Suspended Animation ‘Vacation Week’ Extra
“No animals were harmed during the making of this film. Although, some were erased and had to be redrawn.” One of the closing credits to the animated feature Cats Don’t Dance (1997).
Turner Feature Animation was spun off from the feature film division of Hanna-Barbera Productions but was later merged into Warner Brothers Feature Animation just as production was being finished on Cats Don’t Dance resulting in the film not receiving much promotion when it was originally released.
The Los Angeles Times stated that only fifteen people (that included a family of five) attended the first matinee screening in a theater in Pasadena. Producer David Kirschner told the newspaper that he was devastated because “the film got great reviews and great exit polls but no one knew it was out there.” It only ended up grossing roughly three million dollars on a production budget of nearly thirty-two million dollars.
Director Mark Dindal recalled, “All the good reviews we got came too late to have a positive effect.” Cats Don’t Dance did go on to win the Annie Award for best Animated Feature for 1997 beating out Disney’s Hercules and making it the first non-Disney film to win in that category.
The original idea for the film came from stories about a group of feral cats who had for decades roamed the back lot of Warner Bros. Studios. The cats lived behind the building facades where some memorable films were made and were fed by stagehands.
It later evolved into more of a musical that would have featured a live action Michael Jackson interacting with CGI versions of Looney Tunes characters. Jackson would have staged the musical numbers as well.
Kirschner told the press in 1993 that Jackson had “a great story sense. He is around all the time to go over the storyboards, the model designs and he comes up with ideas for characters. His heart and soul is in the project.”
When Jackson decided to abandon the project in 1994, it was revised again into a fully animated film that would be an homage to the great movie musicals produced by MGM Studios.
The film features Mammoth Pictures as a parody of MGM, complete with Louis B Mammoth being a tribute to MGM’s co-founder Louis B. Mayer and the Mammoth Pictures logo being based on the MGM logo but with an elephant rather than a lion in the logo. The logo sports the Latin motto “Optimum Est Maximum”, or “Bigger is Better”. MGM’s actual motto is “Ars Gratia Artis”, or “Art for Art’s Sake”.
Kirschner said, “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.
“We felt that the references to the Golden Era musicals would be appealing to everyone; I never get tired of seeing those wonderful moments in Singin’ in the Rain. That was the feeling we wanted to capture in animation.”
Dindal recalled, “It started with these stray cats that live among the sets and studio backlots and the film was originally a story about the lives of those cats. So the original story had actual cats on four legs that could speak; it was more along the lines of Lady and the Tramp.
“The person that was in charge of the Turner animation division changed several times. There may have been at least five different people over the course of the production, and with each person came a new take on how we should do the story right while we in the middle of production.
“There were some drastic suggestions, like changing it from the ’40s era to 1950s rock & roll, pretty much in the middle of the movie or have a completely different ending that doesn’t seem to fit the beginning you have.”
The animated film follows the adventures and ultimate triumph of Danny, a somewhat naïve “song-and-dance-cat” just off the bus from small town Kokomo and out to conquer 1939 Hollywood.
By the end of the film Danny thanks to the help of his friends has bested evil child star Darla Dimple, puts an end to the second class status endured by animal actors who are not allowed to dance on screen but just bark, meow and moo and wins the heart of the cynical cat Sawyer.
Mark Dindal stated, “We had a really outstanding group of talented people working on this movie, overseeing about 25 animators during a four-and-a-half-year period. All told, with support staff included, we had about 250 people working on the animation.
“I think that, due to what is now possible in digitally creating backdrops and using computer software for the ink-and-paint process, we could create images that could not have been done with twice this many people in pre-computer days.”
Paul Gertz (who with his partner, David Kirschner, produced the film) said, “We watched dozens of old movie musicals to get the tone of our story right — the rhythms of speech, body language and story conventions. And in the process of watching all these fabulous dance numbers, it occurred to us that we could at least ask Gene Kelly if he would give us some advice on the creation of our own dances. To our delight, he was so taken by what the story suggested that he committed immediately.”
“It was really amazing,” said Dindal. “We went to Gene Kelly’s house one day to talk about the film. He was, at this time, in frail health, but he was charming and very interested in our work. We showed him our storyboards and talked about what we were thinking.
“We talked about certain sequences in Gene’s own movies and how they had been choreographed, and he could remember every little detail — what was done, how it was decided, what was considered and rejected, how it had turned out. Some were forty years ago and he could remember specifics. He even talked about dancing with Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945).”
They saw Kelly about three or four times and Kelly didn’t demonstrate any dance steps but talked philosophy of dancing and how to film a dance.
The film was “Dedicated to Our Friend and Collaborator, Gene Kelly” who passed away in 1996. Kelly’s cement hand and footprints at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater forecourt are clearly seen in the opening musical number in Hollywood as a tribute when Danny the cat lands on them (even though Kelly didn’t place his there until 1969, over twenty-five years after the time frame of the movie) and a poster for Kelly’s famous musical Singin’ in the Rain is parodied at the end of the film.
Max the Butler was patterned after Erich Von Stroheim’s portrayal of Gloria Swanson’s butler in the movie Sunset Boulevard. Dindal said, “I recorded a temporary scratch track for Max which we intended to replace with a professional actor later on. When we ran out of money at the end of production, my voice wound up staying in the film.
“I like to think that we’ve kind of tipped our hats to the best of both worlds with Cats Don’t Dance — it’s an homage to the past, but created with the talents of the present and the technology of the future. And the message — giving everyone a chance to be his or her best by pursuing what they truly love — is timeless.”