Here we go again. Every so often I’ll have a moment where I’ll go “Have I really been blogging about animation for X number of years without covering Y?” and this one’s a doozy.
Have I really been blogging about animation for nine years without covering Felix the Cat? Because Felix the Cat is a pretty damn big deal in the history of animation.
Not the first cartoon character, but the first cartoon star, the first cartoon character able to draw a crowd on name recognition alone. The character was created in 1919 by Australian animator Pat Sullivan.
Or, as is now accepted by a majority of animation historians, by one of Sullivan’s animators Otto Messmer.
Honestly, researching this post taught me that Pat Sullivan was what people think Walt Disney was; a talentless credit-stealer and a nasty racist to boot. Anyway. Sullivan’s studio produced a rake of silent Felix shorts in the late teens and throughout the twenties and Felix was, for a time, a full on pop culture phenomenon. And you know what? With good cause. While simple, these shorts have a real charm and wit and I honestly think they hold up a lot better than a lot of later cartoons by Disney and Warner Bros from the early talkie era.
These shorts were also hugely influential on the field of animation in general, with the basic precepts of Felix’s design going on to influence American and Japanese animation right up to the present day, setting the template for characters as diverse as Mickey Mouse and Sonic the Hedgehog. And some people didn’t even bother with being “influenced” and just straight up fucking stole it.
But, by the end of the twenties a sinister new threat had emerged to challenge Felix’s place as the world’s preminent cartoon character: SYNCHRONISED SOUND.
Sullivan resisted the switch to sound for as long as he could, but eventually caved and started producing sound Felix cartoons. Unfortunately, these cartoons did not use synchronised sound and instead were pre-animated with music, dialogue and sound effects being added in post-production, which results in what animation aficionados call “really crap cartoons”. The new series of sound Felix cartoons were cancelled, the studio shuttered and Pat Sullivan spiralled into an alcoholic depression brought on by the death of his wife and died in his forties Jesus Christ that got so bad so fast.
A brief, utterly Disnified run of cartoons by Van Beuren studios in the thirties notwithstanding, Felix was seemingly a defunct property. Having failed to transition to the sound era, Felix disappeared from public view, presumably to a rambling mansion on Sunset Boulevard where he could brood and slip into obsession and madness.
Fast forward to the 1950s and Joe Oriolo, an animator and artist who’d worked with Otto Messmer on the Felix the Cat comic strip, created the Felix the Cat TV Show. This show was arguably the most influential and famous iteration of the character, introducing a host of concepts and characters that are now inextricably linked to Felix like the magic bag, the Professor and Poindexter. And if you love this cartoon…you do you. Personally I can’t stand it but then I’m pretty non-plussed by mid-century American TV animation as a general rule. But yeah, this series gave Felix his second bite of the super-stardom pie and also launched him to Spinal Tap levels of popularity in Japan.
So why did it take so long for Felix to make the leap to feature length animation? Well Pat Sullivan’s death had left Felix in legal limbo but Joe Oriolo was finally able to get full ownership of the character in 1970, probably because Joe Oriolo was an absolute snack.
Oriolo pére passed away in 1985 but his son Don carried on the Felix legacy, finally bringing a full length Felix the Cat animated feature to movie screen in 1988.
Sorry, sorry, my mistake. The movie was completed in 1988 (using Hungarian animation) but only released in the United States in 1991. Very briefly. Before going straight to video.
Oh, and, fun bit of trivia. Researching for this post I first came across the phrase “abandoned movie”. Felix the Cat has been “abandoned” in the United States. What this means is that Felix the Cat DVDs are no longer sold in America. If you’re in America and you want a DVD of this movie you either have to buy it from overseas or get one of the original run of discs from the nineties which will cost you an arm and a leg.
And I know what you’re thinking!: “Mouse, this film that was animated in a second world totalitarian Communist state whose release was delayed by two years before getting a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical run and then being consigned to home video hell before being full on abandoned at the side of the road in the new millenium sounds like a really good movie!”
Which is what I love about you, reader. Your unflagging optimism. But I’m afraid I have to crush your hopes with the greatest violence possible. How bad is this movie?
Look, like a lot of you I think, I am very, very much over the Nostalgia Critic for a whole host of reasons. But, in all honesty, his review of this movie holds up better than almost anything he ever did for the simple reason that his usual schtick of spittle-flecked profanity laden ranting really is the only appropriate response to this film. When he’s there screaming “IF A PIECE OF SHIT TOOK A PIECE OF SHIT AND THAT PIECE OF SHIT TOOK A PIECE OF SHIT AND THAT PIECE OF SHIT TOOK A PIECE OF SHIT AND THAT PIECE OF SHIT TOOK A PIECE OF SHIT AND THAT PIECE OF SHIT MADE A MOVIE?! AND THAT MOVIE TOOK A PIECE OF SHIT THIS IS THE SHIT THAT MOVIE WOULD TAKE*!”…
For just about any other movie, that would just be the obnoxious braying of a degraded mind. For Felix the Cat, however, it’s insightful critical analysis. My GOD this is a special hell. This is the kind of movie that makes me want to apologise to other, genuinely talented animators whose movies I’ve previously trashed. Mea culpa, Ralph Bakshi. Pardone me, Goro Miyazaki. Didn’t mean to do you like that, Robert Zemeckis.
Is there anything good I can say about it? Hmmm. Yes, two things:
- The basic premise of sending a funny animal cartoon on an epic adventure in the far off fantasy world is not a bad one. Worked for Bone, could have worked here.
- Some (some!) of the creature designs are kinda inventive, I guess?
Aaaand, that’s it. Everything else is bad. No, no. You’ve seen bad movies. This is…unfathomably awful. On every conceivable level. You are staggered by the crapitude of the animation, until you experience the atrocious voice acting. You goggle and gape at the dialogue, until you consider the story structure. You gibber like a loon at the attempts at comedy, until you hear the songs (oh yes, oh yes, it has songs, of course it does, precious). Watching this movie I experienced something truly unprecendented: this movie made me hate animation itself.
I honesty felt, watching this movie, that there was something fundamentally wrong and unnatural about the entire artform. Using rapidly changing still images to deceive and trick the very eyes that God gave me into seeing a sick parody of motion? Despicable witchcraft!
How bad is it? Okay. This is the absolute truth. Around the halfway mark I turned to Spouse of Mouse and spoke eight words that I never thought would ever cross my lips: “Oh my God. Is this worse than Foodfight!?”
Yup. That’s what we’re up against people. The bottom slot is very, very much in play.
Oh by the by, do you want to see the most staggeringly dishonest advertisement in the history of marketing?
It’s just…by the time it gets to “A Landmark in Cinema Enchantment” I can’t even be mad any more. I mean, if you’re going to lie to my face at least be audacious, you know?
Now, you might have looked at that and thought “wow, that animation looks like dogshit” but I’ve got some bad news for you: I’m pretty damn sure they finessed the animation for the trailer. Or, they just cherrypicked the very best sequences. Because trust me; that trailer looks a million times better than the actual movie. In fact, I’m positive at least some of it is original animation. Know how I know? This is the Duke of Zil in the trailer:
And THIS is the Duke of Zil in the actual movie:
Shenanigans, my friends. Shenanigans and monkeyshines!
Anyway, the movie begins with a frankly terrifying CGI Felix the Cat head addressing us, the audience, as if to punish us for our sins. Felix tells us that he’s just got back from the kingdom of Oriana and says that he’s not surprised if we’ve never been because it has no airport. He then gives the kind of demonic, cackling laugh that I would expect to be followed by the words “Oh Bats, don’t you see this was all part of my plan!?”
Some bad movies like to toy with you, string you along, make you think that maybe they’ll be okay for the first twenty minutes or so. Not Felix. From its opening seconds it tells you: “Alright bitch. The animation is going to suck. The vocal performances? They’re going to be like a cheese grater on your ears. The dialogue? Barely comprehensible gibberish. I am Felix the Cat. Welcome to Hell.”
I also find it grimly hilarious that the movie is so inexpertly animated that it can’t even master basic lip-synching. It’s one thing for Pat Sullivan not to be able to crack synchronised sound in 1930. This thing was made in 1988.
Anyway, that unpleasantness dispersed with we transition to the Kingdom of Oriana where Princess Oriana is dealing with her Grand Vizier, Grumper, who is complaining that the Princess has raised the minimum wage for the whole country and my, my, my you can tell this thing was animated by COMMUNISTS, can’t you? Actually, I’m not entirely sure that we’re supposed to look on Oriana as this wise, benevolent ruler. See, we learn she moth-balled the kingdom’s entire army because obviously war is just icky boy stuff but then her fortune teller, Pearl, bursts in to tell her that her evil uncle, the Duke of Zil, is marching on the kingdom with an army of robot cylinders. Oriana is pretty chill about this, saying that the people will obviously rise up and throw themselves against this encroaching horde to defend her right to rule over them like an incompetent jackass but Pearl tells her that the people have already surrendered.
Grumper tells Oriana and Pearl to make a run for the “Dimensionsporter”, an ancient device buried in the bowels of the castle that can travel across dimensions while he stays behind and starts printing off his CV. Oriana and Pearl are able to activate the Dimensionsporter but are captured by the Duke’s forces before they can go through. Oh, by the way, remember how the Duke of Zil looks like this?
If, like me, you possess a mature and sober intellect you probably looked at that line in the centre of his helmet and thought “Ha! That looks like an ass!”
The effect is not helped by the fact that whenever Zil speaks, noxious green vapors vent from under his helmet. Anyway, Oriana and Pearl are carted off but Oriana sheds a single tear which starts glowing bright golden and flies around, activating the Dimensionsporter. This carries the tear to the world of Felix the Cat and before you can say “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi” he’s followed the tear back through the Dimensionsporter and been taken to Oriana.
Felix is followed by his usual arch-nemesis, the Professor, a character that TV Tropes helpfully describes as “one of the most pathetic villains in Western animation” and Poindexter, his nephew. Their rationale for following Felix is that, whatever the cat’s up to, it must be important because he’s got his magic bag with him. You know. The magic bag that he is literally never without?
We now get an absolutely baffling sequence where Felix encounters a family of foxes and hides from them in his magic bag. The foxes explore the bag, the youngest one tries to piss on it but apparently can’t and then they wander off. Never appear again, never referenced, has no bearing on the plot. But that’s not the weirdest part. This whole sequence actually gets it’s own song called “Sly as a Fox”:
Felix the Cat demonstrates the gulf between a merely bad film and a bafflingly incompetent one. The Thief and the Cobbler might include a stinker of a song like Am I Feeling Love but at least the basic concept makes sense. There’s a Cobbler. He’s in love with a Princess. She loves him. They sing about it. But Felix the Cat seems to have been put together by someone who understands that kids’ animated films have songs, but hasn’t twigged that the songs need to have something to do with the movie they’re in.
In fact, there’s something just…off…about this movie in general. The script tries to make Felix into a motor-mouthed joke machine but…
Okay, have you ever had a small child try to tell you a joke? Where they understand the basic structure and cadence but they don’t quite get how the parts are actually supposed to interact? Classic example:
And look, she got a laugh out of me because she was four and she sold the hell out of the delivery. This movie has neither of those things going for it but the jokes really are operating on that level. The whole script is one long iteration of the bird needing soup.
Also, when making a movie about a funny talking cartoon cat, maybe make it so that your main character doesn’t exhibit the classic traits of a serial killer?
It is a creepy ass little film, I tell you what.
Anyway after Felix arrives in Oriana he meets up with Pim, who looks like he escaped from an off-brand cereal box.
Pim betrays Felix and delivers him and his magic bag to (sigh) Wack Lizardi, a grotesque lizard looking thing who runs a kind of circus/variety show/gladitorial arena for the Duke of Zil’s subjects.
I hope that screenshot gives you a sense of the queasy, nausea inducing quality of the animation. It is so garish and so ugly and so weird but in a cheap, half-assed kind of way. It feels like watching the dream you’d have after spending all day eating nothing but candy-floss at the world’s shittiest carnival.
Despite being a mere hour and seventeen minutes long, this film drags like a pantomime dame because it’s so appallingly paced. Felix arrives at the carnival around 25 minutes into the movie and doesn’t leave until the hour mark. That’s 35 minutes where the plot doesn’t advance at all. I wanted very much to die.
Anyway, Princess Oriana is also being kept prisoner in the carnival so she and Felix are able to escape with Pim, who’s good now, apparently. They make their way towards the castle and Felix realises that he left his magic bag behind.
If you’re unfamiliar with the cartoon, not losing his magic bag is pretty much Felix’s whole deal. This is like Road Runner forgetting how to run or Bugs Bunny forgetting how to give you multiple orgasms.
Oriana says that it’s too dangerous to go back even though they’re not actually being chased by anyone and they’re heading straight into enemy territory and the bag makes Felix essentially an unstoppable god. Oh, but then they run into the Professor and Poindexter who have the bag and give it back to Felix.
So…Felix losing and re-gaining his most treasured and vital asset is raised and resolved in less than a minute.
But we needed 35 fucking minutes in the carnival? Okay, whatever, let’s just get this over and not get distracted.
They escape a dinosaur that chases after them saying “Stella! I could been a contender!” and oh my, I’ve just been distracted.
Oh shit the movie has discovered pop culture references, all is lost!
They arrive at the castle and see that Grumper has betrayed them because he’s a Grand Vizier and there are rules, dammit. I actually love how they discover this: Grumper is watching the cylinders dancing to celebrate their victory. Isn’t that adorable? They celebrate by dancing the noble waltz, don’t tell me these are the bad guys, don’t tell me that shit.
Oriana starts bleating that she can’t believe Grumper would betray her and asks “how could he do this to me?!”. And I’ll field that one. How could he betray the ruler who left her own country defenceless and then expected the citizenry to throw their defenceless bodies at an invading army to defend her? Because, Madam, he is a PATRIOT.
The Duke of Zil arrives in an ice-cream cart…
I don’t know why, okay?! I don’t know why! I don’t know why anything, I’m trying to describe a fever dream and you’re asking me for logical cause and effect?! Just leave me alone!
Okay, so our heroes attack the Duke and get instantly captured and the Duke tells the Princess that he will spare her if she gives him the Book of Oriana which holds the secrets to ultimate power. And do you smell that? That is the desperate flop sweat of a writer trying to ass pull their way to a resolution. This is the first we’ve ever heard of this book, and if Zil needed it this badly why didn’t he get it from Oriana during the three million years or so she was his prisoner in that fucking carnival? And, and what am I doing? I’m trying to make sense of this thing. This is like spell-checking a bowl of alphabetti spaghetti.
Okay, so after Zil threatens Felix and the rest of ’em, Oriana folds like a cheap deckchair and agrees to give the book to Zil. And he opens it and reads that the secret to ultimate power is “Truth, Love and Wisdom” which are of course all themes that this movie has been building itself around. Furious, Zil resolves to show them the actual secret of ultimate power is giant killer robots and reveals Master Cylinder, which is a super deep cut reference to one of Felix’s enemies from the TV show and…nobody cares. No one.
Anyway, Felix throws the book at the Master Cylinder, which causes it to explode and then all the other cylinders explode and then the Duke of Zil melts away and I swear to God it really is as perfunctory as I’m making it sound. Oh, and just before he goes, the Duke mutters the obligatory eighties sequel hook line: “I’ll be back!”
Man. It’s one thing to promise a sequel that never happened. It’s another to promise one to a movie that all of North America literally decided to pretend never existed. That is some rich, creamy tragedy right there.
Anyway, the kingdom of Oriana celebrates their liberation (allegedly, we never actually see anyone) and Oriana sends Felix, the Professor and Poindexter back home.
I’m not going to lie, I was seriously considering giving this movie my first ever negative score.
For a long time, I thought that Foodfight! would be safe on its throne as the absolute nadir or animation it had been my displeasure to watch (with the exception of Nimbus Libéré which has the notable disadvantage of being literal Nazi propaganda). For the first time I found myself asking “was Foodfight! really that bad compared to Felix?”
I mean, halfway through this movie, Ms Mouse had to get up and leave because the animation was so awful it was giving her vertigo. Say what you will about Foodfight!, it never physically assaulted someone I love, so my hatred of Felix is definitely more personal. Then there’s the fact that Foodfight! actually had a semi-coherent plot that it ripped off Casablanca, and a somewhat respectable C-List cast. For a good long time, I was actually going to make Felix my new all time worst.
But in the end, I couldn’t. Foodfight! had awful racism and misogyny on top of its utterly appalling visuals so it just beats out Felix. But holy crap, people. This thing was abandoned for a reason.
Literally nausea inducing.
The movie gets its single, solitary point for Joe Oriolo’s excellent fifties re-design of Otto Mesmer’s original design. And loses 19 for turning one of the all time great cartoon characters into a creepy little helium-voiced sociopath.
More like the Duke of Zilch.
Supporting Characters: 00/20
In terms of leadership, agency and tactical ability, Princess Oriana makes Princess Peach look like Princess Leia.
Would you believe, not good?
Final Score: 01%
Next Update: 11 July 2021
NEXT TIME: In a time of ancient gods, warlords and kings…
*Yes, I transcribed it word for word. Do you see how Mouse cares for you?