Animation: The cat wants a bar mitzvah
From January 18 to 25, the GKids (Guerrilla Kids International Distribution Syndicate) distributor gave the 98-minute French animated feature The Rabbi’s Cat (Le Chat du Rabbin), directed by Joann Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux, produced by Autochenille Production (a studio set up in 2007 by Sfar and Delesvaux to make this movie), and based on Sfar’s French five-volume graphic novel of the same name (volumes 1, 2, and 5 of it, to be exact), a one-week American limited “general” distribution, in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego on the West Coast. It will have an East Coast release in mid-March.
The original French release, on June 1, 2011, won the Annecy Crystal for Best Feature at the 2011 Annecy International Animated Film Festival, and the 2012 César Award (“the French Oscar”) for Best Animated Film. It had a one-week release in one theater in America on December 7-13 to qualify for 2012 American film awards, and was nominated for the Annie in two categories, Best Animated Feature and Outstanding Achievement, Directing in an Animated Feature Production.
On January 20, my sister and I went to the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino to see The Rabbi's Cat, in French with English subtitles. It was playing for a week, and has gotten a mixed but generally favorable illustrated review in LA Weekly, January 18-24, 2013, the major citywide free alternative newspaper. Rotten Tomatoes gave it 93%.
The feline in question in The Rabbi's Cat is wily, philosophical, and devoted to a dogged and decent rabbi and his fiery, beautiful daughter. The cat desires a bar mitzvah, travels through Africa and the subconscious, and gains the power of speech. For the season of the Festival of Lights, a heartwarming tale of a rabbi and his cat might seem like just the family friendly ticket. However, unless your kids have a working knowledge of the complex cultural patois of Algiers in the 1920s and the effect of the Russian Revolution on pre–World War II Zionism, as well as fluency in French or the ability to read rapid and complex subtitles, The Rabbi's Cat is a pretty tall order. [...] The Rabbi's Cat is an absorbing, nuanced, and vividly animated tale of adventure, ambivalent morality, colonial injustice, talking animals, and the vagaries of religious zeal and colonialism.
We liked it very much. It is witty and very original. The subtitled translation is excellent, and very readable (except in the few scenes that show the bright yellow lettering against a bright yellow background). Algiers in the 1920s is a different and exotic locale, and the North African landscape is strange yet beautiful. Zlabya, the rabbi’s daughter, is very sexy. The nameless cat, who is the main character, sardonically insults almost everyone.
I would have said that the cat’s design is too stylized and unrealistic, except that the movie publicity includes photographs of cartoonist Sfar and his cat, who looks just like the movie character. Just when you think that the story consists only of harmless wordplay, a major character gets bloodily killed. There is a humorous cameo tribute to Tintin and Snowy. An interracial romance is handled tastefully.
The film’s main problem is the episodic plot which ranges from the absurd to chaotic and breaks down during the last half of the movie. Why does eating the parrot give the cat the ability to talk much more intelligently than the parrot ever was? Why is Malka always accompanied by a lion? Why is the cat always saying that he will never outlive Zlabya? How does the Russian painter survive being shipped from Russia to Algiers in a crate of books? What exactly is the rabbi’s group looking for as they charge across North Africa (Rabbi Sfar, the cat, Professor Soliman the Islamic scholar, Vastenov the mad Russian with the Citroen halftrack, the Zionist Russian-Jewish painter, and the African barmaid) – the location of Jerusalem, of a lost tribe of black African Jews, of a country without religious prejudice, or do they really have a definite goal rather than a vague wish to find utopia? Will the cat ever get a bar mitzvah, and will they ever return to Algiers and Zlabya?
The racing around occurs at the end of the film, where the unanswered questions can be dismissed as an enigmatic ending to a collection of colorful scenes without a real plot. There is also a hazy knowledge that this movie is based on Sfar’s long-running bande dessinée; so maybe the unanswered questions in the movie are answered in the comic book.
In any case, The Rabbi’s Cat is a flawed but still excellent animated film with an excellent anthropomorphic star. I will be happy to recommend this to the 2013 Anthropomorphic Recommended List. [The film can be pre-ordered from Amazon in DVD or a Blu-ray & DVD set.]