Co-written and directed by Christopher Jenkins (a Disney alum who counts “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” among his credits), “10 Lives” makes for an entertaining and easily digestible outlier at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The computer-animated story of a cute but lazy cat — imagine Garfield but much cuddlier — who keeps coming back in different forms, “10 Lives” is hardly the first kid-focused toon to premiere in Park City (last year brought “The Amazing Maurice,” which quietly went on to become one of the 2023 edition’s bigger box office earners). Still, it’s probably not what most people imagine when they hear the words “Sundance movie.”
First introduced in feline form, Beckett (voiced by Mo Gilligan) is adopted by a scientist named Rose (Simone Ashley) when she nearly runs him over with her car. Rose is working on a postgraduate dissertation focusing on finding ways to save the world’s bee population. Her boss, Professor Craven (Bill Nighy), tries to sabotage her project for his own nefarious reasons. Feeling jealous of Rose’s assistant/boyfriend Larry (Dylan Llewwellyn), Beckett gets himself in much trouble, losing his ninth life in the process. Lucky for him, a kindly angel (Sophie Okonedo) gives the cat 10 more chances to make it right, be less selfish and win Rose back.
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While that high-concept premise surely sounds schematic (and slightly macabre) to adults, younger audiences should find it fun counting down the 10 lives. Every time Beckett is reincarnated, he appears as a new animal in a different situation. Kids can watch him become a horse, a cockroach and a parrot, and so on. But it’s not until Beckett morphs into a dog that the real fun starts. Jenkins and his co-writers, Karen Wengrod and Ken Cinnamon, mine many amusing situations from the animosity between cats and dogs. No matter which species they prefer, pet owners will laugh with recognition at this amusing comparison.
But “10 Lives” is about more than just hilarious scenarios; the movie also has bigger themes on its mind. For example, there’s a message about sustainability and climate change. Rose’s research on bee life conservation mines the idea of all species coming together to carry the burden of keeping the earth alive. These ideas might flow unnoticed by younger audiences, yet they give the film a deeper resonance. “10 Lives” also has a subplot that would be right at home in a third-rate James Bond knockoff: Craven’s efforts to undermine Rose and replace the world’s bee population with animatronic insects. It’s absurd and doesn’t always make sense, but allows the movie’s real star to shine brightly.
Nighy brings down the house on several occasions with an uproariously ridiculous performance. His voice slippery like a lizard, the actor makes every intonation clear and meaningful yet also full of mockery, playing the character while also making fun of him. Hearing that stately clipped voice utter the pharse “Dickie numb bum,” will be hard to top. Other voice performances are on notice.
Perhaps Nighy runs away with the film because all the other elements are much less striking. The animation looks like a conventional throwback to hand-drawn films, while somehow also anonymous with no distinguishing features. The expressions on the animals’ faces — particularly the original Beckett before his many transformations — are more expressive than the human faces. The script borrows from so many tropes that it loses the narrative thread. Pop star Zayn Malik, who also wrote songs for “10 Lives,” appears as a pair of sweet goons who half-heartedly help Craven. But the characters are not especially funny and feel so peripheral to the story that they could be eliminated without affecting anything. Malik’s songs are catchy, at least, even if most are relegated to the end credits.
Gilligan and Ashley play well off each other, giving loose and free performances. Ashley’s voice is appropriately full of warmth, while Gilligan adds an intriguing scratch that makes him believable as a cat. At Sundance, “10 Lives” may seem like an oddity, but it’s made with enough panache (from Nighy in particular) to perform well in the wider world.
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