THE RABBI'S CAT [Le Chat du Rabbin] (2011; Gkids)
I admit that I've followed this film ever since it went into production, so I was quite excited to land a nice Blu-ray, double-disc copy recently. As I've stated before (see GAINSBOURG, VIE HEROIC), I'm a huge fan of Joann Sfar going back to his Burton-esque early works (Vampire Loves, Donjon), through his more recent historical comics (Rabbi's Cat,Klezmer) and now his films.
It would be easy to dismiss THE RABBI'S CAT as a religious themed parable with funny, talking animals -- and sure, there is a fair amount of Jewish culture as the base of the story. But it is exactly this set up which Sfar uses as a springboard to tell an entertaining tale about Algeria in the 1920's.
The protagonist, a cat with no name, lives with a Rabbi who “...says prayers in Hebrew for people who speak Arabic.” He has an almost-adult daughter, Zlabya, who is strong minded and independent, personality traits that give him concern as well as pride.
The Cat eats a talking parrot and suddenly finds it is able to speak. While at first this is a novelty, it quickly becomes part of the film's larger debate about faith, culture, life, and what makes people different (or not) from each other. In an early scene, the Rabbi attempts to explain the Jewish Faith to The Cat who has expressed an interest in being Bar Mitzvah-ed (despite being told that he can't actually be Jewish because he is a cat). As the Rabbi makes his way through the early chapters of the bible -- Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark -- The Cat happily points out that because of carbon dating it's clear that it is all nonsense. This sort of irreverent humor pervades even the most serious passages and sets up a rather amusing finale as the themes come back around full circle. It is also rife with in-jokes, some aimed firmly at the French-Belgian comics scene (for example the characters make a journey across Africa and meet an obnoxious young “reporter” and his “stupid dog”).
The animation is elegant, 2D, hand-drawn style with some CGI. While it never completely captures the organic art of Joann Sfar's books (not an easy task for a music video, much less a feature film) it is beautiful and maintains his aesthetics. Excellent voice acting is provided by the French-language cast: Daniel Cohen as the Rabbi, Karina Testa as Zlabya, Eric Elmosnino (GAINSBOURG) as Professor Sulliman, Francois Morel as The Cat, and even Joann Sfar himself as the Man in the Box. THE RABBI'S CAT is by far one of the best animated films I've seen in some time and well worth the wait.
There are two extras on the double-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo set. The 'Making Of' short film is interesting -- starting with models for the various characters, right through the voice actors and their take on the roles to the score -- all micro-managed by Sfar, who becomes charmingly excited whenever anyone gets something right. The hour-long JOANN SFAR DRAWS FROM MEMORY, screened at film festivals, is also included as a featurette. It works as a primer of sorts for people who may be unfamiliar with Sfar's work (he's been a household name in France for years and has changed the face of French comics indelibly). We watch him at work in cafes, discuss his process and the changes his career has been through. Also he reflects on his obsession with the past and the stories of his ancestors, even as he admits a desire to see his own children unburdened of that same history. It's an enjoyable mini-history for those who have followed his art for years (myself) and for those who have just stumbled onto this Bande Dessinée mega-star.