On March 28, 1997, audiences were treated to an all-around enjoyable opportunity in theaters nationwide. Adults and teenagers had movies like Marlon Wayans’ The Sixth Man, and Halle Berry’s B.A.P.S, while families were offered the second feature film in the franchise, Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie. Yet, other films were released that same day that didn’t get the attention they deserved. One of those films was Cats Don’t Dance.
In 1939, Hollywood is thriving: plenty of actors have become household names, studios are seeing continued success, and audiences are devouring every film being released. It’s thriving so much that an eccentric and musical cat named Danny has decided to strike it big and move to Hollywood to become the next big animal name in movies. When he arrives, however, Danny finds that the movie business is not what he thought it marketed. Cats, along with all other animals, aren’t allowed to do anything other than be cute and act like the primitive creatures that America believes them to be. Danny realizes that animals have more to offer than face value and inspires his new friends to stand out, regardless if the world will accept them. This is great news to everyone except the America’s sweetheart child star, Darla Dimple, who wants to be the only cute movie star on screens. Darla commits to stopping the animals before they can prove themselves and change the business forever.
Cats Don’t Dance is one of the best and most underrated animated films of all time, proving that in a post-Toy Story world, Western animation can be so much more than entertainment and actually tell incredible stories of acceptance, diversity, and passion. Randy Newman helped with the score for Cats Don’t Dance, giving it an upbeat, exciting tone that matches Danny’s charming nature. To boot, Gene Kelly was brought in to help with choreography for the multiple dance sequences, just before his untimely death in 1996.
So, with a great premise and an all star cast behind it, it’s a slam dunk to think that an animated film made enough money to be considered successful and, more importantly, get the attention it deserves. Unfortunately, this was not the case for Danny and his friends. With a budget of $32 million, Cats Don’t Dance ended its’ theatrical run with $3,566,637. For perspective, that is less than some movies make on preview showings alone. Where did things go wrong? Unfortunately, it seems to fall back onto the all important factor of marketing and promotion.
Turner Feature Animation studio had planned to release the film, but was shortly bought by Warner Brothers, who were unable to get tie-in deals with multiple fast food chains. Eventually, they did cut a deal with Subway, but it was the only merchandising effort Cats Don’t Dance saw. These days, you cannot walk into a fast food restaurant without seeing brand marketing for a popular toy, game, television show, or movie. Not having any other merchandising opportunities to rely on, the film released to empty seats and limited word of mouth. Even producer David Kirschner said that the film got great reviews and was received well with test audiences, but no one knew it existed. The idea of competing with a Power Rangers movie also paints a difficult picture for any original animated film. Truthfully, Cats Don’t Dance never stood a chance without the proper platform giving it the time in the spotlight it deserved.
Which is truly a shame, as Cats Don’t Dance is a beautiful movie across the board. Director Mark Dindal perfectly paints Hollywood in bold, bright colors to showcase how glamorous the idea of being an actor in 1939 seemed. Most films would bank on having one great feature and get away with it, but Cats Don’t Dance fires on all cylinders. The soundtrack is filled with original songs featuring the vocal talents of Scott Bakula (your parents will be excited by that sentence) and incredible voice talents from Kathy Najimy and John Rhy-Davies to Hal Holbrook and Don Knotts.
Perhaps the most interesting character in Cats Don’t Dance is the adorable but sinister Darla Dimple. A clear shadow and parody of Hollywood icon Shirley Temple, Darla is America’s sweetheart and the star of everything she is attached to. Behind the scenes, however, she’s borderline psychotic, if the character’s facial gestures weren’t a big enough indicator. Darla is offended when Danny suggests that animals can act, dance, and sing in films alongside Ms. Dimple, as the spotlight has never been big enough for anyone but Darla. There is no reason to believe this characteristic is taken from Shirley Temple, but it’s a role that plays big (and loud) to the heart of the lack of diversity in 1939 Hollywood.
Movies fail to meet expectations every day, but that may not mean it completely flopped. However, grossing just 10% of the budget with almost no merchandising definitely qualifies for flop status. The worst part of this story is how Cats Don’t Dance’s meaning feels. In a time when we are telling people who they can and cannot be and that the world won’t accept them, everyone needs a reminder that no one has to accept you, what you are meant to be, and your passion. Growing up, Cats Don’t Dance was that reminder for me and I have held onto it 22 years later. Hopefully, Cats Don’t Dance will continue to find an audience with the dreamers of the world and find the cult status it rightfully deserves.