Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: The Secret Life of Pets posits that animals act very differently and have any number of adventures when humans aren't around. This is not quite as radical a conceit as the film's ad campaign - up to and including its very title - seems to want us to think.

There was a time when UPA - United Productions of America - was one of the crown jewels of world animation. The studio, built on the backs of talented animators who became refugees from Disney after the acrimonious strike at that studio in 1941, was run in accordance with the belief that the medium didn't just have to be funny animals being run through stock gags in squashy, physically realistic character animation, but could be stylistically innovative and genuinely surprising, made in dialogue with the most cutting-edge techniques in music and the fine arts of the day. During its golden age, which stretched at least from 1951-'53, UPA produced some of the finest short films ever made, in any form, at any time in the history of cinema, films that will be studied and treasured as long as the moving picture itself survives.

Those days were long in the rearview mirror by the time UPA produced its second and final feature film, Gay Purr-ee, in 1962 (the film was financed and distributed by Warner Bros., whose own animation studio had been shut down and replaced by contractors, including former Warner animators). By then, most of the key creative geniuses had decamped, and the studio itself had largely turned into a factory for making degraded variations of the Mr. Magoo series. This film thus represents both an artistic rally and a last gasp: it was the first UPA project of the 1960s that's doing anything visually inventive, and it is, so far as I am aware, the last release bearing the studio's name that's noteworthy on any level whatsoever. One therefore longs to say terribly nice things about it, and it certainly isn't a washout: as one of the very earliest American animated features not made by Disney, it suggests an intriguing road not taken, even while falling into the same generic traps that Disney would start plunging into right around this time, and which would plague the other non-Disney features that started to proliferate by the end of the decade. Those being a somewhat undernourished plot built upon bland characters, with an utterly dismal comic sidekick. Style, it's hard to actively hate even the worst parts of it, and it's so brightly colored that the simple act of looking at it remains pleasurable even when the story vanishes into an insubstantial puff of smoke.

It takes place in 1895 France, as we're told by a narrator (Morey Amsterdam) with a caricatured French accent so thick you could spread it on a baguette, who proceeds to assure us that we're about to see one of the great French love stories. Not quite, but it's cute enough: on a farm in Provence, there live three cats: the lovely Mewsette (Judy Garland), a white Angora who spends her time in the house; yellow tabby Jaune Tom (Robert Goulet), a uniquely talented mouser courting Mewsette; and the tedious Robespierre (Red Buttons), a blue kitten firmly in the "love? EW!" phase presumably shared by the film's target audience, which leads him to levy no end of unfunny sarcasm on Jaune Tom. Each of these characters is unrelentingly shallow, but Mewsette is the shallowest of all; her entire personal life seems founded on the one time she overhears a pair of humans talking about how sophisticated Paris is, which sends her on a journey to the City of Lights to find adventure and romance. Jaune Tom and Robespierre follow right behind, but they don't make it to Paris in time to prevent Mewsette from falling in with Meowrice (Paul Frees), a charming con artist who convinces her that the key to living up to her top potential in Paris is to take lessons from the elegant old Madame Rubens-Chatte (Hermione Gingold), a pink Persian. Sadly, Meowrice and Rubens-Chatte are running a prostitution ring.

I am not kidding. Oh, obviously the film doesn't come out and use that word, nor "brothel", nor "life of miserable whoredom", nor any of the other things that are clearly going on. Say what one will, but I can't imagine Disney feeling comfortable with that plot point even removed by a level of innuendo. Anyway, Meowrice's plan is to sell Mewsette to rich American cat Mr. Phht, and to guarantee that his plan will not be interrupted, he arranges for Jaune Tom and Robespierre to be shanghaied as mousers on a ship bound for Alaska.

The film's not bound by any joyless logic, and good on it for that, but there's a keen difference between this and the go-for-broke fantasy of the old Warner shorts whose anarchic energy Gay Purr-ee is seemingly trying to mimic. It's too long, for one thing: what can be galvanising over the course of eight madcap, unpredictable minutes just turns into so much frivolous malarky at 85 minutes. Besides that, the Warner shorts themselves had begun losing steam pretty dramatically by the time they finally died off. Gay Purr-ee was written and conceived by Warner animation genius Chuck Jones and his wife Dorothy, and it very much feels like a late Jones production, which is not altogether to its credit: by this point, Jones and his key writer, Michael Maltese, had exhausted the possibilities of the surrealistic gag comedies where they made their names, and Jones had turned to quirky mood pieces mostly interested in extremes of angular character design and stylised line drawing backgrounds. There's an "anything goes" sense to his storytelling at this point that leaves even his short films feeling a bit arbitrary and unformed, and it's all over the final third of Gay Purr-ee, which ceases to feel like anything but a collection of beats designed to get the movie to end rather than the natural conclusion to where the story, thin as it was, had started.

Not that Gay Purr-ee was ever sold as a great piece of storytelling, nor despite the narrator's promise is it much of a great romance. The primary draw in 1962, and probably ever since, was Garland's vocal performance, her only role in an animated movie ever. The use of established celebrities as voice actors in animated movies goes at least as far back as the cluster of radio comics who voiced the dwarfs in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 25 years earlier, but there's a world of difference between using the fellow who does funny sneezes on the radio to play a character who sneezes, and casting an A++ movie star as the voice of an animated cat. As far as I can be certain, Gay Purr-ee was the very first animated movie ever marketed as a star vehicle, meaning that all of the woes of modern commercial animation can be laid at its feet - but of course that's not fair. Garland was a major star, but her primary appeal was her voice, and she anyway spends less time in Gay Purr-ee reciting dialogue than she does singing the many songs written for the film by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg (the team behind the greatest of Garland's musicals, The Wizard of Oz) - enjoyable enough songs, in that mellow pop style that was still hanging around in the 1960s before the British Invasion, but it's Garland's performance rather than the songs themselves that makes them memorable. Which she's fine at, though undistinguished: it's hard to imagine the greatest voice actor in the history of the medium doing very much to distinguish Mewsette, certainly the least-interesting important character in the Joneses' script.

Really, Frees and Gingold (knowingly playing a mock reprise of her Gigi character) are the only actors who particularly stand out as giving much personality to their characters, which is a combination of the fact that animated villains are nearly always better than animated protagonists, along with their voices: Gingold's is one of the most fascinatingly craggy in all of movies and theater, and Frees is the only lead to have a career in voice acting (Mel Blanc plays a few very small roles), and he's more than up to the task of putting some wrinkles and subtleties into his charming cad.

At least the film is reasonably interesting to look at, though hardly consistent. The backgrounds are all modeled on late-19th Century art, broadly defined - there's maybe a bit more of Vincent van Gogh's influence than other name-brand painters, but not to anything like an exclusive degree. Late in the film, in a completely frivolous digression that exists mostly to let the artists play, Meowrice has a series of portraits commissioned, in which Mewsette is painted by the great artists living in Paris at the time (and Pablo Picasso, who was most certainly not); the caricatures of the styles of figures like Degas, Monet, Gauguin, and so on are fun, although the tenor the movie takes on of "alright kiddies, who wants an art history lesson?" is pandering. Even when it's not aping specific art forms, but simply presenting a more 19th Century-esque version of UPA's typical backdrops, the film still uses color and line well - the Expressionist shapes and bold red/green palette of Meowrice's villain song is a particular highlight.

The character designs and animation aren't nearly as interesting as the backgrounds, sadly. There's no overriding design sensibility - some characters, like Mewsette and Mme. Rubens-Chatte, have the thick lines and arresting contrast between sharp lines and curves that clearly put them in line with UPA's traditions, however diluted. But Jaune Tom and Meowrice are much more like Jones's characters from around this time (Meowrice looks distractingly like Wile E. Coyote), all hard corners and blocks of color. Robespierre looks like the little crapsack toyetic characters from Hanna-Barbera cartoons that didn't exist yet. And while there are individual conceits in the animation that are interesting - the slow burn way that Jaune Tom turns into a bolt of lightning to chase mice, certainly - there's nothing terribly distinctive here. The animation isn't limited enough for it to feel like an artistic choice, nor is it smooth enough to be pleasant that way; it's all but indistinguishable from the latter-day Magoos or the zombified Looney Tunes that were being made around the same time.

Sad as it is to say, there was simply nothing left to do with this aesthetic by 1962. UPA had won - the year prior to Gay Purr-ee, Disney itself had released a "talking animals in a European capital with contemporary comic attitudes" picture the year prior, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and its angular, graphic character designs and sketchy backgrounds clearly showcase the influence of the UPA minimalist style, even if Disney's features would never come remotely close to the techniques of limited animation, not even the quasi-limited animation of Gay Purr-ee. But the fact that Disney, so antagonist to the modern style of UPA and the '50s Warner Bros. cartoons, had absorbed that style is itself testament to how ubiquitous it was, and Gay Purr-ee brings nothing to the table. I would, by all means, agree that it's thoroughly nice to look at, and Garland's songs are as terrific as they ought to be (the non-Garland songs are fine, but not particularly memorable), so it's generally nice to listen to, as well. But plenty of shorts from this period are no less nice to look at, and they're brief enough that you don't have cope with Gay Purr-ee's dozey plot to get the benefit of them.