Imbued with a traditional let’s-put-on-a-show attitude, “Cats Don’t Dance” is a snazzy but old-hat animated feature. Decked out with sharp and colorful design work, some well-drawn characters and six snappy Randy Newman tunes, this first entry from Turner Feature Animation goes down very easily but lacks a hook to make it anything other than a minor kidpic entry commercially.
A brassy musical about a small-town hepcat who wants to make it big in movies, circa 1939, pic trades on Hollywood conventions that won’t mean much to small fry, although they should be taken with the lively animal characters who here rep the film biz underclass, as well as with the wonderfully realized horrific child star.
Danny, a brimmingly confident cat from Kokomo, gets off the bus in front of the Chinese Theater with a plan to make it big in Hollywood within the week. Waltzing into an animals’ agency, he is immediately cast as one of the two cats in the Mammoth Pictures musical epic “Lil Ark Angel,” which stars the irrepressible Darla Dimple, who is Baby Jane incarnate. Also cast, against her will, is the agency’s pert feline secretary, Sawyer, a former dancer now skeptical of any four-legged critter’s hopes for bigscreen fame.
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Danny gets on Darla’s bad side by stealing her limelight in a bit part, and becomes further dejected when informed by his fellow ark passengers that animals are forever doomed to steerage class in Hollywood. He is thus tremendously buoyed when the scheming Darla offers to arrange for him and his friends to audition for studio head L.B. Mammoth himself.
However, the unsuspecting animals are foiled when Darla’s hulking valet Max, who looks like a cross between Erich von Stroheim and Mike Tyson, unleashes a torrent of special effects on the furry and feathered performers, literally washing them out of the studio. However, Danny has a final inspiration that enables him, with a nod to “Singin’ in the Rain,” to expose the wicked Darla for what she is.
Director Mark Dindal, who has worked for Disney for the better part of the last decade, and his raft of story and screenwriters keep the short picture moving at a furious clip, and interest flags a bit only in the two extended ac-tion sequences toward the end.
The character work is very good. Danny, energetically voiced by Scott Bakula, is somewhat conventionally conceived as a brash young whippersnapper, but Sawyer, a furry charmer beneath her slightly jaded coat, is a delectable creation, outstandingly drawn and voiced by Jasmine Guy and sung by Natalie Cole. Darla and Max make for excellent heavies, and some of the incidental animal characters, including a music-loving old elephant who works as the figurehead for the Mammoth Pictures logo and a sweet little penguin named Pudge, are delightful.
Randy Newman’s songs are high-spirited fun, and the animation is distinguished by vibrant color schemes and strong, fine lines. But it’s a small, conventional story, not one that engages the imagination in a fresh or exciting way.
The late Gene Kelly served as a mentor on the project, apparently helping with advice on the choreography design.
Preceding the film, at least in its firstrun engagements, is a new, eight-minute, singularly uninspired Looney Tunes short from Chuck Jones Prods., “Pullet Surprise,” featuring the large rooster Foghorn Leghorn.