Where do cats go at night? The animated A Cat in Paris delightfully answers that eternal question for both young and older audiences by starting with a cat burglary, literally. In beautiful nocturnal shades, Dino the striped cat prowls the Paris skyline with Nico the jewelry thief (voiced by Steve Blum). Dino distracts bumbling security guards while Nico’s steals. They sneak through a city of shadows enveloped in the noir sounds of jazz, with a terrifically atmospheric score by Serge Besset.
When the dawn breaks into bright colors, Dino has a more sedentary life. He brings macabre trophies of dead lizards home to his seven-year old-owner, Zoé, who has been sadly silent since her father died in the line of police duty. Unlike Disney animated movies, which usually have a dead mother, her mother Jeanne (Marcia Gay Harden) is a tough police commander obsessed with catching the father’s killer, the notorious gangster Victor Costa (J B Blanc).
Her tired mother gets called in on a special assignment with her partner to escort a monumental African sculpture through the city for a special exhibition that she’s sure will attract Costa as a collector. And she’s right. (He and his motley quartet of thugs have Tarantino-esque arguments about everything, including the code names he assigns his crew, like Mr. Frog, Mr. Baby, and Mr. Potato.) Jeanne has to leave Zoé in the care of the overly perfumed nanny Claudine (Anjelica Huston), who detests the cat.
The mother is also suspicious of a bracelet Dino has passed on to Zoé from Nico, and thinks it could be a clue to the rash of jewelry robberies in the area. That makes Zoé curious to follow her cat one night, even braving past the noisy dumb dog in the neighborhood. All of which leads to a robbery that turns into kidnapping (more comic than too threatening for kids) and into a mad chase through the zoo and around city spires for a thrilling climax amidst the gargoyles and buttresses of the Notre Dame Cathedral.
While adults will dig big band leader Pierre Drevet’s soulful trumpet on the soundtrack and the references to grown-up films (like Reservoir Dogs and GoodFellas), budding cinéphiles can pick up the tributes to Disney movies, from The Hunchback of Notre Dame to Mary Poppins—Jeanne is like the mom in The Incredibles, but without need of superpowers. The giant African sculpture lumbering through the city streets bears a striking similarity to the marshmallow man in Ghostbusters.
The French-language original is being shown at least in New York City, but the only particularly standout voice is throaty Bernadette Lafont as the nasty nanny. In the new English-language version, Costa is a Cockney crook, and Huston has a distinctively odd French/Cockney accent amalgam as the nanny’s allegiances shift. Because the gangsters already are drawn from American crime movies, their Americanized voices seem very natural.
A Cat In Paris was just barely long enough to have qualified for a animated feature Oscar nomination, and to fill out the screenings just a bit it’s being shown with an animated short, Damon Wong’s “Extinction of the Saber-Toothed House Cat,” which shows exactly how that could have happened. In real life, an engineer has developed a “CatCam” camera that goes around a cat’s neck to catch just how surprisingly social tom cats are when apart from their owners. The animated adventures in A Cat in Paris look and sound a lot more colorful than any cat could imagine.