'The Rabbi's Cat'

Often colorful, witty and inspired, but also too episodic, and lacks a strong ending.

After swallowing a parrot, a facetious feline in 1920s Algiers can suddenly speak its mind in Gallic animated film “The Rabbi’s Cat,” from directorial duo Joann Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux. This feature-length 3D adaptation of Sfar’s comicbook series shares many of the same virtues and problems of his solo, live-action helming debut, the biopic “Gainsbourg,” in that it is often colorful, witty and inspired, but also too episodic, and lacks a strong ending. Fans will turn up locally, but abroad, fests and ancillary are likelier outlets.

Early reels are the strongest, focusing on the accident that allows the big-eared, wide-eyed cat (voiced by Francois Morel) to talk, and the animal’s relationships with his mistress, the sensual Zlabya (Hafsia Herzi), and her father, warm-hearted rabbi Sfar (Maurice Benichou).

The cat wonders whether he himself can be considered Jewish (“I’m not circumcised, I had no bar mitzvah”) and starts talking religion with the rabbi, who is a practical man of the people rather than a scholar. Though Sfar’s answers don’t satisfy the curious and contrarian cat, they are certainly better than those of the rabbi’s rabbi (Daniel Cohen), a religious extremist.

With clever questions and humor, the film’s chatty, leisurely early stages explore issues of religion and peaceful coexistence in multiethnic, early 20th-century Algiers, a city in a predominantly Muslim country still under French occupation. But to keep the narrative going, Sfar and co-scribe Sandrina Jardel (another “Gainsbourg” alum) introduce other characters with their own dramas, at the expense of the more philosophical bent and warm heart offered by the rabbi’s family.

Newcomers include a Russian (Sava Lolov) who escaped a pogrom and a desert prince (Mathieu Amalric) at whose camp a religious discussion ends in blood. Unspooling far away from the city and Zlabya, these strands contain some disturbingly violent images, which, together with a couple of sexual references, make the pic unsuitable for younger children.

An unexpected mid-continent encounter with Belgian comic hero Tintin and his dog Snowy allows Sfar to cleverly riff on the racist, pro-colonialist reputation of “Tintin in the Congo.” Though on the money, this funny detour feels out of place in a story otherwise thankfully devoid of direct pop-culture references. Pic’s final stretch, set in a city populated by a black Jewish nation, feels entirely tangential.

As in “Gainsbourg,” Sfar’s use of varying styles to illustrate the difference between “reality” and dreams or flash-forwards is effective, though it’s somewhat odd that he doesn’t avail himself of the options offered by 3D. The beautifully animated and colorful arabesques that open the film are the sole dazzling examples of the pic’s stereoscopic treatment; elsewhere, the depth effects are often reminiscent of Disney’s use of the multiplane camera in the 1930s, rather than seeming in line with contempo 3D standards.

Character designs replicate the books’ hand-drawn style, with ink-like outlines filled with almost solid color, leaving them rather flat. Though the backgrounds are given a slightly more painterly treatment, indoor spaces seem to defy the laws of perspective, while rudimentary shadow effects, which might help enhance the illusion of depth, are rendered through crude hatching. Result looks more jumbled than organic.

Other tech credits, including score and voicework, are fine.

The Rabbi's Cat

France

Production

A UGC Distribution release of an Autochenille Prod., TF1 Droits Audiovisuels, UGC presentation of an Autochenille production, in association with Banjo Studio, France 3. (International sales: TF1 Intl., Paris.) Produced by Clement Oubrerie, Antoine Delesvaux, Joann Sfar. Directed by Joann Sfar, Antoine Delesvaux. Screenplay, Sandrina Jardel, Sfar, based on the comicbooks by Sfar.

Crew

Camera (color, 3D), Jerome Brezillon; editor, Maryline Monthieux; music, Olivier Daviaud; production designer, Patrice Szewczyk; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Daniel Sobrino, Jean Goubier, Didier Pouydesseau, Jean-Pierre Sluys, Sebastien Gohier, Damien Lazzerini, Cyril Holz; assistant director, Jean-Christophe Dessaint. Reviewed at Elysees Biarritz, Paris, April 11, 2011. (In Annecy Animation Film Festival -- competing; Cannes Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Voices: Francois Morel, Maurice Benichou, Hafsia Herzi, Francois Damiens, Mathieu Amalric, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Fellag, Marguerite Abouet, Sava Lolov, Daniel Cohen, Eric Elmosnino. (French, Arabic, Russian dialogue)

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