search for her dead husband’s killer (conflict of interest much?) and becoming so obsessed with the case that she’s neglecting her lonely, miserable daughter. Zoe’s new babysitter, Claudine (Anjelica Huston), seems nice enough, but her cat Dino (who, in macabre but realistically feline fashion, brings her a tribute of a dead lizard every day) is her only real friend.
In a separate but interlocking story, Dino the cat has a secret life: At night he steals away and joins a skilled thief, Nico (Steve Blum), on his nightly burgling missions, sneaking across rooftops and breaking into safes. Meanwhile, the suspected killer of Zoe’s father, crime boss Victor Costa (voiced by Michael Caine-soundalike J.B. Blanc) is scheming to steal a priceless art treasure known as the Colossus of Nairobi. When Zoe is kidnapped by the gangster after eavesdropping on his nefarious plans, Nico and the cat must team up to save her (and to convince her mother that Nico, pilfering tendencies aside, isn’t one of the bad guys).
Sections of A Cat in Paris feel draggy even at the abbreviated running time of 65 minutes. But in the best parts, the crisscrossing plot strands all pause for a moment, and we just get to watch and listen to what’s going on in this stylishly imagined world. A woman sprays on too much perfume, and a cloud of the scent floats out a window, assuming the shape of a ghostly female figure. Later, the lights in a room go out, and the shapes of the characters stumbling through the dark are shown as white outlines against a solid black screen, enabling the audience to “see in the dark”—a clever use of the possibilities opened up by animation. Yes, this movie’s homages to le film noir américain are sometimes less whimsical tributes than straight-up lifts (as when Victor Costa’s thugs object to the childish nicknames he assigns them, a joke familiar from Reservoir Dogs’ “Mr. Pink” scene.) And yes, the final chase atop an iconic world monument is an action cliché by now—but when the site in question is Notre Dame cathedral by moonlight, with villains and heroes leaping nimbly from gargoyle to gargoyle, somehow all is forgiven.