Speaking with “Monsters University” producer Kori Rae the other day, the conversation turned to the possibility that digital animation may have hit some sort of plateau. While I don’t expect Pixar to stop pushing the boundaries, it was nevertheless surprising to hear Rae say the following: “We are getting to a point where photo-real is pretty close to possible in computer animation. But is that what we want? Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should. But with technology, there are swings in both directions, right? I can definitely see other forms of animation — hand-drawn, stop-motion — coming back. Creatively, people always want what’s not there. So if everybody’s doing computer animation, there’s gonna be a hole, something that people are craving.”
Hand-drawn animation is still very much alive in cinema and a welcome alternative to the digital diet. You just have to look beyond the ad-driven dominance of the U.S. studios; Japan embraces the medium fully in films by Studio Ghibli and plenty more, while France has seen Sylvain Chomet (“The Illusionist”) and codirectors Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud (“Persepolis”) succeed with hand-drawn.
The latest French offering is “Une Vie de Chat” (“A Cat In Paris”), by the French animation studio Folimage, which was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2011, and it looks like a picture book come to life, bursting with vibrant colors and characters who look like something out of a Chagall canvas.
“Une Vie de Chat” is a slight film, but let’s hear it for slight films. In a summer where every movie seems to want to be bigger, louder, flashier, snarkier than the rest, “Une Vie de Chat” just wants to be charming, which it is, infinitely. It’s naive, and nostalgic — especially in its quivering, hand-drawn look — and downright kawaii (cute); cat-lovers will find the film’s feline hero Dino irresistible. (Although owners of yappy little dogs may not appreciate the jokes at their expense.)
The film follows Dino in his double-life: he lives with Zoe, a little girl who has lost her father and becomes unable to speak, and her overworked detective mother Jeanne (voiced by Sara Vertorgen), but at night Dino wanders off to the other side of the arrondissement and accompanies cat-burglar Nico (Mark Irons) as he pilfers jewels and artwork. When Zoe tries to follow Dino on his nocturnal travels one evening, she stumbles onto a group of bumbling gangsters led by the devilish Victor Costa (Jerry Killick), and it’s up to Dino and Nico to rescue her, cueing a series of chases and escapes on the rooftops of a magically rendered Parisian skyline.
The plot is nothing special, the jokes range from the tepid (the bickering gangsters) to the laugh-out-loud, but the filmmakers totally understand the magic of creating their own little world for the viewer to sink into. Arguably the more stylized a film is, the less it tries to photo-realistically capture reality, the more we can sink into the fantasy and accept it in a fairy-tale sort of way. Dino, however, will be instantly recognisable to anyone who’s ever owned a cat. Or should I say “been owned by a cat.”