December 27, 2022 posted by Jim Korkis

Dancing Around “Cats Don’t Dance” (1997)

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.

Gene Kelly and the crew of “Cat’s Don’t 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.”


  • 1. Basic dream I have: Cats Don’t Dance on Bluray.
    2. Advanced dream of mine: Cats Don’t Dance on Bluray with a finnish dub. If you need convincing, search Tell Me Lies in Finnish on YT.
    3. The impossible(?) dream to end all dreams: Iron Giant style re-release of Cats Don’t Dance with newly animated extra scenes. It is no secret that the makers wanted the story to be longer (at least a tiny bit longer). An extended director’s cut of Cats Don’t Dance on Bluray. Please gods, let this happen.

  • i just revisited it on Christmas Day. I found, of course, about a dozen new laffs i had missed the first few times!!! A true masterpiece!!

  • Danny’s tribulations in “Cats Don’t Dance” parallel those of Gene Kelly during the same time period. MGM wouldn’t allow Kelly to choreograph a musical, and when he kept demanding that he be given the opportunity, they loaned him out to Columbia as punishment. There he choreographed “Cover Girl”, one of the biggest hit musicals of the decade, which made stars out of both Kelly and co-star Rita Hayworth. Thereafter MGM allowed him greater creative control.

    Gene Kelly played characters named Danny McGuire in both “Cover Girl” and “Xanadu”, his final acting role in a film, 36 years apart.

    “Optimum est maximum”? That’s the superlative form; it means “Best is biggest.” “Res maxima est optima” (the biggest thing is best) has more of a Ciceronian elegance to it, as does “Quod major melius est (what’s bigger is better). But since the Latin adjectives optimum and maximum are both familiar nouns in English, the motto as it stands in the movie is bound to be most apprehensible to modern audiences, though you better believe my dad would have taken a red pencil to it.

  • That was such a great little film, it’s a shame the studio didn’t give it more love.

  • OK – but with those “hands”, how does that elephant play the piano?

  • Can’t WB find it in their flinty hearts to do a restoration? I know they had a WB Archive burn-on-demand version but like an idiot I was holding out for a Scope BD. My dream is a 4K restoration but WB is being parted out like a junk car on it’s 100th anniversary. Would Criterion put out a backstage musical with funny animals as a 4K? They did Wall-E.

  • Dang! I really like this movie. A friend and I went to the cinema to see it when it came out. I have a copy of it on DVD (one of those deals where they have a bunch of ‘lesser animated features’ included with it. Hopefully it will come out on blu-ray someday.

  • This was an okay film. I think it probably should have received more recognition but I would never say Cats Don’t Dance is underrated.

  • It’s a charming movie, but, like “Gay Purr-ee” 35 years before, it was too campy for children and too cute for their parents. I’m glad it has its followers. As you probably know, its working title was “Big and Loud.”

  • Dave Karger has been given a weekly spotlight on a musical,Saturdays at noon on TCM. Hmm-originally a Turner original showing up on Turner Classic Movies. Kid friendly animation but clearly aimed at those who love movie musicals of decades past and maybe guest from the production-it ain’t that old.

  • Finally watched it on YouTube for free tonight! I remember how much of a childhood favorite it was for me when I was a three or four-year old kid. Other than that, I’ve seen Stevan Wahl’s animation test of Flanigan showing off his Little Ark Angel film to L.B. on Stevan’s website. Starts from 4:54 to 5:13.

  • I recently revisited this film. It may not be the best animated feature of the 90s, but just as fun as I remember it. I especially like how the animators went all in on the character expressions.

  • This is my favorite sound good movie. The animation is amazing and I realize somehow it influenced me a lot because I have a room at the sense of optimism that I think I get from Dannny. I also have an immense love for musicals and animals. Thank you to all of you that created this and have them reach my life. I will be passing it onto my children.

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