Home » blog » Vintage Film Review: Cats Don’t Dance (1997) – An Underrated Film Showcasing Hollywood’s Golden Era

Vintage Film Review: Cats Don’t Dance (1997) – An Underrated Film Showcasing Hollywood’s Golden Era

cats dont dance top image

The year was 1997.

Google was not yet around.

The non-mechanical MP3 digital audio player and the plasma television were invented.

Physical books were more common to read as opposed to digital copies.

In the world of movies, Star Wars was re-released, Disney Animation Studios released Hercules, and the movie that ruled the box office was Titanic. [1]

There was a little known animated film also released that year. It had singing, dancing, and never had a chance at making a profit. It is Cats Don’t Dance. The film was produced by Turner Feature Animation and distributed by Warner Bros. Family Entertainment. Though they marketed the film quite poorly, it nevertheless received critical acclaim and won the Best Picture award at the Annie Awards of that year. Since its home media release, Cats Don’t Dance has earned a cult following and is regarded by many as an underrated piece of animation.

The Story

Photo: Turner Feature Animation & Warner Bros. Family Entertainment
Photo: Turner Feature Animation & Warner Bros. Family Entertainment

The film is set in 1939 in a world where humans and anthropomorphic animals live side by side. Our protagonist is Danny, a young, talented, enthusiastic, ambitious, naive cat from Kokomo, Indiana who comes to Hollywood to fulfill his dreams of being in the movies. Once he arrives however, he learns just how difficult it is to land a starring role in a film when you are an animal, as the humans who run the studios have no interest in placing animal actors in roles outside of the stereotypical. Along the way, Danny meets Sawyer, a pessimistic female cat and an assortment of other struggling animal actors. Together, they work to impress the studio heads and hopefully get the recognition they deserve while Darla Dimple, a spoiled, maniacal child star, works to ruin them.

The movie shows how a star persona is just as much of an illusion as the movies themselves.

The plot is a bit formulaic and not entirely original but that is not always a negative thing, especially if it is done well. This film, in my opinion, pulls its story off very well. Moreover, underneath the colorful and cheerful exterior, the film explores the darker side of Hollywood’s Golden Era with such subtlety and style that people of all ages can take something from the film. Cats Don’t Dance looks at Hollywood stardom and the deceptive allure of fame in similar vain to films like Sunset Blvd, All About Eve, and What Price Hollywood? The movie shows how a star persona is just as much of an illusion as the movies themselves. This is illustrated not only with Darla’s character, but also with brief character appearances from Toto the dog from The Wizard of Oz and King Kong. The film also spoofs and makes references to several Hollywood films that were released the year this film is set including Wuthering Heights, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with plenty of humor and sarcasm. The film makes a point in saying that the animal actors have talent but talent alone is not enough. The experiences of the animals reflect the experiences of black actors in 1930s Hollywood with no one in power or the audiences not taking them seriously and constantly being delegated to stereotypical roles.

There are interesting parallels between Darla and Danny and they make one wonder if they are really all that different. They both want stardom and see it as something they are worthy of. At one point during the course of the film Darla sings, “I didn’t get where I am today, by letting myself get pushed around.” She understands the cut-throat business of Hollywood and how there will always be someone new who will topple a star from their well-earned perch. Danny’s talent and ambition are what makes him a threat and Darla’s enemy. There is room for only one at the top and in order for Danny or anyone else to succeed in this business Darla must fail; it is simply the way of Hollywood.

All of this is not to say that the film is mean spirited or filled with despair. Of course not. The writers of Cats Don’t Dance smartly choose to make Danny innocent throughout and this helps keep the film engaging and appealing. This is demonstrated in the following conversation Danny has with Sawyer:

Sawyer: Why are you so determined to make a fool of yourself?

Danny: I just want to do the thing that I love. Doesn’t everyone?

Sawyer: It’s not that simple.

Danny: It should be.

Danny is so sincere and heartfelt in his convictions that the audience can clearly see how Sawyer agrees with him deep down and does not have heart to crush his dreams or give him false hope.

Hey look everybody, it is Mae West! Photo: Turner Feature Animation & Warner Bros. Family Entertainment
Hey look everybody, it is Mae West!
Photo: Turner Feature Animation & Warner Bros. Family Entertainment

Another aspect that keeps the film from being mean spirited is the humor. The movie has a great sense of timing with great wordplay and physical gags. The director of the film, Mark Dindal, also directed The Emperor’s New Groove and similar to that film, Cats Don’t Dance possesses wild abandon and wonderful use of cartoon physics.

The Characters

Photo: Turner Feature Animation & Warner Bros. Family Entertainment
Photo: Turner Feature Animation & Warner Bros. Family Entertainment

The characters in this film are all quite enjoyable and fun to watch. Danny has been described as bland or forgettable, but I personally always liked him. He is an ambitious, optimistic, kind character. He is always willing to help those in need. He has had dreams to dance and sing in the movies since he was a kitten. I always admired him for his passion and drive to succeed to achieve his dreams as well as the bravery it takes to put himself out there, despite the odds that are piled against him. He never judges anyone when it comes to their dreams and is of the mindset anyone can make their dreams a reality. He has a way of bringing people together and inspiring others. He helps remind the other animal actors why they came to Hollywood and the indescribable feeling they get when they perform. Personally, I really enjoyed following him on his journey and rooting for him.

Sawyer is a sarcastic and sassy feline with a great sense of honesty and realism to her. She, despite her own talent and grace, has been reduced to secretarial work, filing and answering phones. She once had big dreams and when they fell apart she fell on hard times and became cynical and disenchanted, which makes her character development an interesting and emotionally rewarding experience. She is a damaged character who never tried to find her optimism again until Danny brought it back into her life with his own optimism, believing in her, and reminding her why she came to Hollywood in the first place. Sawyer proves she still has a heart, spirit and spark buried underneath all her negativity and the darkness of the real world. Thanks to Danny, she finds reason to believe again, in herself and in Danny. I have personally always liked her and she remains one of my favorite female animated characters.

I have also always adored the relationship and eventual romance between Danny and Sawyer. These kitties definitely do not start out on the right…er…paw. Sawyer gets knocked into the fountain by Danny before they even meet and after they meet he accidentally slams the door on her tail. However, as the film goes on they grow closer and their opinions of each other change for the better. They grow to respect each other as well as admire each others’ skills and talent. Moreover, I thought their bickering was really cute and they perform so well off each other.

The other animal characters are also memorable with each one having their own unique personalities. There is Pudge, a child penguin, who looks up to Danny as a big brother and is the first one who encourages him to keep trying after his disastrous debut. He wants to be in the movies but is stuck delivering ice. Tillie Hippo is cheerful, excitable, a romantic and always tries to find the best in every situation. She is also a great source of comedic relief. Woolie the Mammoth is the aging elephant mascot for Mammoth Pictures, which is a parody of MGM’s lion logo. He originally came to Hollywood to write and perform music for films and acts a mentor to Danny.

Frances the fish is a cynical character who loves to dance and is also modeled after Norma Desmond from Sunset Blvd. She gets parts that often involve her hanging from a hook. Cranston Goat is an elderly goat who loves to dance, mostly with Frances. Like her, he is also cranky and cynical. T.W. Turtle is a nervous, timid and superstitious turtle who places his faith upon the fortunes found in fortune cookies, which is a nice source of some brief black comedy.

Darla Dimple is basically a caricature of celebrities like Joan Crawford and Judy Garland with a similar physical appearance and name as Shirley Temple. She is a maniacal, spoiled, self-centered, pampered child star of Mammoth Pictures. She puts on her cute, star persona, is beloved by the public and is considered “America’s Sweetheart.” However, once the cameras stop rolling she reveals her true personality. Her temper is volatile and she can go from her innocent appearance to terrifying within a matter of seconds. However, she is never more malevolent and dangerous than in her moments of silence.

Then there is Max, Darla’s intimidating, creepy, ever faithful butler and caretaker. He is a clear reference to Norma Desmond’s butler in Sunset Blvd. Max is also a great achievement in animation and comedic timing as he remains mostly still, only moving when he must for a specific task.

The Animation

Photo: Turner Feature Animation & Warner Bros. Family Entertainment
Photo: Turner Feature Animation & Warner Bros. Family Entertainment

The animation in this film is simply beautiful. It is energetic, neat, and colorful, with lush settings and background art. The art style is quite vivid and bright, resembling the hues one would find in technicolor films that were released during the time period this movie is set in. For the character animation, the animators used ‘squash and stretch’ with large, exaggerated features for both comedic and dramatic affect.

Another impressive element of the animation is the dance sequences. The film was choreographed by the legendary Gene Kelly with accurate story-boarding as during the dance numbers they often cut to the feet. I personally cannot think of many movies outside of live action that do that. The moves of Gene Kelly and his contemporaries often looked like they challenged the laws of physics, and now in Cats Don’t Dance they actually can.

The Songs

Photo: Turner Feature Animation & Warner Bros. Family Entertainment
Photo: Turner Feature Animation & Warner Bros. Family Entertainment

The songs written by Randy Newman that are accompanied by those dances are mostly enjoyable. They are also varied from jazz to gospel to rock. Some are generic while others are fantastic. A few of my personal favorites are “Big and Loud,” Darla’s villain song which perfectly illustrates her dual personality, “Danny’s Arrival Song,” which does an excellent job of defining Danny’s character, setting the mood of the film and being catchy, and “Tell Me Lies,” a beautiful song sung by Sawyer which perfectly voices the thoughts of the other animal actors and reflects society’s cynical mindset of following one’s dreams. The instrumental songs of the film are also really enjoyable and successfully add to the mood of various scenes.

Overall, I would recommend Cats Don’t Dance to kids and adults who love classic Hollywood films, animation and musicals. It is an enjoyable, cheerful film that does not insult the intelligence of the audience with great animation, a few catchy songs, likable characters, and a story that, though predictable, is well done and subtly touches upon the darker side of Hollywood. I would say the more one knows about Hollywood and cinema, the more likely one is going to enjoy this film. If it sounds like something that catches your interest, give this underrated film a try and see for yourself.

Overall Rating:

Four Star Rating border“Hello Gorgeous.”

Romance Rating:

four heart border“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My

feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me

to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”


[1] For more historical facts of 1997, see http://whathappenedinmybirthyear.com/

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By on May 31st, 2015

About Moriah Burbank

Moriah was born and raised in the state of Alabama, with its blistering summers and winters with no snow. In childhood, she had great difficulty learning how to read and write due to her learning disability. This developed into an eventual hatred of reading and writing that lasted for a few years. With the tireless and dedicated work of her mother, who was homeschooling her at the time, and the help of a tutoring center Moriah was eventually able to learn how to read and write and her enjoyment of the activities only grew with the discovery of audio books. It was with a great irony that by the time she grew into teenage hood and young adulthood she had developed a respect and love for reading and writing, now even reading and writing for her own enjoyment and relaxation. Moriah is currently studying at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, earning her Doctorate in Psychology.

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