"A Cat in Paris", France's contender for best animated feature at Sunday's Oscars, is a cartoon caper with a film noir edge, the latest in a string of international hits for French animation studios.
The low-budget whodunnit thriller -- whose original title is "Une Vie de Chat" -- is the fourth French animated feature to compete at the Academy Awards in recent years, following such hits as the Franco-Iranian "Persepolis".
Created by longtime associates Alain Gagnol, 44, and Jean-Loup Felicioli, 51, it chronicles the double life of a Parisian cat who spends his days with a little girl and her police officer mother -- and his nights with a burglar.
With vibrant colors and a sleek hand-drawn aesthetic, the film is geared toward children but also taps into darker themes beloved of its creators -- who cut their teeth on the film noir genre, explained producer Jacques-Remy Girerd.
"We wanted to make a film for young people -- because it remains very hard to get funding for an animated film aimed at adults only," said Girerd, who founded the Folimage studios in southeastern France where the movie was created.
Appealing to a younger public meant reining in the gorier impulses of writer Gagnol, who started out penning comic books and several thrillers, Girerd said.
"At first Alain went with his instincts. From the first sequence there was already a suicide with blood everywhere. We had to work on that..." he joked.
But older audiences are still treated to a raft of film world references -- from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino, and an escape scene borrowed from the 1955 classic "The Night of the Hunter."
The result, according to the Hollywood Reporter, is "a delightfully stylized caper" that "casts a beguiling spell without requiring 3D glasses or a mass of merchandising."
-- 'French cartoons used to flop overseas' --
Shot on a tight budget -- four million euros less than the average for the genre -- the entire film is hand-drawn, which sets it apart from U.S. counterparts geared towards hyper-realistic 3D, according to Felicioli.
"Here in Europe we are more influenced by the comic book and illustration worlds than in the United States, where it is all about realism," said the artist, whose own background is in painting and sculpture.
"We work by hand because we are not looking for an accumulation of details, for perfection in the drawings."
"I get the sense that Americans have all gone down the same road," added Felicioli. "It's incredibly well done, it's perfect, almost too much so, and I think eventually people will get tired of it."
Viewed by half a million movie-goers in France and bought by 30 other countries, the film is the latest in a string of international hits to come out of French animation studios this past decade.
With rare exceptions, like the 1980 "King and the Mockingbird" and screen adaptations of the adventures of Asterix the Gaul, French animated films tended to flounder abroad -- until the early 2000s, according to Girerd.
"They would systematically flop at export," he said.
That changed in 1999 with the unexpected success of Michel Ocelot's "Kirikou and the Sorceress," a cartoon about a boy who saves his village from a witch.
Followed a string of export hits from "The Triplets of Belleville" to "The Prophecy of Frogs”, which together marked a resurgence in French animation.
"They made it clear to producers that there was a revival, that people were coming back to the theatres," he said. "And there was an exponential knock-on effect on the number of projects and productions."
Over the past decade, three French films have been nominated for the best animated feature film Oscar, with "The Triplets of Belleville" in 2001, "Persepolis" in 2008 and "The Illusionist" in 2011. In the best animated short category, France's "Logorama" won in 2010.
Unlike, say, Japan where films produced by Studio Ghibli have a unifying aesthetic, there is no "French touch" when it comes to cartoons, according to the head of the French animation association, Denis Walgenwitz.
"This is our strength, but it also makes the films difficult to sell," he said.
But the outlook is infinitely brighter than 15 years ago: France is now the world's third largest producer of animated films, after the U.S. and Japan, according to a June 2011 study by the French film promotion body UniFrance.
Between 2000 and 2010, its animation studios turned out 65 films, compared to just six for the second half of the 1990s. A majority were snapped up on the international market, performing better at export than regular films, according to UniFrance.
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