Review: 'La chat du rabbin' ['The Rabbi's Cat']
Had enough of French animated films yet? Don't worry, I'll run out of them soon! This week's review is Le chat du rabbin (The Rabbi's Cat), which came out in France in 2011 and only just recently got a North American DVD release. (Trailer). It's based on a comic book series by Joann Sfar.
The film starts in Algiers (North Africa) in the 1930s, with a rabbi, his daughter, and her pet cat. After the cat eats a parrot, he gains the ability to talk, and immediately gets in trouble with the rabbi because the cat's first action (of course) is to deny everything.
As the rabbi tries to keep the cat away from his daughter, the cat tries to get on the rabbi's good side by offering to convert to Judaism - although what he really wants is a bar mitzvah. Still, being a cat, he's an independent thinker and isn't shy about challenging the rabbi's religious teachings.
With that premise, the film is really about three characters - the rabbi, the cat, and a Russian guy who shows up a bit later. The rabbi and the cat are the focus for the first third of the movie, after which it switches to the rabbi and the Russian, with the cat acting as an occasional narrator. A recurring theme in the movie is religious and racial intolerance, but it's not beating you over the head with a message nor exploring the issue to any great depth; instead, it's something that occasionally manifests, and there are also people in the film who demonstrate the opposite, being very tolerant and open-minded.
Furry-wise, the cat's characterization is spot-on. This not a cat talking like a human being, this is a cat talking like a cat (if cats could talk); his personality and motivations are very realistically feline. It's a pity he gets used less towards the end - he even loses his ability to talk for a while - but he regains it, and still has his moments as the film goes on. Other bits of the movie I enjoyed were the rabbi practicing for a stressful test, his cousin's visit, and an eventful road trip across Africa that has a funny cameo appearance from another comic. There are several colorful characters I'd love to mention, but those would be spoilers. Warning: there's a small amount of violent content, and with the level of the conversations, this is definitely not a kid's film!
The ending brings partial closure to the road trip, but it also leaves future events open. It's like we, as viewers, just happened to be watching a chunk of the characters' lives, which are going to be moving on without us.
Still, it doesn't feel like our time has been wasted, it's just a narrative structure you don't often see in a lot of North American films. I think it's mainly in this film because it was made by combining three issues of the original comic.
Animation-wise, the whole thing looks good; I much prefer its visuals over that of the comic. Occasionally the animation slips into a simpler, more cartoony look for flashbacks, dreams, and so on. Voice-acting is good, and the music is North African in style with a bit of klezmer mixed in.
In any case, if you're a fan of animation and don't mind a slightly atypical narrative structure, I definitely recommend this film, even if its furry angle weakens midway through.
Finally, I should mention the English subtitles. There are a couple of versions floating around online – one of which I wrote, with help from friends! If you're downloading a file-shared copy of the movie, the timing of the text changes slightly. The 700M version should use these subtitles (download the .zip), and the 1.1G version should use these. Enjoy!