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For, Friday, Jan. 6, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: Warner Archive has reissued this animated feature from the 1990s, a delightful riff on racism in Old Hollywood through the metaphor of anthropomorphic animals finding that some are more equal than others. Here’s my March 26, 1997, Deseret News review. And note that I lead with less-than-favorable comments about non-Disney animated features. Today, with feature cartoons dominating the marketplace and several studios churning out hits, it may seem strange to recall that just 20 years ago they were rarities.

When animated features come along from studios other than Disney, the general public tends to dismiss them a bit too quickly.

"The Swan Princess," for example, certainly deserved a wider audience than it received. So did "Balto."

But, in truth, for every quality non-Disney cartoon we see, there are several more that just don't measure up: "All Dogs Go to Heaven 2," "The Pebble and the Penguin," "We're Back: A Dinosaur's Story" . . . need I go on?

So moviegoers really can't be blamed if they find it hard to put their faith (and hard-earned entertainment dollars) in non-Disney animated fare. They've simply been burned too often.


    Danny tries to win over Sawyer in 'Cats Don't Dance.'

But those rare goodies deserve a shot, and such is the case with "Cats Don't Dance," the first effort from Turner Feature Animation. It's not by Disney but it sure is a lot of fun.

The story is light and breezy — straight out of "Singin' in the Rain," crossed with the irreverent sensibilities of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." But it also has a serious subtext, using animals as a metaphor for the way minority actors were treated during Hollywood's Golden Era.

The setting is 1939 (or so it appears, with billboards and marquees touting "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz"). The protagonist is a young song-and-dance cat named Danny (voiced by Scott Bakula), who leaves his home of Kokomo, Indiana, and heads for Hollywood, where he hopes to break into movies.

But when he gets there, he finds that the doors are closed to animals, except for demeaning roles. Danny eventually comes up with a plan to break down the "species barrier," but he is manipulated by the studio's biggest star, a Shirley Temple-type tyke named Darla Dimple (Ashley Peldon). Off-screen, she's a real tyrant (a la Baby Herman in the "Roger Rabbit" film and shorts) and she also has a scary bodyguard (a cross between Erich von Stroheim in "Sunset Blvd." and Arnold Schwarzenegger).


       Danny mimics Mae West in 'Cats Don't Dance.'

What makes the film work so well is a combination of snappy songs by Randy Newman ("Toy Story," "James and the Giant Peach") and clever, quick-paced comedy from the supporting characters — a hippo (Kathy Najimy), a turtle (Don Knotts), a fish, an old goat (Hal Holbrook), a young penguin (Matthew Harried) and Woolie, the veteran studio elephant (John Rhys-Davies). There's even a romantic subplot between Danny and a jaded secretary named Sawyer (Jasmine Guy for the dialogue, Natalie Cole for the songs — although, since Guy is also a singer, one wonders how that happened).

The dialogue exchanges are peppered with witty one-liners and bad puns, the sight gags are fast and furious, the choreography copies Gene Kelly's moves (the film is dedicated to him), and Danny and Sawyer are obviously patterned after Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in "Singin' in the Rain."

And there are loads of gags for movie buffs and anyone familiar with the ’30s, most of them quite specific to the old MGM studio, with caricatures of Laurel & Hardy, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, etc.

Don't miss this one — and don't just send the kids. There's enough fun here for kids, their older teenage siblings and parents.

Rated G, and the show includes a new cartoon short, “Pullet Surprise,” starring Foghorn Leghorn (with voices by Frank Gorshin and Stan Freberg).