The Rabbi's Cat is its lively sense of contradiction: here is an animated movie done in a brightly colored cartoon style, with gorgeously smooth lines and detailed drafting unsullied by too much fussiness in the coloring and shading, and it involves the misadventures of a talking cat, and it is one of the most grown-up animated features of the modern age. Not even a pushy, overt grown-up animated feature, but an unhurried, supremely casual one, in which "grown-up" means, "here is a cat being used as the lynchpin in conversations about religious identity and the social contract". Which, as I think about it, is grown-up in a way that even most live-action movies don't think to be grown-up, so the movie is even more impressive than it seems at first.
The Rabbi's Cat is adapted from a series of comic books by Joann Sfar, who co-wrote the screenplay (with Sandrina Jardel), and co-directed (with Antoine Delesvaux), and not, I am told, sequential volumes of that series, which perhaps explains the film's most obvious flaw: it's meandering, to such an intense and excessive degree that even the word "meandering" itself seems to be missing the point something fierce. Better to say that the film collates several moments which are more or less connected by a causal chain, though it doesn't terribly much care if the flow throughout those moments is particularly rigorous or not; its back half suddenly and irrevocably becomes much shaggier and spontaneous than its first half, and though it's ending feels neither arbitrary nor inconclusive, it's sure as hell abrupt.
That's okay, kind of, because at heart this is a fable, and fables about talking animals have for centuries now gotten a free pass if they want to amble around, checking things out that interest them rather than proceeding with stately urgency through a well-defined plot. In a not-quite-defined 1920s (early enough, anyway, that World War II doesn't exist even in vague, spectral form, while World War I is securely situated in the past), in the great African melting pot of Algiers, there is a rabbi (Maurice Bénichou) whose life is a balance between deeply-held traditional belief and a flexible idea of how real life works. He has a daughter, Zlabya (Hafsia Herzi), and a grey Abyssinian with no name; he also has a parrot for a short time, until the Abyssinian eats it. This, for no obvious reason, gives the cat the ability to speak (in the voice of François Morel), and from there, we're off to the races. Sort of. Slow races, full of wry humor and laconic wisdom, as the cat - when he is not being archly self-serving just for the sake of it, in the way that cats do - narrates for us his observations on the people around him. There's a whole lot of incident and no real narrative momentum: the rabbi's friend, an Islamic sheikh (Fellag), discourses with him on matters of life and morality; a Russian Jew (Sava Lolov) escapes to Algeria from the Soviet pogroms, seeking a local insane, drunken Russian Orthodox Christian named Vastenov (Wojciech Pszoniak), and all four of these men, with the cat in tow, go on a journey into the heart of sub-Saharan Africa. If that sounds like the set-up for a musty old joke, it's not entirely accidental, nor does The Rabbi's Cat ever manage to completely shake off the feeling of being a little bit programmatic and messagey: a few too many moments find one character or another speaking themes overtly for comfort, though not all of these moments are bad (the rabbi's attempt to deflect a question about why he isn't converting to Islam if he respects it so much is one of the funniest gags in the movie).
Besides, it's not like discussions about how different religious beliefs do or don't affect how people exist in the day-to-day world show up in so many movies that we can afford to throw them all out when they arrive, just for being a bit hamfisted.
Anyway, the script being what it is, The Rabbi's Cat has one more thing going on: and that is its visual style. It's really quite a special-looking movie, I'd say: very loose designs that almost verge on crudeness at points, with occasional shifts into a completely different aesthetic for dream sequences or for moments of emphasis (there's a point where the cat, typically depicted as a uniform grey, steps into a beam of sunlight and for just one shot is rendered with the loveliest pencil shading imaginable), or in the film's last sequence, to amp up the comic absurdity of the situation and the characters' increasingly frazzled mental state.
As simple as most of the film is, it's still extraordinarily detailed in some fine ways: the sense of texture in the backgrounds, or the remarkable work defining Zlabya's body (for the film does, unfortunately, have an exclusively and downright chauvinistically male view, and that extends into the "hot girl" being depicted with a degree of fleshy accuracy that none of the men in the film share; but on the level of sheer craft, Zlabya is such a miracle of convincing movements and weightiness that I am prepared to ignore entirely the more problematic aspects of her characterisation). The cartoon contours and simple colors are there to remind us that this is, still and all, a fun movie, not a desperately serious one; the care and accuracy of the work bringing those designs to life are there to remind us that, even though this is fun, it's still trying to speak to the real world.
Like so much animation that tries to do anything at all, it's not to every taste, I am sure; certainly, the foggy story structure is already enough to try the patience of a good many viewers whose interest in the sociology of North African religious practices doesn't run hot (and The Rabbi's Cat certainly isn't larded up with context about what makes Algiers in the '20s so different from more contemporary, and more fraught, cities in which Jews and Muslims co-exist), and the deliberately childlike feel to the visuals is miles away from anything that has been popular in the mainstream for ages. Even setting aside taste issues, the film is no masterpiece; but it is smart and charming and unique, and more deserving of the proper audience by far than most of the cloying factory-made product that most animated films are these days.