AKA: Le Chat du Rabbin
Year Released: 2011
Running Time: 80 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG-13
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Sita Sings the Blues, She and Her Cat, The Aristocats, The Secret of Kells , Persepolis
-The Rabbi’s Cat is based on a graphic novel series created by Joann Sfar, who also directed this film adaptation. The storyline of the film is roughly based on volumes 1, 2, and 5 respectively.
-Speaking of Joann Sfar, he’s also worked on another animated film distributed by GKIDS. He did some directorial work with The Prophet.
Hooray! I get to review another piece of non-mainstream Western animation as I scoured through GKIDS’ distributed filmography.
I had actually heard of The Rabbi’s Cat back when it was still a graphic novel. I hadn’t read it, but it was recommended after I checked out both the comic and film of Persepolis from Marjane Satrapi. Apparently, this graphic novel series won an Eisner award which is like the Oscars of graphic literature. Years later, I exposed myself to this animated adaptation of Sfar’s work.
Does this version make me want to read the original graphic novels? Let’s find out.
The Rabbi’s Cat takes place in Algiers, Algeria in the 1920s. The film is narrated by the titular character (the cat has no name, by the way) as he’s living his life with his owners the Rabbi and his daughter Zlabiya as they live in a Jewish quarter of Algeria’s capital/largest city. On one fateful day, their talking parrot gets eaten by the cat to which said feline gains the ability to talk which freaks out the family. The cat expresses his snarky attitude and gives his master an attitude as he questions aspects of Judaism even though he wants a bar mitzvah. The cat causes some trouble, but him and the rabbi get caught up in an adventure with more characters to find a hidden city in Ethiopia which may contain a legendary group of Black Jews.
Just watching this film for the first few minutes, I will say that the animation was quite unique. It has a rough, yet surrealistic art style that works with the North African and Jewish aesthetics provided. There’s a lot of life in the character’s movements and facial expressions. The humans have a simpler art style compared to the cat, but they still work though and it may have been advantageous. Having simpler art styles for characters can make someone easier to animate (case in point: Steven Universe, Adventure Time), so it may have been for the best. The art style may have to be an acquired taste for those that only watch anime or mainstream Western animation, but the viewer can be eased into it. One example of a character’s design that some of those fans might get used to is Zlabiya. Hardcore anime fans and even Disney fans might be turned off and dismiss her by being “Hollywood fat” with her exposed midriff as she’s not a size 2, but I personally didn’t have an issue with it. The backgrounds are quite lush and some of the dream sequences like the cat helping out the Rabbi during his depression was quite a trip to see. With the exception of the scene involving the legendary Ethiopian city (I’ll discuss the issues of it later), the visuals were quite appealing.
The cat himself was quite hilarious. He’s definitely a jerk to a bunch of characters with the exception of Zlabiya and the Russian painter, but at least he’s funny about it. When he talks about being converted to Judaism and wanting a bar mitzvah, he justifies this by going by human years which would make him in his forties although he’s seven in cat years. He’s also quite intelligent while being caustically inquisitive. When the rabbi is trying to discuss the concept of God to the cat, he questions that notion when he responds with “Can you show me a picture of God?” as a retort to humans being made in God’s image. The music itself was quite a treat, too. It was provided by Olivier Daviaud and the Amsterdam Klezmer Band. Each part of the score accentuated the scenes with humor and playfulness. It was a refreshing mix of North African, klezmer, and Middle Eastern tunes which were quite memorable while having a sense of authenticity to it. I liked the usage of dynamic and tempo changes to heighten the drama or comedy when appropriate.
While The Rabbi’s Cat had some likable qualities to it, I had severe issues with this film. I thought the plot was too schizophrenic by adding so many characters and storylines too fast. I also felt like I was missing some context or development. Given that part of the volumes of the original graphic novel were omitted as they tried to condense things, I can see why some parts felt empty. There also wasn’t any clarification about the parrot situation and how the cat can talk. Was the parrot magical? Was the cat speaking a gift from God? What was the correlation going on over there? I also had issue with the Rabbi’s skepticism with the legend of there being Black Jews. Biblical and Talmudic references aside, it really rubbed me the wrong way when he made jokes about how other Africans were all cannibals or uncivilized. What really made it worse was the scene involving the mysterious Ethiopian city. For starters, the characters were very off-model and looked crude when they visited that area. That would be the lesser offense compared to how the cat envisioned the Black Jews. Several of them had jet black skin with huge noses while wearing Star of David insignia on their armor. Wow! That’s two ethnic stereotypes rolled into one. Keep in mind that this was animated in 2011. Joann Sfar should know better by not mixing anti-Semitic imagery with Sambo connotations (keep in mind that he’s Jewish himself which makes the former much harsher). They make Brother Assoua from The Secret of Kells look politically correct by comparison. Not only that, they even resort to a “Black Guy Dies First” moment when a secondary protagonist fights some African Muslims during their journey. No, Sfar. Just because you have a decently animated African woman hooking up with the Russian painter doesn’t mean you can enforce unfortunate implications everywhere else.
In addition to the plotting, not everything was all there. Sure, there’s stuff that happens with some twists and turns, but most of it didn’t lead to anywhere. The ending itself was a total cop out where it wasn’t necessarily a bad ending, but it was rather no ending with the final shot involving Zlabiya. It would have made way more sense if there was a final destination or if they went back to Algiers, but that never happens. I also thought the other characters were hit and miss. The Russian painter was cool though. My favorite scene of him was punching out this European tourist who had pictures of Africans right next to monkeys in a book as he was mistreating the woman who would be the painter’s future wife. That was awesome and I also thought it was interesting how he could talk to the cat even though the never fully explained why given that French, Hebrew, and Arabic weren’t his first languages. However, most of the journey was just a wacky escapade that didn’t lead to anywhere of any consequence.
The Rabbi’s Cat had so much potential, but it was squandered by so many things. The animation for most of the film is legitimately great and the music was wonderful though. Some of the protagonists were interesting, but I felt that there was an overload of primary and secondary characters as the film progressed. I did take issue with the flawed plotting and the racist overtones which were apparent in the second half of the film. It was strange because Joann Sfar should really know better (he’s of Ukrainian and Algerian descent) and not be selective when it comes to things like having the rabbi and sheik being good friends, yet doing this crap with the Ethiopian Jewish scene. The Rabbi’s Cat did have a strong first half, but things just meander when they shouldn’t given it’s shorter run time compared to other feature length films. The Rabbi’s Cat should have been a much better film.
Adjustable Point System:
Add 2-3 points if you’re a fan of anything GKIDS releases
Subtract 1-2 points if you can’t stand ethnic or religious stereotyping in movies
-The cat’s snarky attitude
-Mostly great animation
-Plot holes abound
-Racist implications especially the Ethopian Jews
-Lack of a conclusive ending
Final Score: 4/10 Points
Content Warnings: If you think all animation is kids stuff, then The Rabbi’s Cat is not for you. There’s some violence including a very bloody sword fight midway in the film where a few characters die and with the cat eating birds (not just the parrot which you see after the fact). There’s some language used and some sexual innuendo. One such piece involves a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene of two cat shadows mating for a second. There’s also the racism in the film with the tourist holding pictures of monkeys which he gets his comeuppance, but the Ethiopian Jews are just offensive looking regardless of your opinions on bigotry.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.