Judge Christopher Kulik grew up with several cats and, on more than a few occasions, he did throw profanities at them.
They'll crack this case by a whisker!
Following the success of his smash hit Mary Poppins, Mr. Disney decided to once again team up director Robert Stevenson and writer/producer Bill Walsh for That Darn Cat!. Based on the book Undercover Cat by Gordon and Mildred Gordon, the film didn't match the Poppins powerhouse, and it's rather overlooked today. For the film's 40th anniversary, the film was finally released on DVD, though the Vault personnel failed to give this feline a proper grooming.
Facts of the Case
The title character is "D.C.," a blue-eyed Siamese cat. Every night, he goes out on a series of prowls, doing such things as eating a bulldog's food, flirting with female kitties, and lingering outside of a fish shop. When Iggy (Frank Gorshin, Batman) emerges from the shop one night, D.C. follows him with curiosity. As it turns out, Iggy is a bank robber, and he and his partner, Dan (Neville Brand, The Ninth Configuration) have been hiding out with a kidnapped librarian named Miss Miller. They are holding her not for a price, but actually have full intentions of murdering her and disposing of the body. When D.C. comes along, however, Miss Miller decides to put her watch on him with an unfinished "help" scrawled on the back.
D.C. then returns home to his caretakers, the Randall family. The parents are currently on a European vacation, leaving their two daughters behind. Patti (Hayley Mills, Pollyanna) is a spunky teenage girl who has just returned from the drive-in with her boyfriend, Canoe, while her older sister, Ingrid (Dorothy Provine), has just returned from a night out with her carpooler/potential boyfriend Gregory (Roddy McDowell, Planet of the Apes ). When Patti discovers the watch and its scribbling on the back, she is convinced that it's from Miss Miller, though Ingrid dismisses it as nonsense. Still, Patti has always relied on her instincts, so she consults FBI agent Zeke Kelso (Dean Jones, The Love Bug). Zeke decides to take the case and tail D.C. every night…even though he's allergic to cats!
I'm going to be blunt. I believe That Darn Cat! is quite possibly the most underrated Disney film ever made. A savvy, slick combination of humor, suspense, mystery, and even romance, this film has more ingredients and substance than most of the studio films from the '70s and '80s. The rich cast, colorful characters, and layered story makes it emerge as top entertainment for both children and adults alike. Sadly, this was also one of the very last films that Walt himself personally oversaw.
Surprisingly, That Darn Cat has elements that are quite un-Disney like. Take the two robbers, for instance. Both are so intimidating and realistic that you actually buy them carrying out the murder of Miss Miller. However, they are never over-the-top. Tension is generated in numerous scenes, such as when they have their little chats over what to do with their captor, as well as their dealings with their snoopy, suspecting landlord. The Randalls' neighbor, Mrs. MacDougall, is another example in that she's appalled at the sight of men going in an out of the Randall home, and assumes that more than just socializing is taking place.
On the surface, That Darn Cat! sounds too convoluted for its own good. There are a lot of characters, the story takes its precious time moving forward and, at almost two hours, it perhaps goes on far too long. Being largely a comedy, however, there is more than enough amusement to keep one's attention. Silly slapstick, typical of many Disney films, is actually kept to a minimum here, in lieu of character quirks and sight gags. Agent Kelso's ailurophobia, Gregory's snarky attitude, Canoe's bombastic persistence, and Patti's snappy enthusiasm all combine for big laughs from beginning to end. The real key to the film's success, however, is that all the actors (including the cat) play it completely straight while having a lot of fun.
This film marked a transition of sorts of the studio. This was Hayley Mills' fifth film for Disney, and it would mark the first for both Dean Jones and Roddy McDowall. Mills had clearly approached womanhood here, and she would later return to her native England and take on more mature roles. While That Darn Cat! may not be as well known as her earlier work in Pollyanna and The Parent Trap, she still exhibits endless charm. There was just something about Mills that no other Disney child star possessed (before or since), and knowing this was her swan song for the studio (not counting the made-for-TV Parent Trap sequels) makes it a bit poignant.
Every single role is well cast, however. In fact, That Darn Cat! has one of the best ensemble casts of any Disney film. Dean Jones is a delight, as always, and his ability to act straight while also doing physical comedy is altogether irresistible. Matching him is Roddy McDowall, whose character is such a drip that you love to laugh at him. How can you not scream at Gregory singing at his pigeons or outraged at his embarrassment due to D.C.'s antics? Add to them Gorshin, just before becoming a memorable Riddler, and you have a chock full of talent.
Many others supply plenty of laughs as well. Director Stevenson gave plum parts to veterans Ed Wynn (as a panicked jewelry salesman) and Elsa Lanchester (as the snoopy Mrs. MacDougall). Her husband, played by William Demarast (Son Of Flubber), is a genuine scream and has many of the film's best lines. Neville Brand, with that gangster-face, is positively menacing as Gorshin's partner, and Dorothy Provine is a charm as Ingrid.
However, my favorite performance is by a complete unknown. That would be Canoe, Patti's boyfriend, played by Tom Lowell (The Gnome-Mobile). Every second this guy is on screen he makes me laugh, whether he's wiping his hands on the Randalls' curtains or spouting how much surfing pictures are superior to chick flicks. At times, he almost becomes a distraction, though his character is so lovably stupid that he threatens to steal every moment away from the other actors.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While others may have complaints about the film, I have absolutely none. It's simply one of Disney's best…and that makes the DVD package all the more unsatisfying.
The Disney Vault DVDs are always packed with goodies; in addition to outstanding visual/audio components, there are always lots of special features to jump into. However, That Darn Cat! is treated as a bare-bones disc. The biggest offense is presenting the film in a full-frame transfer, which may not have the pan-and-scan aspect, though it still comes off as really cheap. That being said, the print itself is clean for the most part, with excellent flesh tones and colors. Mono soundtracks in English and French are provided, along with English subtitles. Seriously, Disney, is that the best you can offer?
Also absent are bonus features. Hayley Mills and Dean Jones have provided commentaries for many Disney releases, so their participation is missed here. There is not even a theatrical trailer! Sad, Disney, really sad.
Starting in the 1990s, that darn Disney studios went on a remake rampage. Classics such as The Incredible Journey, The Parent Trap, and The Shaggy Dog began to be updated for the modern audience. As a purist, this disgusts me, especially when it comes to the 1997 version of That Darn Cat, which is by far the worst of the lot. Christina Ricci is cute, but she is no Hayley Mills, and whoever thought Doug E. Doug was a worthy replacement for Dean Jones needs to have their clock cleaned. The worst thing, though, was having an unlikeable cat being carried throughout the film rather than prowling.
Trust me when I say the original That Darn Cat! is the only one that really matters. If only Disney included something in terms of bonus features to accompany the DVD; still, their biggest sin is not having the original The Incredible Journey released yet.
D.C. is free to go catch more criminals. Disney is found guilty of not giving
this fantastic feline feature more attention. Court is adjourned.
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