Photo: GKids DistributingThe animation category for the Academy Awards is one of the few to deliver real surprises. A couple of years ago, the nominating committees threw just about everyone for a loop by naming a little-known movie called "The Secret of Kells" alongside the likes of "Up" and "Coraline." And that was a great call by the academy; not only did it rightfully recognize the movie -- a dazzling, stylized tale about medieval Ireland -- as being worthy of going toe-to-toe with the big boys, it also lifted the movie out of film fest obscurity. This year, the academy gave the same treatment to a pair of animated movies: "Chico y Rita," a grownup take on jazz and Cuba, which was released earlier this year, and "A Cat in Paris," which opens this week.
Directed by Jean-Loup Felicoli and Alain Gagnol, "Cat" is picture-book colorful with a style that's somewhere between late-period Picasso and early Pee-wee's playhouse. The cat is Dino, who leads a double life. By day, he delivers dead lizards to Zoe, a mute young girl who is struggling to get over the death of her father. At night, Dino prowls around with Nico, a cat burglar with a heart of gold. Right at the beginning of the film, we see Nico on the job. The movie's off-kilter style matches perfectly with the story as we see the rubber-limbed thief deftly evade a couple of guards and escape along a silhouetted Parisian roofline. It's a moment that's light, airy, and immensely charming.
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When the plot kicks in, the movie loses some of its luster. Zoe's mom is a police investigator who's tracking down her husband's killer, a psychotic gangster name Costa, who looks remarkably like Fat Tony from "The Simpsons." Soon, Zoe, Nico, and Dino all get swept up in this search, which culminates, Hitchcock-style, with a high-flying fight atop Notre Dame. Though some of the sequences are gleefully inventive, the story seems complicated and arbitrary. Yet, the film manages to stay buoyant and whimsical despite the plot's darker turns. At 70 minutes, "A Cat in Paris" is a trifle, but it's one with continental flare that goes down easy, especially if you're a Francophilic cat lover.