Une Vie de Chat is an Oscar-nominated French feature film. It was notable for being one of two foreign-language films nominated (alongside Chico and Rita) in the 2012 Academy Awards – which in my view was a very weak year for Best Animated Film. The main competitors were Puss in Boots and Kung Fu Panda 2, which while enjoyable were hardly typical Oscar candidates, and the winner was inexplicably Rango. Though I don’t know if they met the eligibility criteria (being released in US cinemas etc), I’d call Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha and Leafie: A Hen Into the Wild far more deserving of the gong than any of the nominated films. But hey, let us not forget who the Academy voters are.
In principle, Une Vie de Chat is the kind of film I should enjoy – though I’m confused by the French title, which doesn’t sound quite right to me (One Life of Cat? Not La Vie d’un Chat?). It uses story-book style visuals – a little ugly but distinctive and nostalgic – and tells a fun story. At night, a cat-burglar named Nico sneaks into museums and houses to steal jewels. He is accompanied on his nightly ventures by a rather ugly cat. But the cat does not belong to him. In fact, the cat’s owner is little Zoé, a sweet young girl who has been left dumb by the trauma of the murder of her father, a police officer. Zoé’s mother Jeanne is also a police officer, and hot on the trail of her husband’s killer – the dastardly gangster Victor Costa. When Zoé overhears her babysitter and Costa’s gang plotting to steal a priceless work of art, a deadly chase kicks off – and Zoé finds an unlikely ally in the thief Nico.
It’s a fun story and rolls along well. The only thing that I really felt was omitted was some recognition that while he was a thief with a heart of gold, Nico was still a criminal and no matter how much he helps a little girl and might just contribute to a happily-ever-after ending, he should have had to pay for his crimes. I also felt a little bad about how Jeanne seemed very quick to leave behind the memory of her late husband. But there’s a nice balance here between making the characters likeable and flawed. There’s actually something a bit more sinister about a gangster who’s a bit ridiculous than a cackling evil mastermind: it really does feel like there can be characters like Costa in the world, unhinged, petty and quick to violence whenever they look foolish.
But I have to say that I have problems with the ugliness of the film. There is charm to the story-book or comic strip designs. But everyone but Zoé is so hideous that over the term of a whole film it really starts to grate. I disliked the flickering colouring made to emulate on computer the style of hand-coloured animations like The Snowman – it looked affected and fake. This story is straightforward and offers very little that is unique to animation, so really needed beauty to distinguish it. While it had its own charm, I would not call that beauty. And that keeps me at an extra step of removal from this show. It looks like a 5-minute 70s animation spun out into a feature, and it does not benefit from it.
I like quite a lot about Une Vie de Chat. The tone, the concept, the setting. But I fell in love with nothing at all...and that is a real problem. Weirder, more experimental and far more beautiful animations like Le Jour des Corneilles have much more to offer.