This is a guest article by Hanna Pape
1994 saw the release of one of the biggest animated films of all time, The Lion King.
However, in that same year, another animated film named Felidae was released over in Germany. This film is definitely a cult classic that has gone under the radar for too long, and I have the honor of singing its praises on this its 25th anniversary. Lovers of the film–including myself–rank it alongside films like Watership Down, The Secret of NIMH, and Plague Dogs. It’s a unique look at not only the noir film style but also animated movies. The fact that the film handles serious adult topics in an animated world of cats is somewhat refreshing given the stereotype that animated films are only for children and are usually full of mind-numbing humor and a forced lesson down the viewers’ throats. Felidae does have a message of being kind to all creatures big and small; it just isn’t forced upon the viewer.
Felidae is a neo-noir film based on the German novel of the same name. The story centers on Francis, a house cat, who has just moved to a new neighborhood with his can-opener—slang for “human” used by the cat characters of the film. The house they move into has clearly seen better days; the floors are covered in stains, and wallpaper is peeling from the walls. Francis remarks in classic noir narration, saying it smelled of “a mixture of a drugstore, vets office, and toxic waste dump”. Upon hearing a loud cry, he ventures to the backyard through a window where at first he only sees another cat sitting on the fire escape. Following the other cat’s gaze, Francis gets a gruesome surprise: under a tree in the yard is the corpse of a cat, its throat slashed open. This event kick starts the film’s plot as Francis investigates the murders of cats in his new neighborhood and encounters religious cults, animal testing, and sexual conspiracy.
The film was produced by Trickompany in Germany and was the nation’s most expensive animated film ever produced at 10 million marks, or $5 million American. The animation was handled mostly by Trickompany but was also outsourced to 10 different animation studios from London to Seoul. This fact is clear in the animation as the film has slight changes in every other scene. Some scenes have more frames per second, and characters show more teeth when speaking in some scenes and less or no teeth in others. The film has wonderful animation direction despite the number of studios working on it. Backgrounds are hand painted and consistently unsettling throughout the film as it is supposed to set up a world the viewer is not entirely comfortable in.
The characters don’t stand out too much against the background like in other animated films of the time that use shaded backgrounds and unshaded characters. Character design is also well done. The few shots of unnamed characters provide enough design diversity to feel as if the cats are not copies just to fill space. There is also some small use of 3D animation for the background of some of the more action-filled scenes such as a chase over the neighborhood rooftops.
The style changes intentionally in some moments, such as in nightmares that Francis has. These transitions are near seamless and capture a feeling of terror that makes you want to run and hug your own pet to make sure they are ok. The nightmare back to reality shift is great as well; a sudden jolt like being scared awake makes the viewer feel what Francis is going through.
The animation, even with flaws, is wonderful. I personally appreciate the consistency and attention to cat anatomy. At no point do the cats move in a way that is not how cats, in reality, would actually move. Paws don’t suddenly become hands. The closest thing in the film to a cat moving like a human is gestures such as pointing, but even in this, they point with their whole paw. The cats read books and use a computer, but they go about it the way a cat would, tapping one key at a time with the whole paw. Even the one sex scene—and yes there is a sex scene in this film—is accurate to the way cats mate. The world is more believable given that while the viewer can understand the cats talking it is because the viewer is meant to see the world from a cat’s point of view. The cats don’t speak to their humans or other animals in the same language, yet they understand humans’ speech. It paints this picture that cats are smarter than we think and live more complicated lives outside the comfy homes we make for them.
The story also knows when to let the animation speak for itself with moments of no dialogue or even music. Speaking of story, it follows the classic noir detective novel formula as we follow our heroic detective, Francis, as he tries to solve his case. It keeps you guessing and entertained as Francis discovers new leads and encounters new dangers. Continuing with this formula, Francis will often chime in with narration either to describe something we as the viewer can’t experience or to give his inner thoughts on a particular situation. The environment around him also follows this formula by hiding clues in the background such as magazines on desk or pictures hanging on walls that hint to a plot point later in the story. Through every twist and turn, you’re more and more invested in finding out who our criminal is and what they want.
Over the years I’ve seen reviews that claim Felidae has glaring story problems, but while there are a few errors, the plot itself is very solid. The issue is when viewing the film, you must remember you’re supposed to see it from a cat’s point of view. A cat isn’t concerned with a job or money. Its motivations are much simpler: eat, mate, and survive. Some of the actions of the cats can also be misunderstood if you are unfamiliar with cat behavior, such as marking territory with urine. This could be part of the reason the film wasn’t a huge success. Well, that and some of the imagery in the film. This film is gruesome and gory, definitely not a film for children. There are scenes of decapitation, rotting corpses, intestines, and horrific nightmares. I’d love to go into more detail about some of the animation in these scenes, but the film is best experienced without knowing the exact imagery you will see. While I highly recommend the film, a fair warning to all: this film is gruesome, bloody, sexual, and vulgar.
While an English version of the film exists, it is unclear who headed the translation. The United States has never even seen a proper release. The English version was released in Australia then only imported to the US on the laserdisc platform, which as we all know never really took off. It’s speculated that the English version voice cast is made up of European actors, and because the film was in German first, it does have a few voice sync issues. In some cases, dialogue doesn’t match with mouth movements or the line is cut off due to the scene ending, which gives the impression parts of the film were cut when that is not the case.
Over the past 25 years, Felidae has been all but forgotten by a vast majority of the world. Only the cult following it has gathered celebrates it now. The subject matter of the film is mostly to blame for its low popularity; some people just don’t care for this type of film. It has earned a rank among other films that break the mold of animation being only for children which I personally applaud it for.
Animation is not just a tool to pacify our children; it’s a great medium with hard working, devoted, and passionate people behind it. Animation deserves all the respect and attention that any other media deserves. This does not mean monetizing every last little thing and trying to profit off nostalgia and children’s naive dreams like modern-day Disney has been doing. Europe and Asia already embrace the best in animation by having it cover not only topics for children but all age groups. These regions epically utilize it as a tool to teach children about adulthood and gracefully teaching them about serious concepts such as death. Look at almost any Studio Ghibli film and you’ll see this.
If Felidae were released today, it would likely have a warmer reception here in America, with platforms like Netflix giving more strange or daring stories a chance to thrive. Netflix is even breathing new life into some of these cult classics such as the new Watership Down mini-series that is a partnership with the BBC. This gives people like me more hope the great stories told through beautiful animation will have a better chance to reach the people who may need to see them.
Fortunately, Felidae in full is up on Youtube for free, though due to its content it is locked behind an age gate. You will need an account to prove you are 18 or older to view it.
Hanna Pape not only wrote this article, but she also drew the poster for this occasion. It is available on a multitude of products (from prints to t-shirts) at society6. More of Hanna’s art is available at copperirisart.com and her Instagram where she posts updates of art and little day to day doodles (and a few pictures of her own cats) is @copperirisart