Based on the acclaimed graphic novels by Joann Sfar, The Rabbi's Cat is an animated adventure into the culture and climate of 1930s Algeria, as seen through the eyes of a sarcastic talking cat. Although the inclination might be to compare the film to Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and the film version directed by Satrapi and Vincent Parronaud, The Rabbi's Cat has its own distinctly different yet equally dazzling style of animation that really evokes an older comic book come to life. Although the film's episodic nature and lack of focus prevent it from soaring, Sfar and co-director Antoine Delesvaux have crafted a number of memorable characters and made a visually stunning picture.
Among residents of the city, The Cat (FranÃ§ois Morel) is a familiar fixture on the shoulder of The Rabbi (Maurice BÃ©nichou). The Cat actually belongs to The Rabbi's daughter, Zlabya (Karina Testa), but he spends most of his time with the Rabbi on his many journeys. The Cat reveals it can speak, which impresses Zlabya, but The Rabbi quickly becomes suspicious that the cat is reading things to his daughter he doesn't approve of. The Cat then turns his attention to helping The Rabbi pass an important language test, but his voice disappears when The Rabbi refuses to cheat on the test. Later, The Cat discovers that he can understand and communicate with a young Russian painter (Sava Lolov), who shows up unexpectedly in a box full of books. The Rabbi, his cousin Mohammed Sfar (Fellag Sheik), and a rich drunk named Vastenov (Wojciech Pszoniak) set off to find the holy land of Jerusalem together, encountering all sorts of resistance along the way.
It may be obvious from the shambling summary above, but The Rabbi's Cat is less of a story than a series of scenes with the same characters. The Cat, The Rabbi, and Zlabya don't have much in the way of story arcs; this is a slice-of-life movie in the strictest sense. Still, we get plenty of their characters. When The Cat becomes obsessed with having a Bar Mitzvah and The Rabbi tries to teach him some Jewish history, The Cat counters all of The Rabbi's stories with science. Zlabya's freedom is infringed upon by religious beliefs and gender politics at the time, and there's a sense that she's beginning to push back. In one of the movie's warmer and more interesting threads, The Painter falls in love with an African bartender (Marguerite Abouet), and despite their entire courtship taking less than five minutes of the movie, their connection feels surprisingly real.
These characters are supported by the film's incredible visuals, which bring Algeria in the 1930s to vivid life. The directors spent several weeks with their cast in costume, watching them as they acted out the film in a rehearsal room with some select props. Later, details of the performances were used in the animation of the movie, creating a film with an incredible sense of reality in the small, quiet moments. Each new world is colorful and detailed, with an intoxicating hand-drawn look that feels refreshing in a world dominated by perfect computer animation. There are also at least one or two crackerjack sequences where the Style changes dramatically, including a hilarious and exciting sequence near the end of the movie involving The Cat, The Painter, and The Waitress. There's also a particularly cutting jab at another comic recently turned into a movie, in the form of another adventurer out in the desert.
Although the film is being released by a label called "GKids," the film is thick with discussion of the political and religious relationships between people of other cultures and faiths (which I have to admit, frequently went over my head), and there is some surprising violence in the film. Yet even when the graphic novel structure of the original material and other shortcomings threaten to derail the picture, the engaging and funny characterizations and dazzling visuals were more than enough to bring me back. The Rabbi's Cat might've been better suited to life as a series of shorts, even a miniseries, but as a movie, it's an entertaining journey that embodies its protagonist by slinking around its deficiencies with a wry charm.
The Rabbi's Cat gets an elegant-looking Blu-Ray package from GKids. A slipcover with a nice application of foil to highlight the film's title slides over a standard Blu-Ray case with the same artwork, depicting The Cat and his "mistress" together. Inside the Vortex case, there's the Blu-Ray, the DVD copy, and a booklet with a short excerpt of Sfar's original book (although I don't know how faithful the movie is to the graphic novels, this excerpt is one that appears in the film almost verbatim).
The Video and Audio
Although the packaging only has a Dolby Digital 5.1 logo on it, the Blu-Ray disc is armed with a fine French DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track. The main benefit of HD sound here is the wonderful reproduction of the music, which has a lively, invigorating vibrance. The sound mixing is nicely balanced between the dialogue and the sound effects, and it's got a very natural feel that helps make the cartoon world feel more believable. Despite some fantasy sequences, the track doesn't have any real showcase sequences, but it's a high-caliber representation of the intent all the way through. English subtitles are, of course, provided.
The Rabbi's Cat receives an exemplary 1.85:1 1080p AVC transfer from GKids. Presented in a beautiful hand-drawn style with light and unobtrusively accentuated with some 21st century computer enhancement, this is an absolutely flawless picture that captures every detail. No artifacting, banding, haloes, or aliasing was visible that I could spot. The CG tweaks, shadow detail, and overall clarity of the transfer practically make the movie three dimensional -- unsurprisingly, it turns out the film was released theatrically in 3D in some countries.
A making-of featurette (24:49, SD) is a fascinating fly-on-the-wall look at the unique rehearsals for the film, in which the voice actors got into costumes and performed scenes from the movie for use as reference during the animation. Co-directors Sfar and Delesvaux can be seen tweaking the performances, and some footage of the actors officially recording their lines later is also cut in. Later sections of the featurette also expand to the recording of the movie's lively score, and storyboards of some of the more stylized animated sequences. Unique and very interesting.
The other main extra is a lengthy documentary short titled Joann Sfar Draws From Memory (45:56, SD), in which the artist his two art styles: "what's in front of me every day," or "the past -- a world I've built subconsciously, within my imagination." This discussion of Sfar's creative process is a little on the slow side, but it's a meaty addition to the disc and a fun look at Sfar and his many facets (including a whole room full of guitars and mandolins). It's also a great look at Sfar's style, which the viewer can then compare to the look of the feature.
An original theatrical trailer for The Rabbi's Cat is also included.
Although the transition from graphic novel series to film is far from a smooth road, this disjointed animated feature has more than enough positives to earn a recommendation, especially with such a well-rounded Blu-Ray package.
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