Cats Don't Dance

on March 28, 1997 by Kim Williamson
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   Perhaps the fate of "Cats Don't Dance," a story of Hollywood, lies with another story of Hollywood, the acquisition of Ted Turner's media empire by Warner Bros. The latest from producer David Kirschner ("The Pagemaster") has a number of marketable elements to attract families and children: a wonderfully overrealized Golden-Era Hollywood setting, a pleasing (at times fabulously so) palette, six tuneful Randy Newman songs, a zing-bing narrative flow, and attractive lead characters (no hunchbacks here)--heck, the late Gene Kelly even helped design the film's sparkling dance choreography. Yet the Turner Feature Animation effort, though released during one of its demo's primetimes--Easter week--seems to have had little backing from Warner Bros. It's as if L.B. Mammoth (voiced by George Kennedy), the studio mogul in "Cats Don't Dance" around whom everyone freezes until he gives an order, forgot to say "sell it."
   The film's narrative revolves around Danny (Scott Bakula), a cat from Kokomo who gets off an old-time bus in front of Grauman's Chinese theatre, in his hand a list of his week's planned activities: Arrive in Hollywood, find an agent, get discovered, and attend a premiere--and that will take him only through Thursday. And he does have early luck, chancing to be in the office of animal actors agent Farley Wink (Frank Welker) when a call comes through for a cat needed on the latest Mammoth Studios production for child star Darla Dimple (Ashley Peldon)--picture an evil-incarnate variant of Shirley Temple. Aided by her hulking, schwarzenegger-sounding valet, Max (Mark Dindal, who also directs), Darla makes sure that she is always in the limelight. Filming a scene with Darla, the eager Danny turns his one word of dialogue--"meow"--into a virtual song-and-dance number; after the catastrophic outcome, he learns from his fellow animal actors that they must always stay in the background; movies are meant to star people. Trying to rally their spirits, Danny raises the wrath of Darla, with even more catastrophe resulting. Danny is then faced with the choice of heading back to Kokomo or continuing his struggle.
   On the downside, "Cats Don't Dance" doesn't seem to be as personal a film as Kirschner's "The Pagemaster," and that takes away from its (however feline) humanity. Although its 1939 Tinseltown setting and occasional caricature appearances (Gable, Davis et al.) and its gotta-be-a-star wishes will be familiar to adults, children might be a bit lost. That should be at least partially offset by the charm of the animal characters; Danny is boisterous yet a bit bland, but g.f. Sawyer--a former dancer/singer now turned disillusioned secretary--is well-conceived in thematic terms and smashingly drawn to boot, with Jasmine Guy giving her dialogue a perfect blend of sensibility and sultriness. (Natalie Cole gives great voice to Sawyer's songs, although hers is not a good match for Guy's.) Another vocal highlight is Don Knotts' work on the turtle T.W., who has the best of the film's intermittent but continual comic moments. All in all, "Cats Don't Dance" is a good but not great animated film, well worth a marketing effort from its new studio parent. According to a recent study of this decade's G-rated releases, Buena Vista averages about $80 million per pop and all other distributors not quite $13 million; still, as Danny tells his animal compatriots, you can't succeed if you don't try.
   "Cats Don't Dance" is being released with an eight-minute, G-rated Looney Tune short, "Pullet Surprise." Although the Foghorn Leghorn-starring effort (worthy of 2 1/2 stars) from Chuck Jones Prods. doesn't make the mistake of recent Warner cartoons of simply repeating golden moments from the Looney past (or worse, as in "Space Jam," changing characters' well-known natures), it doesn't put anything new in their place. As always, the vocal stylings of Mel Blanc are much missed.    Voices by Scott Bakula, Jasmine Guy, Natalie Cole, Ashley Peldon, Kathy Najimy, John Rhys-Davies, George Kennedy, Rene Auberjonois, Hal Holbrook and Don Knotts. Directed by Mark Dindal. Written by Roberts Gannaway, Cliff Ruby, Elana Lesser and Theresa Pettengill. Produced by David Kirschner and Paul Gertz. A Warner Bros. release. Animated. Rated G. Running time: 75 min.
Tags: Scott Bakula, Jasmine Guy, Natalie Cole, Ashley Peldon, Kathy Najimy, John Rhys-Davies, George Kennedy, Rene Auberjonois, Hal Holbrook and Don Knotts. Directed by Mark Dindal. Written by Roberts Gannaway, Cliff Ruby, Elana Lesser and Theresa Pettengill. Produced by David Kirschner and Paul Gertz. A Warner Bros., animated
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