Posted by Susan Doll on November 7, 2011
French animation boasts a long history, harkening back to Emile Cohl who produced the hand-drawn Fantasmagorie in 1908. What I like about the history of French animation is that it includes bold experimentation alongside commercial endeavors. While the history of American animation is equally as impressive, I wish contemporary Hollywood was less dominated by that computer-generated style typified by Pixar. Some contemporary CGI-generated cartoons are imaginative, well-written, and enjoyable for adults as well as children (Rango; Puss in Boots), but others rendered in photo-realist styles create doll-like human characters that are downright creepy (The Polar Express; the upcoming Arthur Christmas). Too bad the major studios give viewers so little choice. However, over the last decade, the French have gained an international reputation for beautiful, stylish, hand-drawn animation that Hollywood claims is dead.
In October, Chicago’s Facets Multi-media (where I work) held their annual Chicago Children’s International Film Festival. Over the years, the festival has hosted thousands of internationally acclaimed films, some of which went on to be major releases, including Whale Rider. Each year, many of the entries are animated shorts and features rendered in a variety of 3-D and hand-drawn styles. This year, a day was devoted to French animation, which included the features A Storytelling Show by Jean-Christophe Roget, Tales of the Night by Michel Ocelot, and the delightful A Cat in Paris by Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, which sold out the house.
A Cat in Paris reminded me the 1965 live-action film from Disney called That Darn Cat, starring Hayley Mills as a precocious teenager whose cagey cat gets the family mixed up in a crime ring. In the French cartoon, a cat named Dino lives with a little girl named Zoe, who has not been able to speak since her policeman father was killed in the line of duty by crime lord Victor Costa. Zoe’s mother, Jeanne, who is also a police detective, is determined to stop all criminals, especially Costa. Each night after Zoe goes to bed, Dino jumps out the window and saunters across fences and rooftops to the apartment of Nico, a handsome cat burglar. The unlikely duo navigates across the rooftops of Paris sneaking into homes and stealing jewelry. After Dino brings Zoe an expensive stolen bracelet, the little girl follows her cat out her window one night but finds herself caught up with Costa’s gang of crooks.
Hand-drawn animation is distinctive from studio to studio; it actually looks crafted, not manufactured as with most computer-generated, 3-D animation. The look of A Cat in Paris is reminiscent of illustrations in children’s books, particularly in the scenes with the overviews of the Paris rooftops. The Parisian roof-scapes were quite charming and inviting, like the romanticized view of the Paris of my daydreams. Small wonder Dino and his bon ami, Nico the cat burglar, have such fun leaping across the Paris skyline. The characters’ faces are rendered in only a few lines, but each reflects a specific personality: Zoe’s inherent sadness, Jeanne’s determination, or Costa’s cruel menace. Shadows are handled as dark-colored geometric shapes, fitting the simplicity of the film’s style. A Cat in Paris is not in the beautiful painterly style of last year’s The Illusionist; instead, it uses a more graphic style that is still colorful and eye-catching.
Hand-drawn animation is more flexible than the 3-D CGI styles, because it can contort, re-imagine, and re-shape imagery with ease and believability. In that way, it can be expressive and imaginative in ways 3-D CGI styles cannot. Zoe’s nanny, who is secretly working for Costa, wears too much perfume, which makes Dino sneeze. When Costa’s gang kidnaps Zoe, Dino tracks them via the perfume smell that lingers in the air. The smell is depicted as a waft of purple smoke that deftly morphs into the diabolical head of the nanny. The clever detail serves a practical purpose, cuing the audience to what is going on, but it is also an expressive touch, because it gives the nasty nanny the connotation of a witch. The highly graphic opening and closing credits feature a stealthy Dino moving across the city’s rooftops against a jazzy, bluesy score. Rendered in blues and blacks, with odd angles and forced perspective, the sequences are reminiscent of German Expressionism. My favorite sequence was the climactic battle between Costa, Nico, Zoe, and Dino as they race along the top of Notre Dame Cathedral. Costa wants Zoe, and the good-hearted burglar is determined to save her. They climb, leap, fall, and swing around the cathedral’s cat-like gargoyles in an exciting chase depicted in blues and earth tones that exploit the angles and gothic shapes of Notre Dame. The expressive changes in color and style add mood and atmosphere to key sequences in ways that are characteristic of hand-drawn animation—but seldom found in 3-D styles.
A Cat in Paris ( Un Vie de Chat) pays homage to the history of French animation by referencing past films. In the scene in which Dino and Nico rescue Zoe, all the lights in the gang’s hideout go out. While the characters cannot see each other, viewers can see each character as white-outlined figures against a black background, reminiscent of Emile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie. Costa tells his goofy henchmen to adopt fake names for their crime spree, and one of them picks Monsieur Hulot, which is a tip of the hat to Jacques Tati as well as to last year’s animated hit The Illusionist.
A Cat in Paris, which has been nominated for a Cesar Award, was produced by Folimage, a French animation studio based in Bourg-les-Valence, Drome, France. Folimage sponsors a nearby animation school called La Poudriere. France is home to several well-known animation schools, including Gobelins and Supinfocom. The highly respected Gobelins, which opened in 1975, has produced many top European animators; Supinfocom, which is short for Ecole Superieure d’Informatique de Communication, was one of the first schools to teach computer graphics. Despite the changes that computers have brought to animation, French schools and studios have not pushed aside hand-drawn approaches and styles. As young animator Matthieu Landour noted in an interview with MSNBC, “The computer makes images that are too clean.”
A Cat in Paris is making the rounds of film festivals and cinematheques, and I urge everyone to look for it in their city or local festival. This month it is playing at the Alliance Francais in New York City, Film Streams in Omaha, The Loft Cinema in Tucson, and the Wildey Theater in St. Louis (as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival). Just last week, the film was submitted to the Academy as one of the 18 candidates for Best Animated Film, which may give it a high enough profile to be available on Netflix.
Cat lovers will appreciate and chuckle at Dino’s typical cat behaviors, while fans of animation will enjoy the film’s beautiful hand-drawn style and references to French cartoons of the past.
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