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Film Review: ‘The House of Magic’

It may spin a generic yarn, but Ben Stassen and Jeremie Degruson's kitty cartoon convincingly approximates the look and style of Hollywood animation.

Voices: Murray Blue, Doug Stone, Grant George, George Babbit, Shanelle Gray, Joey Camen, Cinda Adams, Nina Grillo, Kendra Leif, Joey Lotsko, Millie Mup, Kathleen Browers, Sage Summer, Kyle Herbert. (English dialogue)

An amiable feline-led romp perhaps best described as a cat o’ benign tales, Belgian crossover toon “The House of Magic” will perhaps prove most memorable as a marker of just how swiftly Euro animation houses are catching up with their Hollywood counterparts. Rendering in sleek 3D strokes the generic quest of an abandoned kitty to save his zany adoptive household from the clutches of a heartless real-estate agent, Ben Stassen and Jeremie Degruson’s film convincingly approximates the whizzy cartoon aesthetic and full-Crayola-box palette of a DreamWorks Animation escapade. If the script doesn’t quite have the smartass snap of U.S. studio fare, that shouldn’t hinder its global tiny-tot appeal. Already released in multiple European and Asian territories last Christmas, “Magic” opens in Blighty this week.

Co-helmer Stassen’s company nWave Pictures already has form when it comes to lightweight but technologically advanced kiddie fare: His debut feature, 2008’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” was the first animated film ever to be conceived and released solely in 3D. “A Turtle’s Tale: Sammy’s Adventures” (2010) and its ensuing 2012 sequel were similarly tricksy, though their blatant cribbing from “Finding Nemo” suggested Stassen’s pioneering spirit didn’t extend to the storytelling department. That hasn’t changed in “The House of Magic,” which stitches together stray story elements from “Toy Story,” “Home Alone” and countless others with unapologetic abandon.

If the final derivative effect here is more likable than in Stassen’s rather plastic previous features, that’s in part because “Magic” at least boasts a genuinely cute protag in scrappy ginger kitten Thunder (voiced by Murray Blue), designed to resemble Garfield after a severe bout of gastric band surgery. Discarded on the sidewalk when his owners U-Haul their way out of Anywheresville, U.S.A. — one of several mildly topical references to recession-induced domestic upheaval in the script — Thunder finds shelter in a ramshackle Gothic Revival mansion believed by locals to be haunted. Instead, it turns out to be the home of elderly, eccentric children’s entertainer Lawrence (Doug Stone), who lives with his collection of performing animals, as well as a cadre of toys and gadgets who (much like the household ensemble of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”) only come selectively to life.

Thunder is warmly welcomed into the fold by the old man; less keen are alpha rabbit Jack (George Babbit) and his mouse sidekick Maggie (Shanelle Gray), who plot to evict the cat from the house. The saucer-eyed kitty proves an increasingly useful addition to the family, however, when an accident leaves Lawrence hospital-bound and the house at the mercy of his manipulative, money-grubbing nephew Danny, a real-estate agent with plans for the property that do not include its motley crew of inhabitants. Crucially, Danny also has a severe cat allergy, which forms the basis for the critters’ increasingly manic schemes to keep him away.

It’s a thin premise that cues much cheery knockabout comedy, with ample scope for impressively whooshy 3D tracking shots. If the action gets somewhat repetitive, very young viewers are unlikely to mind, as Stassen and Degruson (a production designer on the “Turtle’s Tale” films, here taking his first directing credit) throw in enough nifty funhouse effects to keep the title’s promise. One setpiece in particular, involving a paper Chinese dragon given artificial, fire-breathing life by Thunder and company, is enthrallingly gorgeous.

Otherwise, the film mostly settles for peppy visual clutter, with Ramin Djawadi’s brash, bouncy score providing appropriately hyperactive backing. The rather literal inclusion of two ’80s hits on the soundtrack — the Cure’s “The Love Cats” and Madness’ “House of Fun” — is perhaps the sole gesture made to accompanying parents, given the script’s avoidance of double-layered snark. (British adults, however, might find themselves wishing that Lawrence bore less of an accidental resemblance to the late, disgraced Jimmy Savile.)

Voice acting from the non-name cast is serviceable across the board, if not especially characterful. (A comic-relief chihuahua, embodied by comedian Joey Camen with Eddie Murphy-aping patter, borders a little uncomfortably on racial stereotyping.) The first “Turtle’s Tale” film upped the vocal star wattage for its U.S. release, though that doesn’t seem an essential adjustment here.

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Film Review: 'The House of Magic'

Reviewed at Soho Screening Rooms, London, July 15, 2014. (Also in TIFF Kids, Seattle, Edinburgh film festivals.) Running time: 85 MIN. (Original title: "Le manoir magique")

Production: (Animated — Belgium) A StudioCanal presentation of an nWave Pictures production in association with Anton Capital Entertainment. (International sales: StudioCanal, Paris.) Produced by Ben Stassen, Caroline Van Iseghem. Executive producers, Olivier Courson, Eric Dillens.

Crew: Directed by Ben Stassen, Jeremie Degruson. Screenplay, Stassen, Dominic Paris, James Flynn; story, Stassen. (Color, widescreen, 3D); Music, Ramin Djawadi; production designer, Jeremie Degruson; sound (Dolby Digital), Yves Renard, Pierre Lebecque; supervising sound editors, Frederic Demolder, Simon Jamart, David Vranken; re-recording mixer, Luc Thomas; animation supervisor, Dirk De Loose; visual effects supervisor, Yannick Lasfas; line producer, Vincent Philbert; associate producers, Gina Gallo, Mimi Maynard, Domonic Paris; casting, Gina Gallo, Mimi Maynard.

With: Voices: Murray Blue, Doug Stone, Grant George, George Babbit, Shanelle Gray, Joey Camen, Cinda Adams, Nina Grillo, Kendra Leif, Joey Lotsko, Millie Mup, Kathleen Browers, Sage Summer, Kyle Herbert. (English dialogue)

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