A Funny Thing Happened When A Parent Took His Three-Year-Old Son To See Top Cat: The Movie
It isn’t like I hadn’t been warned. Few films this year have scored such universal loathing as Top Cat: The Movie, with 1* reviews across the board and esteemed critics like the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw reduced to rewriting the lyrics of the classic theme tune in lieu of actually having to explain the damn thing. Normally, I wouldn’t touch such a poorly received movie with a bargepole.
But, sometimes, reality intervenes. On holiday, in the rain, with a restless three-year-old son, and having exhausted all possible activities that didn’t involve standing around getting drenched, I found myself taking the family to the local cinema – and lo and behold, in a half-term week, the only film available was Top Cat: The Movie. The UK distribution system is clearly at fault here in providing no wriggle room, with Snow White And The Huntsman and Men In Black 3 both being too scary for younger tastes. Yes, it was Jubilee week, and logically there shouldn’t be any need to risk poor box office by saturating a market expected to be slim pickings. Then again, this is Britain, and it was bound to rain.
Anyway, without any viable options, here we were. And then something weird happened. By any objective standards, Top Cat: The Movie is a disaster – but try watching it under the psychological cocktail of vacational bliss and parental stress. It’s amazing how a bad movie takes on new forms even while you’re watching it.
First, though, the bad news. This bears so little relation to the classic Hanna-Barbera show, about a Bilko-like spiv running rings around Officer Dibble in the pursuit of a quick buck, that TC more likely translates as Tropical Cyclone (as in: “a storm’s coming, get the hell out!”). The original Top Cat was very much a traditional, post-war, radio-influenced character sitcom, so a feature film is the last place you’d want to see its modest ambitions exposed. So it proves, with TC’s lifestyle interrupted by a ridiculous plot about a grotesque shyster who takes over the police force with robots and CCT. There’s a time and a place for a satire on civil liberties (especially with the Olympics on our doorstep) but Top Cat isn’t it.
Even bearing in mind that Hanna-Barbera were pioneers of cheap, mass-produced cel animation, the visual style of the film is crass and ugly, with flatly rendered characters dumped onto dimly lit, immovable backdrops. [I've since heard a rumour that the film was made using Flash animation, which would explain a lot.] Sure, it’d be even less appropriate for Top Cat to suddenly develop the subtlety and sophistication of Pixar-quality animation, but this feels like a homage undone by ham-fisted application: retro gone wrong. The best bits, chiefly the character design of TC and his crew, are Xeroxed from the 1960s originals, and they jar horribly with the new elements.
Tragically, though, the fact that there are at least a few traces of the Hanna-Barbera house style means that the visuals trump the terrible soundtrack. The English dub asks one actor – Jason Harris – to bring TC and most of his crew to life, and he’s not up to the task of replicating original star Arnold Stang. Another of the cats is given a Keanu-esque surf dude voice simply to differentiate him from the others, which inadvertently gives the impression that this project has been stuck in development hell since the early 1990s when that kind of stereotype was last in fashion. Who knows? Maybe it was.
And yet, about halfway through, I noticed how often I was bamboozled by the film’s surreal, unpredictable narrative. This film might been written with scant regard to the original but there does seem to be a strange kind of authorship to proceedings – a free-for-all, non-sequitur surrealism in which horses can be summoned as a taxi service by ringing a bell, or Top Cat can be sent to ‘Dog Jail.’ Jokes fall flat more often than not; a gag about Windows Vista makes such little sense it functions as a self-reflexive Brechtian study of the flaws in trying to make topical cultural references in a kids’ film. Yet, when an anticipated dissolve is subverted into 30 seconds of black screen as the action is interrupted by a hitherto-unannounced solar eclipse, there’s clearly some kind of comic intelligence, however wayward, controlling this.
The sheer randomness of the WTF-ery allows you to pretend that the film is some dodgy, drugged-up lovechild of Luis Bunuel and Monty Python. This won’t wash with the critics, but you get a radically different perspective when you’re a stressed-out parent at the end of a long week, just praying that his son can be kept entertained for an hour and a half. Fortunately, he was. He liked the film enough to draw this picture of Top Cat and Benny.
One thing, though. Shouldn’t the UK release be called Boss Cat: The Movie?