Starring Jason Harris Katz, Chris Edgerly, Matthew Piazzi, Benjamin Diskin, Bill Lobley
0.5 STARS (out of 5)
Movie adaptations of popular TV shows and beloved cartoons are nothing new. It can be a mixed bag, as it happens – and in 2011, no one really saw Top Cat : The Movie coming. A Mexican-Argentine production, it managed to become one of Mexico’s biggest box office draws in the country’s history – and it was redubbed and distributed in both the UK and on a limited scale in the US – yet the English received considerable critical drubbing. Top Cat Begins, therefore, was another chance for one of Hanna Barbera’s most iconic characters to capture the attention and imaginations of a new generation of cartoon-loving kids. A CGI concoction brought to cinemas as a result of conglomeration between Mexican and Indian teams, it has received a fairly quiet release in the UK ahead of the school half-term holidays. Is its muted release warranted? Most certainly.
Top Cat Begins (the title oddly attempting to pun Batman Begins) is essentially the story of how the scheming feline and his gang of misfits came to form their iconic alleyway outfit. The tale is told mainly in retrospect, as Top Cat recounts the day he met Benny the Ball, his closest ally – and how they came to cross the path of the notorious and feared ‘Mr. Big’, a reptilian crime lord who just so happens to have most of the city’s criminals and even the local nightspot in his pocket. What transpires is an animated tale of pranks, dodgy deals and the fight to overthrow Mr. Big, along with subplots regarding the formation of TC’s gang and the recovery of a particularly valuable set of diamonds.
It’s genuinely hard to know where to start with Top Cat Begins. I’ll begin with observing its good points – there a few genuinely funny lines uttered by one or two characters – Benny could easily be the breakout character of the entire film with a little more effort or character focus – but it’s a number of mind-numbing failures to adhere to animated film-making on almost every other level that prevent it from connecting with its intended audience. Or anyone, for that matter.
On a basic level, Top Cat Begins isn’t particularly proficient even technically – while attempts have been made to at least emulate the original designs and style of the classic cartoons, this is where such praise ends. The animation is jerky, character designs beyond the main gang are either bland, unimaginative or oddly adult – female cats are disturbingly buxom – and it all makes for a movie that insists upon its comic appeal, but fails to actually time any of its jokes or sell any of its comedy successfully.
As a whole, Top Cat Begins is infuriatingly tiresome – as much of the movie is made up of clumsy, predictable sight gags and poorly-animated slapstick that comes off as a blend of both cheap and poorly-researched film-making. The bare bones are here for a great family film. The characters are already great and are well-known to many audiences – but here, they’re strictly one-dimensional, delivering clunky exposition that will bore kids to tears and will make for a rather bland Top Cat Begins - Official Trailer (Warner Bros.)
Top Cat Begins panders to its audience through cliched dialogue and comic mistiming that would work well in the company of a cast and script that knows how to get it right. Every joke or supposedly funny moment is painstakingly attempted and almost waits for the audience to laugh uproariously – but the laughs don’t come. The dialogue is, while generally acted to the best of the cast’s ability, inspires little to convert the audience to the charms of any of the cats. By the end of the movie, no one really cares how the gang came to exist. This is a movie that outstays its welcome approximately twenty minutes in, and takes an awfully long time to get to where it vividly signposts. It’s genuinely difficult to describe what a tiring experience concentrating on Top Cat Begins actually is.
There’s very little to interest children beyond bright colours and slapstick moments – making it a rather clumsy, awkwardly-paced affair that suffers from avoidable cliches and strained attempts at creating humour. There are no moments of genuine joy, contemplation, or even character development. This movie is essentially around 90 minutes of vividly-coloured felines making strange jokes and walking into things.
This, unfortunately, isn’t even the end of the issues that befall TC. The movie has a number of strange, inappropriate jokes and themes that are delivered so clumsily and half-heartedly that they are incredibly jarring – while many children’s films have been able to make subtle adult touches and jokes to good effect and where necessary, Top Cat Begins seeks to make abrupt and obvious sexual, violent and often morbid moments part of its modus operandi – which will lead to many awkward moments in any cinemas where people choose to watch this movie.
All in all, Top Cat Begins is an extremely difficult movie to talk about. In terms of its target audience, it graduates from the Norm of the North school of mistimed pandering, but somehow succeeds at being even more tedious and cloying without ever trying. This is ultimately the final nail in the movie’s coffin – it doesn’t ever really seem like it tries, despite clearly wanting to be loved by all. It feels cheap, desperate and overwhelmingly tedious – it never really goes anywhere fast, nor anywhere interesting – and when it does go there, it does so with amateurish writing, poor comic timing, jarring and inappropriate themes, and an overbearing sense that it is all the while silently proud of itself. This is a film that is shockingly pleased with what it is doing despite itself.
It is, ultimately, a shame. There are certainly jokes and moments in here that could work well under a different script and a different studio – or, at the very least, genre research. Top Cat Begins wants so desperately to be liked, and yet, it makes for an unpleasant cinematic experience that feels twice as long as it actually is. I shall say this for Norm of the North – at least it was mildly captivating in its misfires. Top Cat Begins, however, is blandness and genre blindness at a whole new level, a movie that hasn’t really grasped the right way of appealing to the audience it so eagerly believes it is entertaining.