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THE RABBI’S CAT: A TRIUMPH OF NEW FRENCH ANIMATION

Today, while in America feature films made using traditional animation are increasingly “an endangered species”, Europe continues to preserve the time-honoured animated drawing while ready to combine it with other more up-to-date techniques. In Spain there are recent examples of this tendency in films such as Cher ami (Miquel Pujol, 2009), Chico & Rita (Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, 2010) and the recently premiered Arrugas (Ignacio Ferreras, 2011), based on Paco Roca’s comic. However, France has become the absolute “sanctuary” of hand-drawn animation: good examples are the feature films produced by Folimage as well as Persepolis (2007) by Marjane Satrapi – also adapted from her own eponymous comic –, The Triplets of Belleville (2003) and The Illusionist (2010) by Sylvain Chometo and the newly released Zarafa by Rémi Bezançon and Jean-Christophe Lie (2011), among others.

 

Today, while in America feature films made using traditional animation are increasingly “an endangered species”, Europe continues to preserve the time-honoured animated drawing while ready to combine it with other more up-to-date techniques. In Spain there are recent examples of this tendency in films such as Cher ami (Miquel Pujol, 2009), Chico & Rita (Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, 2010) and the recently premiered Arrugas (Ignacio Ferreras, 2011), based on Paco Roca’s comic. However, France has become the absolute “sanctuary” of hand-drawn animation: good examples are the feature films produced by Folimage as well as Persepolis (2007) by Marjane Satrapi – also adapted from her own eponymous comic –, The Triplets of Belleville (2003) and The Illusionist (2010) by Sylvain Chometo and the newly released Zarafa by Rémi Bezançon and Jean-Christophe Lie (2011), among others.

The Rabbi’s Cat (Le chat du Rabbin), the film which will open Animac 2012, falls within this category and is an important milestone in the history of recent French animation. Directed by Joann Sfar and Antoine Delesevaux, it is based on Sfar’s comic with the same title and of which there have been five albums to date, originally published in French by Dargaud and translated into 15 languages (in Spanish, by Norma Editorial), with a total of almost one million copies printed.

 

THE AUTHOR: JOANN SFAR

 

Born on 29th August 1971 in Nice to a family with Jewish-Algerian roots, Joann Sfar studied philosophy in his native city and fine arts in Paris. In 1994, he published his first comic, Ossour Hyrsidoux, and later joined the publishing house L'Association, a cradle of many talents of the French nouvelle bande dessinée (new animation), including the aforementioned Marjane Satrapi. Among his prolific production – over 150 albums created alone or in partnership with other artists –, in which he has shown that he can develop all types of genres from fantasy to crime and address both children and adult readers, we should note Les Potamoks (illustrated by the Spaniard José Luis Munuera), Petit vampire, Grand vampire, Professeur Bell, Pascin (the story of a 19th century painter), Sardine de l’espace and, above all, the fantasy saga Donjon, of which he has created over 30 albums together with Lewis Trondheim. One of his most ambitious works, released in 2008, was a cartoon adaptation of Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Most of these works have been published in Spain by Glénat, Ponent Mon, Sinsentido, Planeta and Norma.

In 2010, he took his first incursion into cinema when he directed Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque), a live action biopic about Serge Gainsbourg, mainly focused on the young years of the famous singer in the Paris of the Second World War at the height of the Nazi occupation. The films received the César for Best Debut.

 

THE PROJECT

 

The success of the comic The Rabbi’s Cat led to Sfar receiving several offers to animate it but the author decided to adapt it himself in order to remain as faithful as possible to the original. Thus, in 2007 he created, in partnership with the illustrator Clément Oubrerie and the producer Antoine Delesvaux, the company Autochenille Production to bring his creation to the screen. For the development of the animation, the Banjo Studio was founded, in which over 60 animators – most of them trained in the now defunct Parisian branch of Disney Studio or in other prestigious productions such as the aforementioned The Illusionist – gave life for three years to the more than 1,200 frames of the film. Although this is a film made with the traditional animation technique, for obvious commercial reasons it has been filmed in 3D. Despite such imperatives, the use of three-dimensionality in the film is no way purely an artificial element as the sets – such as the streets of Algiers or the desert landscapes – in which the characters develop, take on a depth that heightens their actions.

The graphic work of the original comic has been faithfully captured on screen, although the nervous and spontaneous style of Sfar’s sketches has been slightly simplified to facilitate the animation. The same care has been taken in the use of colour, with a logical predominance of warm tones that efficaciously evoke the North African setting of the story. The narrative rhythm successfully alternates very fast action scenes with slower sequences, maintaining the viewer’s interest at all times.

For the soundtrack, composed by Olivier Daviaud and performed by Enrico Macias – also of Jewish-Algerian origin like Sfar –, there has been an effort to harmoniously integrate the different cultures – Jewish, Muslim, etc. – represented by the diverse settings and characters of the story.

 

THE SCRIPT

 

The action of The Rabbi’s Cat takes place in Algeria, in the 1920s. For the adaptation, instead of adapting only one of the five albums of the series, it was decided to select several key elements of them all. The cat of the title, which has no name, lives with Rabbi Sfar (it is no coincidence that he has the same name as the author) and his daughter, Zlabya, along with another domestic animal, a parrot. One day, the parrot is eaten by the cat, which automatically acquires the power of speech and reason, and philosophises just like humans... or even better than some of them. Although the Rabbi wants to get rid of the feline, it will do everything possible to remain at the side of its kind young mistress, even asking its master to organise a bar mitzvah (equivalent to the First Communion in the Jewish religion). The second half of the film has the look of a road movie: the cat will strike up a friendship with a Russian painter who is seeking Africa’s Jerusalem, a lost city supposedly inhabited by free black Jews. The cat, together with its master the Rabbi and the wise Sheikh Mohammed Sfar (just like the Rabbi, the author gave him his surname), will accompany the painter on his adventure in pursuit of the legendary city (and during which they will have a brief meeting with a certain young and famous Belgian reporter, also recently brought to the big screen). This plot, rich in characters and events, can be summarised as a hymn to cooperation and solidarity among all men (with respect to our cat, perhaps we should add “and other living beings”) regardless of race or creed. A film, in short, and just like the comic on which it is based, for all ages, with a special focus for adults.

 

THE PREMIERE

 

Premiered in French cinemas on 1st June 2011, The Rabbi’s Cat has been well received by critics, and attracted more than 500,000 cinema-goers and awarded in the last Annecy International Animated Film Festival the prize for Best Feature Film; it was also nominated for the 24th European Film Awards, presented last December in Berlin, also in the category of best animation feature film, although the award was finally given to Chico & Rita.

Meanwhile, the production company Autochenille has not been inactive: it is currently completing a new feature film, Aya de Yopougon, also adapting a comic scripted by Marguerite Abouet and illustrated by Clément Oubrerie, published in the collection Bayou –directed, in fact, by Sfar – for the publisher Gallimard, and also translated into Spanish by Norma Editorial. It describes the experiences of a young African girl whose main desire is to become a doctor and who lives in a working class area of Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast, offering an image of a lively and hopeful Africa, far removed from the usual clichés about the “dark continent”. Aya de Yopougon, whose premiere in France is scheduled for 23rd May, also promises to be totally faithful to the original cartoon strip. Autochenille also has other feature film projects currently in hand adapting other recent successes of the nouvelle bande dessinée, including Isaac le pirate, created by Christophe Blain. Hoping that these other projects come to fruition, let us both visually and spiritually enjoy this unique cat about which we cannot say that “all it needs is to be able to talk”... because that is precisely what it does.

 

Alfons Moliné


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