Directors: Joann Sfarr & Antoine Delesvaux
Release date: June 1, 2011
Rating:
 ★★½
Review:

‘Le chat du Rabbin’ is the film version of the comic strip series of the same name, which comprises eleven volumes thus far. At the time the film was made there were five albums, and the film retells the contents of volume one, two and five very faithfully, with a lot of panels and dialogue being transformed directly from comic strip drawings to film scenes.

Perhaps this is no wonder, as the comic’s author Joann Sfar co-directed the film. He must have had an important vote in the production, because the film flawlessly transcends Sfar’s idiosyncratic drawings to the animated screen

‘Le chat du rabbin’ is set in Algiers, the capital of Algeria, when it was still a French colony. It’s a little hard to date the time setting film, but because carbon dating is mentioned and because of the presence of jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt this limits the time period between 1947 and 1953. In Algiers, the French, Jews, and Muslims all live together harmoniously, and we follow a rabbi of the Sephardic community, and his cat, who turns into a talking creature after swallowing a parrot.

It’s the cat who is the narrator of the film, and we see the events often through his eyes, although, unfortunately, this isn’t maintained consequently. The scenes with the talking cat, mostly recreating the first book, are the film’s best, for the cat turns out to be a skeptic and he asks his master philosophical and theological questions, which are all valid, but drive the poor rabbi mad.

Unfortunately, not only the cat, but the whole movie is rather talkative, and far too dialogue rich, a problem all too common in all French cinema. But this is not the movie’s main problem. No, regrettably, the film also shares the many story problems of the original comic books. Sfar seems to have started his comic book series without a plan, and the volumes are highly different in tone and content. Story ideas are introduced and dropped, and there’s a frustrating lack of focus.

The same accounts for the film. For example, halfway the cat loses his speech again, and with the film immediately loses its main attraction. Even worse, the most interesting character of both the comic books and the film is Zlabya, the rabbi’s daughter, but she lacks a story arc, and is rarely seen, especially during the second half of the film, which focuses on the contents of volume five, in which the attention shifts to a far less interesting character of Russian origin in search of a mythical city of Jews somewhere in Ethiopia. With this part we also leave Algiers and all hope of a consistent story. I actually find the Russian’s quest utterly boring, and I wish the film makers dared to stay in Algiers and tell more about Zlabya. What certainly doesn’t help is an irritating and incomprehensible encounter with famous comic book character Tintin, who turns out to be a complete dork in this film.

The film’s designs are gorgeous, transferring Sfar’s sketchy comic book’s drawings very well, and applying very attractive color schemes, which evoke the subtropical, Mediterranean, and North African settings excellently. Especially the background art is gorgeous. Although heavily hatched, and thus very graphical, the animation reads very well against those background drawings, and it’s nice to see such a consistency of style from animated drawings to background art. There are even some very attractive Van Gogh influences visible in some of the night scenes.Olivier Davaud’s music, too, attributes to the Arabian atmosphere, with its quasi-Arabic style elements.

The animation, on the other hand, is not always that good. For example, when Zlabya plays the piano, the animation and the music aren’t in tune, at all. The animation is at its best when deviating from realism, as in the cat’s dream. In this dream sequence a bolder style is explored, with a lot of metamorphosis, absent from the rest of the film. The finale, too, explores a bolder style, just like the comic book does in these scenes, and I guess with this Sfar tries to tell us by then we’ve abandoned reality and entered the realm of tall tales. These scenes are certainly interesting to look at, but as said before, by then I at least had lost all interest already.

In all, ‘Le chat du Rabbin’ is a visually very attractive film, showing what traditional animation still can do in terms of original styling, but its rambling tale and its lack of focus make the film a frustrating watch. But to be honest, when reading the original comic strips one will experience the same frustration, thus the original source material is to blame. One wishes Sfar was as good a story teller as a visual artist, but let’s face it, he isn’t.

Watch the trailer for ‘Le chat du Rabbin’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Le chat du Rabbin’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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