For those of you with toddlers who are crazy about old MGM musicals, love sendups of long-gone Hollywood stars and tycoons and delight in such hip references as King Kong being portrayed as a whiny stagehand, the animated "Cats Don't Dance" may be the cat's pajamas. For those with normal children, good luck.
"Cats Don't Dance," the first film out of Turner Feature Animation, is a startling miscalculation. It has lots of cute animals, some jaunty Randy Newman songs and solid, if uninspired, animation work. But blending parody and nostalgia about an era half a century removed from the lives of the core audience seems a foolish indulgence.
The story, gang-conceived and written, according to the credits, starts out like "A Star Is Born" and ends like "Singin' in the Rain." It's the tale of a Kokomo cat named Danny (voice of Scott Bakula) who arrives in Hollywood on the bus to broken dreams only to discover that animals--no matter how talented--are third-class citizens in the studio system.
The studio where Danny goes to work is Mammoth Pictures, run by cigar-chomping L.B. Mammoth, a caricature of Louis B. Mayer. Mammoth's franchise star is singing and dancing Darla Dimple, a demonic version of Shirley Temple, who was actually Fox's franchise.
When Danny, in the chorus line of a Dimple movie, gets carried away and stretches his one line ("Meow") into a scene-stealing croon, the curly-haired star is roused to a wrath that threatens the career of every bird, mammal and reptile on the lot.
Among the potentially exiled are Woolie (John Rhys-Davies), an elephant who plays a mean rag piano; Tillie (Kathy Najimy), a soprano hippo with a heart as big as her bottom; a cynical old goat; a cowardly tortoise; a pudgy penguin; and the lovely feline Sawyer, a starlet-turned-secretary lured back to the Klieg lights for the love of Danny.
On the other side is Max, Darla's bodyguard, a giant with the body of Frankenstein and the name, face and peevish manner of Erich von Stroheim's butler in "Sunset Boulevard." And seen along the way--on the street, in restaurants, at premieres and on a lot that even looks like old MGM--are such "familiar" faces as Bette Davis, Clark Gable, and Laurel and Hardy.
"Cats Don't Dance" treads this territory with a whimsy that will be over the heads of young kids and too unimaginative for adults.
Newman's songs are theatrical and lively, and Natalie Cole, the singing voice of Sawyer, does a sensational ballad. But despite a credit to the late Gene Kelly for some early choreographic guidance, Danny's animated dancing--as any 5-year-old with an encyclopedic knowledge of old Hollywood will agree--is a far cry from Jerry the Mouse's in "Anchors Aweigh."
* MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: OK for any age.
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'Cats Don't Dance'
Scott Bakula: Danny
Jasmine Guy: Sawyer (speaking)
Natalie Cole: Sawyer (singing)
John Rhys-Davies: Woolie
Kathy Najimy: Tillie
Matthew Harried: Pudge
George Kennedy: Mr. Mammoth
A Turner Feature Animation presentation of a David Kirschner Production. Director Mark Dindal. Producers David Kirschner, Paul Gertz. Screenplay Roberts Gannaway, Cliff Ruby & Elana Lesser and Theresa Pettengill. Executive producers David Steinberg, Charles L. Richardson, Sandy Russell Gartin. Co-producers Jim Katz, Barry Weiss. Art director Brian McEntee. Songs performed by Natalie Cole. Music by Steve Goldstein. Songs by Randy Newman. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.