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Our first song is On Our Way, one of eight songs written for the movie by Randy Newman and I’ve gotta say I was pleasantly surprised by his work here. I mean, they’re not seminal classics but they all hum along nicely and more importantly they all sound distinct from each other, something that I’ve always thought Newman struggles with.
Now Scott Bakula, from what my hard working team of search engines have been able to uncover, had never done a musical before and hasn’t done one since which should probably raise alarm bells. But as it turns out? Not bad. Not bad at all. In fact, I might even go so far as to say “Quite Good”. I might, but I won’t, because I still can’t forgive Scott Bakula.
Danny’s one of those musical characters whose optimism is around as contagious as bubonic plague (“Why anyone can make it in this town!” “Even me?” “Sure, kid!” “Golly gee!”) and he ends up infecting a little penguin kid called Pudge who pretty much becomes Danny’s sidekick on the spot. Danny heads over to Farley Wink’s talent agency, singing all the while about how in Hollywood the streets are paved with gold.
Danny meets a bunch of other animal actors in the reception of the talent agency. There’s Tilly the Hippo (Kathy Najimy), Cranston the Goat (Hal Halbrook), T.W. Turtle (Don Knotts), Frances the Fish (voiced by former Disney voice artist Betty Lou Gerson in her final film role).
They’re a jaded, bitter bunch of actors (he said as if there’s another kind) but Tilly tells Danny that Mammoth Pictures is casting a Noah’s Ark movie which means that there’s plenty of work for animals (and presumably for rock monsters) and she sends him in to meet with Farley Wink, a human being voiced by Frank Welker who, in his spare time, uses his abilities to impersonate animals to fight crime on the streets of Los Angeles. As it happens, Wink is looking for two cats and signs up Danny on the spot which is totally how it works in Hollywood. You just walk into a talent agent and he gets you a part. That is how it works. But Farley still needs a female cat for the Noah’s Ark picture, which stars Darla Dimple (America’s sweetheart, lover of children and animals). So he turns to his secretary, a cat named Sawyer who’s voiced by Jasmine Guy and is, quite frankly, pure unadulterated furry bait.
Sawyer reluctantly agrees to do it and all the animals head over to Mammoth Studios for filming. Okay guys, I need your help on something. There’s a scene where they’re entering the studio gates and they see a bull storming out muttering “This is so humiliating, I’m out of this picture business!” and I would bet my tail that he’s voiced by Patrick Warburton but I can’t find anything on IMDb and googling “Cat’s Don’t Dance” and “Patrick Warburton” just gets you pages about Emperor’s New Groove and really, really weird slashfic about the tender love between a great voice actor and a well-received but financially unsuccessful animated film. I need to know if he voiced this bull. I can’t have uncredited Patrick Warburton performances out there, they’re a precious resource.
Anyway, at the ark set Danny meets Pudge who’s also been cast and they get into costume (nice sight gag: One rabbit goes into the costume room and a dozen come out). Then Danny gets his script:
Okay, so if you haven’t picked up on it yet, Cat’s Don’t Dance is an allegory for the plight of black entertainers in Hollywood in the late thirties (Gone with the Wind has just come out so that dates it as 1939). The animals all have oodles of talent and want to perform but are stymied by the human studio system that only allows them to play tiny, stereotyped roles. “In this town” as Sawyer says “Cats say “meow”.” See, in Hollywood in the thirties it was almost impossible for non-white actors to get good parts. Not like today. It’s certainly a story worth telling, and gives the movie more of a thematic heft than a lot of other animated films as long as you can overlook the unfortunate implication that humans=white people.
Well anyway, Danny decides to go off script. As a viewer I’m rooting for him. However, as a writer I think he should read the fucking line that was fucking written in the fucking script by the guy who’s fucking job it is to write the fucking line. His job is to read the fucking line. So maybe he should read the fucking line? Just a thought.
Anyway, the director calls places and all the animals get ready. The director is voiced by Rene Auberjonois. He doesn’t really do all that much in the movie, but I love him. Because he’s voiced by Rene Auberjonois.
This takes us into the next song Little Boat on the Sea, which is sung by the star of the movie, Little Darla Dimple. Okay, so this movie has a total of 11 credited writers and it’s probably impossible to know which of them, when pressed to devise a villain for the movie came up with “Evil Shirley Temple” but I sincerely hope that he or she got a raise and a big wet kiss because that is just GOLD. As a concept, that’s fantastic. Evil Shirley Temple. I’d pay to see that movie, wouldn’t you?
“Hey, what’s this movie about?”
“Okay, so there’s this Evil Shirley Temple…”
“…and there’s this cat…”
“I. Said. Sold.”
However, it’s not just the concept that’s brilliant, the execution is really strong too. Darla’s speaking voice (Ashely Peldon) and her singing voice (Lindsay Ridgeway) are phenomenally good despite both being only 14 at the time the movie was made. And the character design is wonderful too, capable of switching easily between saccharine sweet and utterly demented. In short, a win. As Darla sings Little Boat on the Sea (which is an excellent pastiche of the kind of musical diabetes the real Temple had to sing) Danny starts free-styling and ends up stealing the spotlight from Darla. Darla goes ballistic and calls…Max.
Danny is upset because he doesn’t understand what he did wrong, asking Sawyer if there was something wrong with his performance and she tells him it doesn’t matter if his performance was good or not and that he should stop making a fool of himself. This leads to a really nice little exchange:
“All I want to do is the thing I love, doesn’t everybody?”
“It’s not that simple.”
“It is in Kokomo.”
“Well, maybe that’s where you should have stayed.”
Sawyer leaves Danny to mope but Pudge comes over to try and cheer him up. Pudge tells Danny that he thought his dancing was totally boss (as they used to say in the thirties) and Danny shows him a few dance moves.They stop when they hear piano music and go to look for the source. They find Woolie the Elephant (John Rhys Davies), the mascot of Mammoth Studios, playing piano in his trailer.
Woolie invites them for a cup of tea. Turns out he’s a phenomenally talented musician, but all he ever gets to do is blow his trunk at the start of every movie. This, of course, is a nod to the real-life MGM lion and his tragic story.
A furious Mammoth blames the animals for the disaster and has them thrown of the lot as Darla shows up to gloat. Sawyer and the others can’t believe that Danny was stupid enough to actually trust her. Woolie tells Danny that “The spotlight will never be on fellows like you and me. Go home.” Danny has a moment of clarity and decides to leave Los Angeles (that’s how you know it’s a moment of clarity). Sawyer sings Tell me Lies, a really nice bluesy lament only slightly hampered by the fact that her singing voice (Natalie Cole) sounds absolutely nothing like Jasmine Guy. Regardless, it’s a great performance and another genuinely good song from Mr. Newman.
Danny gets on the bus to Kokomo but looking out the window he sees a long line of unemployed animals and decides that he can’t abandon them. He orders the bus driver to stop and the bus driver sputters “Why you wanna stop for? We just got started!” and Danny answers “Exactly. See you in the movies.”
With the help of Pudge, Danny breaks into Mammoth Studios and issues invitations to the premiere of Darla’s movie to all his animal friends. Danny’s plan is to wait until all the greatest stars and moguls in Hollywood are gathered in the cinema for the premiere, then lock the door, set the cinema on fire and in the confusion Ulmer and the Bear Jew can storm the box and machine gun Darla and Max…wait. Wrong movie.
Danny plan is actually to have the animals perform onstage after the movie and he and Pudge get the stage ready. But they’re overheard by Max who chases Danny out onto the roof and onto a massive inflated Darla Dimple balloon. Max corners Danny and makes a face like one of the goddamn Reapers from Blade 2.
But Danny manages to burst the balloon and send Max blasting off into the stratosphere. The movie now over, Danny takes the stage and the animals put on Nothing Going to Stop Us Now (the movie’s big showstopper) despite Darla’s last desperate attempts to sabotage them. One thing I really like about CCD is that unlike a of the Disney movies I’ve reviewed on this blog (even some of the really good ones) it doesn’t forget that it’s a musical halfway through and ends on a rousing song and dance number like a good musical should. Darla is revealed as the crazy little tyke she is and the animals are suddenly the hottest thing in Hollywood and are offered contracts by Mammoth on the spot. And the movie ends with a montage of movie posters reimagined with our heroes in the starring roles.
Turner Animation never made another film after this and on the strength of Cat’s Don’t Dance, that’s a damn shame. This movie is not exactly all-time classic material but it’s certainly good enough to hint at a studio that could have been a real contender if they’d just been a little luckier. Smarter than you’d expect, often very funny and just a really solid musical to boot. Check it out.