What has been missing from the tidal wave of animated features released theatrically in the past decade is the anarchic wit of the great Warner Brothers cartoons of the 1940s and ’50s. Somehow it is less than surprising that one of the rare examples of that kind of manic energy and total disregard for propriety comes from outside the U.S., but Joann Sfar’s “The Rabbi’s Cat” is precisely the kind of film that our homegrown animation directors seem incapable of making now.
Opening theatrically on Dec. 7, “The Rabbi’s Cat” is Sfar’s second directorial effort (this time in collaboration with Antoine Delesvaux). It’s a definite upgrade from his Serge Gainsbourg biopic. Unlike its predecessor, the film’s energy never flags, and the eponymous hero has none of Gainsbourg’s questionable behaviors. It probably doesn’t hurt that there are no live-action humans to distract the writer-director from what he does best. The cat, which has no name, is a creature of pure appetite, given to eating fish and birds without hesitation. (OK, he’s more like Gainsbourg than I thought, but he doesn’t do drugs or booze.) After apparently devouring the rabbi’s parrot, he acquires the ability to speak, and with that, two other skills, Talmudic disputation and lying.
Adapting his own books for the film, Sfar has concocted an entertainingly elaborate story that combines such classic elements of children’s adventure as a quest for a lost utopian city, a hunt for treasure and a close-knit band of friends to share it all with. In truth, the film’s plots are really more along the lines of interlocking shaggy-dog stories (if the eponymous feline will forgive that choice of words), but that’s a significant part of the fun. Sfar and Delesvaux also have an eye on the adults in their audience and the film is as rich in its supply of inside jokes as those classic Warner Brothers cartoons were. Adults may appreciate the esoteric humor that ranges from a playfully snarky homage to Tintin to a rather pointed dig at Russian monarchists. The underlying message of the film is one of tolerance for diversity and for feline desires for fish, both of them admirable themes energetically enacted. In the best of all possible worlds, the rabbi’s cat would become the 21st century’s answer to Bugs Bunny, a trickster figure worthy of our appreciation.
“The Rabbi’s Cat,” directed by Joann Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux, opens on Friday, Dec. 7 at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave.). For information, call (212) 924-7771 or go to www.ifccenter.com.