Last year, my friend Madeline, then 2 and a half, invited me to watch one of her favorite videos, Once Upon a Potty. This remarkable production, part of the standard repertoire for VCR-generation families, was a revelation to me.
Alona Frankel’s 1990 30-minute trilogy opens with a montage of diapered toddlers frolicking to a gospel-tinged pop ditty, “The Potty Song.” (“Yes, I’m going to my potty, potty/Now I’m going to my potty, potty/Yeah, I’m going to my potty, potty now.”) Then, in an animated sequence, we’re introduced to the protagonist, Prudence. A narrator points out the “many and useful” parts of her body (head, hands, legs) including “a peepee for making weewee” and “a little hole for making poopoo.” One day, Grandma brings her a presenta shiny white plastic potty. After mistaking it for a hat, a birdbath, and a flower pot, Prudence discovers the object’s intended function. Following a few botched efforts, she soon deposits all of her liquids and solids in the new receptacle, to the relief and delighted applause of her mom and dad. In the final segment, a guide for parents, beady-eyed Dr. Leon Kron, who is not animated in any way, offers tips for successful toilet training, including a list of recommended alternative terms for excretory products. (Some are rather alarming: “donkey-doo,” “tishy,” “caquita,” and “sissy.”) The avaricious filmmakers append a brief epilogue to flack books, and dolls that come equipped with their own potties.
This week, with Madeline’s toilet-training days well behind her, so to speak, I felt that it was time to reciprocate. So I took her to see her first theatrical movie, Cats Don’t Dance. We arrived at a suburban multiplex armed with supplies to ward off restlessnessapple juice, a teddy bearand fortified ourselves with bags of popcorn. Despite a few dicey momentsat one point I fell asleep, and at another she expressed the desire to be taken homeI’m happy to report that she behaved impeccably throughout the 86 minutes of Mark Dindal’s soporific animated feature. As we exited the theater, I asked which part of the movie she had liked best. She muttered something vague about “the dancing cats,” but was obviously indulging me, faking gratitude for the outing. Neither of us liked the picture, and it’s difficult to imagine that anyone else could, either.
Indeed, the most intriguing thing about sitting through Cats Don’t Dance is trying to ascertain its target audience. A pastiche of vintage Hollywood classics (Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, A Star Is Born, The Wizard of Oz, Born to Dance) sprinkled with caricatured cameo appearances by old-time stars (Mae West, Joan Crawford, James Cagney, Laurel and Hardy), it’s too recherché for kids, and too childish for adults.
The skimpy plot line recycles the clichés of countless uninspired musicals, with animals standing in for human beings. Danny, a singing-dancing cat from Kokomo, Ind., hops a bus to Hollywood in search of stardom. Once there, he discovers that only humans are cast in leading roles. Teaming up with Sawyer, a disenchanted dancing feline, and other dejected four-legged wannabesa musical elephant, a hippo sopranohe attempts to set up an audition with studio bigwig L.B. Mammoth, but is thwarted by a nemesis: malevolent, animal-hating child star, Darla Dimple. At a premiere, Danny exposes Darla’s devious machinations, joins his friends in a rousing song-and-dance performance, and wins a movie contract, with Sawyer as his artistic and romantic partner.
Producer David Kirschner, who wrote the screenplay for An American Tail, has explained the genesis of Cats Don’t Dance: “In the 1930s it was almost impossible for anyone who looked different from the mainstream or had an accent to succeed in Hollywood, and those who did found themselves largely typecast. We wanted to refer to that struggle for recognition in this story, using the animal characters as a metaphor.” Duh. Making a musical about the show-biz exclusion of an underclass is arguably the most harebrained notion since Arthur Miller’s doomed attempt, 20 years ago, to concoct a Broadway song-and-dance version of the Fall of Man. Even worse, Kirschner’s grasp of Tinseltown history is wildly distorted. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, performers with accents (Garbo, Dietrich, Lugosi) had no trouble achieving stardom, and animals were major box-office attractions. (Among canines, Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, and Asta; among horses, Trigger and Champion. And, lest we forget, Cheta the chimp and Rhubarb the cat.) As Cats Don’t Dance unreels, it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out what the damned thing is about.
The film’s story and characterizations are flatly uncompelling. Soundtrack voicessupplied by Broadway and television performers Scott Bakula and Jasmine Guy as, respectively, Danny and Sawyerare more expressive than the bland, generic drawings they articulate. The only visually arresting sequence is the climactic fight staged on a huge balloon replica of Darla. Randy Newman’s music and lyrics are surprisingly pedestrian; the best of them, “Tell Me Lies,” a torch song crooned by Natalie Cole, is warmed-over Harold Arlen. None of Newman’s compositions has the staying power of “The Potty Song,” which has haunted me since I first heard it.
Pullet Surprise, a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon that precedes Cats Don’t Dance, is even more disappointing. Cheaply produced, crudely drawn, and totally mirthless, it is surely the worst film to bear the name of animator Chuck Jones, who, to be fair, only has producer credit.
When I brought Madeline home, her parents quizzed her about the experience. Imaginatively conflating the feature and the short, she told them it was the story of two cats and a big chicken. Clearly, she had invented a more entertaining show than the one we had seen. Next time I’ll let her choose the movie. CP