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Cats Don’t Dance imploded just before it could take on Disney

Not even Gene Kelly could save Turner Animation’s musical

A grid of six rectangles with images of animated dancing cats Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

Your favorite childhood movie might’ve been a total box-office dud. The animated movies that defined the late ‘90s and early 2000s are beloved by a generation that grew up watching them on VHS, but many of these nostalgic favorites were critical failures, box-office disappointments, or both.

What went wrong along the way? And why did they gain such love after the fact? The Beloved Animated Failures series is out to dust off those old VHS tapes (or, more accurately, find the movies on streaming) and examine some of these films.

In the late 1990s, right at the height of the Disney Renaissance and before American animation diverged into snappy comedies and more serious adventures, the short-lived Turner Animation and Warner Bros. Pictures released Cats Don’t Dance, an homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood. It’s a rare animated musical that doesn’t chase after Disney sensibilities. Instead, with its cast of talking animals leading a surprisingly elevated story, the movie feels like a relic of a previous era of animation, where anthropomorphic animals were more common leading heroes than human protagonists.

Cats Don’t Dance received good reviews, and snagged top awards. But before it even came out, the film was doomed to fail by its production company.

danny in the middle of a song and dance number Image: Turner Animation

What it’s about

Set in 1939, Cats Don’t Dance follows idealistic cat performer Danny (Scott Bakula), who treks out to Hollywood with dreams of being a star. He quickly learns that Hollywood isn’t as friendly to animal actors as he hoped, often type-casting them into simple roles. Determined to prove studio heads wrong, Danny rounds up his animal peers in the business, including reluctant secretary Sawyer (Jasmine Guy), to put on the performance of a lifetime. But human child star Darla Dimple (Ashley Peldon) has other ideas…

sawyer singing contemplatively in the rain Image: Turner Animation

A little backstory…

“People have said … that An American Tail was the beginning of the Golden Age of Animation,” Cats Don’t Dance producer David Kirschner tells Polygon, referring to the 1986 Don Bluth musical he executive-produced. “Until that point, it was the highest-grossing animated feature outside of Disney ever. With [Cats Don’t Dance], I really wanted to do another musical of that kind.”

Turner Animation’s Cats Don’t Dance originally revolved around more animal-like cats wandering around studio back lots. In the early stages of production, Michael Jackson was set to produce, star, and consult on the music and choreography. Unlike Turner’s hybrid live-action and animated Pagemaster, though, Cats Don’t Dance was always intended to be fully animated.

When it came to finding a director, Kirschner says that the moment he interviewed Mark Dindal, he knew the effects animator was the person he was looking for. Dindal had previously worked on a variety of productions at Disney, including The Rocketeer, The Little Mermaid, and Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Dindal was antsy to direct a feature film, and while Disney heads were generally supportive, he was also quite young at the time.

“[At 28,] Of course you want to go from effects supervisor to director right away,” he told Animation World Magazine in 2000. “There’s not a whole lot of patience and I probably had less than the usual person.”

At Turner Animation, he got his chance (and he’d later return to Disney for The Emperor’s New Groove). He helped shape the plot of the movie, away from the more Lady and the Tramp-esque story it started out with. During one pitch meeting, the writing crew envisioned all the ways animals appeared in animated movies and decided that the “Bugs Bunny approach,” where humanoid animals co-exist with actual humans, offered the most potential.

As Dindal told Animation World, that choice would shape the core conflict of the film.

“It went to the notion of being typecast simply by what you appear to be on the outside,” he said.

danny dancing with a hippo Image: Turner Animation

While Jackson left the project due to scheduling conflicts, Kirschner and the crew tapped Randy Newman, fresh off Toy Story, to do the soundtrack. Committed to making the animated musical as authentic to the Golden Age of Hollywood as possible, Kirschner also invited Hollywood legend Gene Kelly to consult on the movie’s choreography.

“He really couldn’t even walk very well at that point,” recounts Kirschner. “He directed from a chair.”

The production process wasn’t smooth sailing. Warner Bros. Animation acquired Turner in 1996, toward the tail end of production, but even before that, Turner Animation changed hands multiple times, slowing down the production.

“There were some drastic suggestions, like changing it from the ’40s era to 1950s rock & roll, pretty much in the middle of the movie,” Dindal tells Animation World. “It’s pretty hard to try and keep what you have finished so far, and then suddenly transition into a different period of time or introduce a different character or have a completely different ending that doesn’t seem to fit the beginning you have.”

Though the team managed to keep the initial vision of the movie from falling into too much executive meddling, toward the end of production, they started to run out of money — to the point where they didn’t have enough to hire a professional actor to play Darla’s gargantuan butler Max, and Dindal’s own temporary voice track was kept in the movie.

“At that point,” Dindal told Animation World, “there was just enough money left to finish it in color.”

darla angrily drawing with lipstick on her mirror Image: Turner Animation

Why it didn’t work

Cats Don’t Dance became the first non-Disney film to win Best Feature at the International Animated Film Association’s Annie Awards, and it opened to solid reviews, with critics praising its witty humor, surprisingly mature allegory, and colorful design. It didn’t matter. Cats Don’t Dance tanked at the box office, barely making back 10% of its budget. A 1997 Los Angeles Times article on the state of animation — specifically Disney’s overwhelming power when it came to the merchandising aspects of family-friendly animated movies — says, “It took 4 1/2 years to bring the animated musical Cats Don’t Dance to movie theaters. It took 4 1/2 hours to declare it dead on arrival.”

Unlike other installments of this column, where we can only hypothesize about the shifting audience tastes that doomed particular movies, Cats Don’t Dance has a clear reason behind its box-office performance: The Warner Bros. acquisition doomed the movie.

“It was rough, because Warner could have cared less about this film,” Kirschner says. “Even without seeing it, they could have cared less, just the idea of a musical called Cats Don’t Dance. “It wasn’t Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck or the great Warner characters.”

Warner Bros. barely promoted Cats Don’t Dance, and didn’t much bother with merchandising deals, a mistake the company repeated two years later with The Iron Giant. During this time period, marketing for animated films ramped up — it wasn’t just about posters and trailers, but fast-food deals and merchandising. Disney made sure its movies were in front of every child in America; Warner did not.

“We had no expectations of competing with Disney,” says Kirschner. “But we certainly wanted a fair shot at being out there, and we really never had that.”

danny and sawyer dancing under fireworks Image: Turner Animation

Why we love it today

While a lot of our Beloved Failures entries resonate because they tap into genres that Western animation rarely explores, or because they speak to the comedic tone of the next generation of American animation, Cats Don’t Dance is treasured because it’s a relic of animation gone by. It pays tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood, but more importantly for kids watching, it harkens back to an era of animation where talking animals reigned supreme, one that they still saw in television, but rarely on the big screen. It doesn’t use Warner characters like Bugs Bunny, but it has the same zany energy.

It wasn’t intentional, but amid a slew of Disney-princess movies and their imitators, Cats Don’t Dance stood out. With its bright color-blocked backgrounds and innovative character designs, it didn’t look like the other animated movies coming out at the time. While that might’ve made it slip under the radar in theaters, it captured the attention of the kids who found it on home video. This was an animated film that looked like a heightened version of the cartoons they watched at home.

Like Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, and other characters this generation knew through Saturday-morning cartoons (unlike their grandparents, who had a chance to see them on movie screens), the characters in Cats Don’t Dance have a very distinct physicality, which plays into physical humor. It’s also notably different from a film like The Lion King, where the animals talk, but walk around on all fours, while still behaving mostly like animals would. But Cats Don’t Dance, where animals occupy human spaces, wear clothes, play instruments, have careers, and otherwise behave in human-like ways alongside humans, lends itself to a different set of logic — one ripe for comedy.

Darla’s enormous butler Max (with that Dindal temp-track voice) lumbers menacingly at the height of a building. Danny’s single line for his big break is “Meow,” which he rehearses repeatedly. In one memorable scene, Elephant pianist Woolie the Mammoth (John Rhys-Davies) hobbles around his tiny trailer, shifting its contents around every time he so much as takes a step, which means that Danny’s hot cocoa goes flying out of the cup and into the air.

The Saturday-morning-cartoon sensibilities make Cats Don’t Dance funny, but as Dindal says, by using the humanoid animals living alongside people, the filmmakers were also able to interrogate prejudice, especially within the arts. Much like Who Framed Roger Rabbit did earlier and Zootopia would do after, Cats Don’t Dance examines the relationships between radically different beings occupying the same world. The scope is narrow and specific, focusing on the entertainment industry as Danny and the other animals struggle to land acting roles that aren’t typecast parts. It’s a pretty moving story to tell with talking animals, and the movie manages to convey it in a kid-friendly way, without sacrificing the weight.

sawyer typing away at her typewriter Image: Turner Animation

As for the singing and dancing, Cats Don’t Dance avoids the Disney musical comparisons by clearly following a different model. Gene Kelly’s hand in the film is evident — the dancing moves the plots just as much as the singing, and clearly uses actual choreography. The characters are talking animals, but they dance realistically. Disney musicals rarely made big shows of the dancing: the characters sing as they run through forests, train to be heroes, or revel in their villainous master plans. In Cats Don’t Dance, the characters do dance — in the opening sequence, Danny spins around Hollywood on his way to a talent agency; in a particularly vibrant scene, he rallies the animals to dance together in order to show the humans that they’re capable of performing. The music is jazzy, swingy, and true to the time period.

Thanks to uninterested executives, Cats Don’t Dance was dead on arrival. But because of its unique look and story — a musical that wasn’t obviously copying the sweeping Disney narrative, talking animals given a more nuanced storyline than just wacky hijinks, and an elevated sense of the physical gags and timing of cartoons — Cats Don’t Dance endeared itself to a generation. There really isn’t another beloved failure like it, let alone another film of the era, and that’s what makes it so memorable years later.

Cats Don’t Dance is available to rent on YouTube and Hoopla.