Cats Don’t Dance
Directed by Mark Dindal
Starring: Scott Bakula, Jasmine Guy, Natalie Cole, John Rhys-Davies, Kathy Najimy, Don Knotts, Betty Lou Gerson
Special Choreography Consultant: Gene Kelley
Songs: Randy Newman
That’s because you were deprived as a child, green font. Cats Don’t Dance is more infamous than famous because of its troubled production, terrible timing in the market, and studio negligence. Originally a live-action/cartoon hybrid a la Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Cats Don’t Dance had Michael Jackson attached to star and Turner Animation to back it. Jackson left the project because of his early ’90s scandals (Wikipedia that one only if you have a strong stomach…). The production then rebuilt itself from square one–haha, just kidding. Warner Bros. bought Turner Broadcasting, and studio management changed course on the film more often than a cat in a doorway. At one point, executives even wanted to scrap the project during the film’s editing process and start the entire thing over as an Elvis spoof!
Thankfully, a determined team, led by director Mark Dindal, finished the film in late 1996. The production woes, unfortunately, spooked Warner Bros. who dumped Cats Don’t Dance into theaters in the winter of 1997 with no marketing. Resultantly, Cats Don’t Dance grossed only $3.5 million, making it one of the biggest animation bombs of the decade.
Despite its underwhelming release, Cats Don’t Dance received contemporary recognition, gaining a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes and winning the 1997 Best Picture award at the Annies, becoming only one of two movies to win during the Disney Renaissance (Equally underrated movie, The Iron Giant is the other).
In the decade following its theatrical run, Cats Don’t Dance gained a cult following on VHS and cable TV. Warner Bros. packaged the film together with their other infamous late-’90s bomb, Quest for Camelot. Separately, due to the movie’s short length, Cartoon Network frequently aired it to fill programming holes.
Recently, critics have been unearthing Cats Don’t Dance, praising it for its relevant themes regarding race and age discrimination in Hollywood, as well as its hyper-specific setting and Saturday-morning-cartoon zaniness. The A.V. Club called the film “exuberantly free” while Polygon praised its “zany energy.”
Finally, Cats Don’t Dance marks the last movie to which Betty Lou Gershen (Cinderella, The Fly, 101 Dalmatians) and Gene Kelley (An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain) lent their talents before passing away.
As a lover of movies and Hollywood bustle from a freaky-young age, I was the perfect target for this movie. I worshiped Warner Bros. as a child, sacrificing my Saturday mornings at the altar of Kids’ WB. Pokémon, Batman: The Animated Series, Looney Tunes–this lineup had it all! My love of Bugs Bunny led me to buy the Space Jam VHS, the ONLY movie that came packaged with a preview of Cats Don’t Dance. One look at a dancing feline on a trolley car was enough to hook me.
In college, my friends and I would pick movies we had loved during our respective childhoods. Nearly every time, this exercise would end with the chooser in a puddle of embarrassment, their warm childhood memory of the movie chilled by the cold opinions of discerning young adults (Side note: Jack Black’s early-career appearance does NOT make The Neverending Story 3 worth watching.) I assumed Cats Don’t Dance fell into this category, so I preferred to keep it locked up safely in the memory bank.
That is, until my brother (the one who told me to watch Heartstopper) looked through my movie library to find something for our niece and nephew to watch. He picked Cats Don’t Dance, and my heart rate spiked. There’s no way this movie could be as good as I remembered, right?
On a professional note, I’m posting about Cats Don’t Dance because it fits perfectly with this month’s theme of–
Set in an alternate Hollywood in 1939 (a year historians consider to be the peak of studio system filmmaking), Danny, an aspiring actor from Kokomo, tap dances his way to his first movie part. The film is Mammoth Pictures’ Li’l Ark Angel starring Darla Dimple (“International movie star and lover of children and animals”). Danny believes that, by nailing his one line, he can break into leading roles. This idea is naive because, first, Danny is operating on, perhaps, an optimistic timeline. Second, Danny is a tabby cat.
Though animals in Cats Don’t Dance are anthropomorphic and can talk (not to mention sing and dance), Hollywood has them boxed into their zoo/farmyard roles–one song forcing animals to recite the stereotypical sounds they make. During this song, Danny tries to “jazz things up a bit.” This result is sure to put anyone sensitive to secondhand embarrassment into cardiac arrest.
Sawyer, a cat jaded by a life of show-business rejection, opens Danny’s eyes to the barriers that animals face to get worthwhile roles. Instead of letting that reality crush him, Danny uses it as fuel to ask his new networking connection Darla Dimple, lover of children and animals, for a chance to show what he and his friends can do.
Ms. Dimple, the result of what happens when you feed Shirley Temple after midnight, does not, however, love children and animals. She loves the current system. And if her plan succeeds, she’ll be able to put these rising stars back in their place.
Did that summary remind you of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy a few years back? How about the 100-years of systemic exclusion of people of color, people with disabilities, people of a certain age, people with a different body type, or people of a certain gender? Cats Don’t Dance was made with that theme explicitly in mind, and it went right over my head as a kid. Adults, however, will appreciate the surprising thematic depth present throughout, as well as the grace with which it’s presented.
Something else children won’t mind is the specific setting. In 1997, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post lambasted Cats Don’t Dance, mainly criticizing the “foolish indulgence” of setting the film in a time and place with which children have no familiarity (they must’ve hated most of the Disney Renaissance…). My niece and nephew would beg to differ with these critics; they watched it twice! They loved the singing and dancing, the characters and their cartoonish reactions, the screwball dialogue and outlandish situations–basically everything I loved about it when I was a kid.
Oddly, because my sister’s kids have no concept of Hollywood, they thought it was a super-cool theme park. They thought of Darla Dimple as a literal princess who wanted all the movies for herself. They really liked that Danny and Sawyer made Ms. Dimple share with everyone at the end, and my niece said Darla Dimple was the best character because “she proves that just because you’re a princess, doesn’t mean you’re a nice person.”
If a four-year-old and a six-year-old got that much enjoyment out the movie, imagine how pleasantly surprised I was that Cats Don’t Dance not only held up, but was damn good! The animation is sturdy, which gives the zany antics freedom to play. The acting is nuanced, with the animal performances likely drawing upon their actors’ own past rejections. Darla Dimple’s unbalanced undertone also belies a fear of losing her top spot.
Watching the movie as a kid, I caught a few of the classic-movie references, but now, I was laughing as much as my niece and nephew. The screwball comedy dialogue, for which I’ve previously professed a soft spot, hit my funny bone while Bride of Frankenstein references made me wrinkle my face in glee.
My niece and nephew, being small children, wanted to watch the movie again two days later. Normally, I’d politely find an excuse to get out of such an ordeal (aforementioned brother and his love of Return of Jafar conditioned me well). This time, however, I couldn’t wait to watch Cats Don’t Dance again so that I could catch everything I missed!
Cats Don’t Dance is also getting its first ever Blu-Ray release in a couple weeks, on September 23rd (one day after my brother’s birthday! I know what I’m getting him for a present…).
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