If you could distill essence de chat into a few well-chosen pen strokes, you’d end up with something like Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s superb animated adventure A Cat in Paris, a picture whose modest demeanor only underscores how expressive and imaginative it is. This isn’t the kind of big-budget animation we get from the major studios: It’s richness of another sort, a feat of hand-drawn animation that relies on spare but succinct character design and a dazzling sense of perspective — rather than a volley of cultural in-jokes — to tell its story. The picture sparkles, but in the nighttime way — its charms have a noirish gleam.
Most of the picture does, in fact, take place at night, beginning and ending with the nocturnal Parisian perambulations of a wily striped cat named Dino. Dino “belongs” to a little girl named Zoe. He pledges his devotion by bringing her little gifts from his nighttime hunting jaunts. Actually, he keeps bringing her the same gift: One dangly, limp dead lizard after another, but Zoe is delighted by them and saves them all in a little box, much to the annoyance of her new nanny.
What almost no one knows is that Dino doesn’t go out at night just for fun, or simply out of a feline sense of duty. He’s also a cat burglar, assisting a sneaky but noble local jewel thief, Nico, on his midnight rounds. The plot becomes more complicated — to the extent that it’s complicated at all — by the fact that Zoe’s mother, Jeanne, is a detective with the Paris police. She’s consumed with concern for Zoe, who hasn’t spoken since her father was killed by a square-shouldered, square-headed thug named Victor Costa. She’s also riven with grief, and she’s determined to avenge her husband’s death by catching Costa, who, it turns out, has a new scheme: He plans to steal a precious, valuable and huge antiquity, the Colossus of Nairobi, a hulking totem that’s being brought to the city for an exhibit. Meanwhile, though, Jeanne has peskier problems: Jewels keep disappearing from various households in the city, thanks to Nico and an accomplice with four silent, velvet paws.
A Cat in Paris is being released in the states in two versions, an English-language one (in which Marcia Gay Harden, Anjelica Huston and Matthew Modine provide some of the key voices) and a subtitled French one (which features, in the role of the nanny, the voice of actress Bernadette Lafont, who, for those who keep track of such things, played Marie in The Mother and the Whore). If you’re bringing children and are lucky enough to have bilingual ones, I recommend the French version, since it is simply more French; to hear the English language pouring forth from these characters' mouths feels just a little wrong.
But the visuals of A Cat in Paris resonate in any language, and it doesn’t hurt that the picture features a stunning, stealthy Bernard Hermann-style orchestral score by Serge Bessett. (The music in A Cat in Paris is finer and more resonant than that of any live-action picture I’ve seen this year.) This is Felicioli and Gagnol’s first full-length feature — it was a 2012 Academy Award nominee — and it clocks in at a very trim but visually rich 70 minutes. The filmmakers' drawings are both meticulous and highly stylized: They render the rooftops of Paris (what is it about city rooftops in general, and Paris rooftops in particular?) as a dusky, velvety patchwork, an invitation to adventure — they take great delight in the city’s highs and lows, in the contrast between tall and short. Their palette features an array of oranges, from muted citrus tones to deep sienna, and lots of deep, nighttime turquoise. And they dot the picture with small but inventive visual touches: When a character dons night goggles, the figures around him are rendered as stark white lines on a flat black surface. And the gargoyles of Notre Dame feature in the climactic chase sequence, a bit of travelogue whimsy that’s nonetheless dramatically gripping, perhaps even a little dizzying for those who are hinky about heights — it doesn’t matter that you can’t really fall off a cartoon building.
And then there’s Dino, an utterly bewitching arrangement of orange and chocolate triangles (with a pink one for a nose). Dino isn’t a cute cartoon cat — there’s an element of mystery and devilishness about him, suggesting that Felicioli and Gagnol understand true feline spirit. They also understand feline loyalty, which is a contradiction in terms only to those who don’t understand (to the extent that understanding is possible) these elusive, magnetic creatures. Dino comforts the distressed Zoe by visiting her in bed, sliding under her arms as if he could pretend she’d never notice. And in a way, she doesn’t notice — somehow, suddenly, Dino is simply there, a presence who changes, only ever so slightly, the nature of the room around him. That’s the quiet province of cats everywhere — not just those who are lucky enough to live in the animated city of Paris.