Based in Valence, France, Folimage Studios has spent decades turning out some of the most original and ingenious animations in the world, although their creations still remain largely unknown outside of Western Europe. The company makes a bid for broader exposure and recognition with A Cat in Paris, which netted a 2012 Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, but lost to Paramount's Rango.
Created by studio mainstays Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol (L'Egoiste, Bad Times) this 65-minute outing tells the story of a crafty Parisian feline named Dino, who leads a double life. He spends his days nestled in the lap of a sad little girl named Zoe -- mute ever since her police-officer father lost his life to a slimy thug named Victor Costa. Unbeknownst to Zoe and her mom, Dino spends his nights in the company of a kindly and clever jewel thief named Nico, whom he trails on nocturnal heists. The premise involves Zoe's mother, a police commissioner, attempting to catch Costa -- an effort that ends up stringing the cat, the girl, the mom, the thief, and others on a wild, hair-raising chase across the roofs and structures of the City of Lights.
Aesthetically, the film is a knockout. The design actually showcases two very different French animated styles: that of Felicioli/Gagnol, and that of another contributor to the movie, Jacques-Remy Girerd. As in their prior efforts, Felicioli and Gagnol impart a stark quality to their characters and settings, with everything drawn at jagged right angles and with flat panes of color. The overall effect is both forceful and striking. Adding another flavor to the mix -- and softening up the screen somewhat -- is the input of Girerd, a regular Folimage contributor whose 2003 animated children's feature La Prophetie des Grenouilles reimagined the story of Noah's Ark. Recalling the images in that film, some of the incidental characters who turn up in A Cat in Paris (especially the funny anthropomorphized animals who appear during a chase through the Paris zoo) seem much gentler than the surrounding Felicioli/Gagnol creations -- here, it's as if the European illustrations from the Please Read to Me children's paperbacks of the early 1980s have taken on animated form. The two schools of design present in the film don't clash as might be expected, but blend together to create a smooth combination of influences -- the sound of two instruments that we've perhaps never before heard together, suddenly playing in unison.
Unfortunately, the story of A Cat in Paris is somewhat less interesting. It hits a peak in the early passages, during a low-key sequence set in Zoe and her mom's Paris apartment, where we merely watch the day-to-day routine of these residents, Dino, and the family maid. Once the crime story kicks into high gear, we're never really emotionally involved in the high jinks because we've seen it a thousand times before, in both live-action and animated contexts. The Triplets of Belleville suffered from a similar issue -- the first and second acts, which delved into a kind of comedic existential ennui, were an unmitigated delight, but the last half-hour threw us into a tired and worn-thin chase plot. Why is it necessary for these European animated gems, which start off on such marvelous footing, to descend into cliché-ville? One wonders if this can be chalked solely up to commercial concerns -- the filmmakers' shared fear that an action-less plot would risk alienating younger viewers and thus rob the movies of box-office potential.
As indicated, though, the journeyman story almost scarcely matters in the case of A Cat in Paris. The filmmakers hand us one dazzling image after another -- and not merely in the foreground. We get haunting background sights as well, as in a breathtaking vista glimpsed from the roofs of Notre Dame, where we can see tiny balls of iridescent light meant to represent automobiles coasting up and down distant Parisian freeways. It would have been just as easy for Felicioli, Gagnol, and their contributors to omit such details; instead, they are ever present, signifying a slavish love and devotion to every single frame. The adoration that went into the picture is so thoroughly contagious that one can overlook the movie's familiarities.