A review requested by Kelleson, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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"Adult animation" is a category so broad as to be meaningless,* but I bet if I just put the phrase out there, you probably have something relatively specific in mind. I'll even go so far as to say that it's probably not so very far from what I have in mind: something that heavily indulges in sex, violence, or both; something that uses unrealistic cartoon characters in this indulgence; something that is rife with a sarcastic sense of humor and a cynical worldview; something that is "subversive" in a kind of limited way, where it's not really creating a "subversion" of Disney (which is the only target these sorts of films ever seem to pick up), so much as a burlesque. It has a snarling "fuck you" attitude, a delight in rubbing our noses in the unsavory, the lurid, the tawdry, dressed in the bright colors and whimsical humor we tend to think of as customary to the medium. It has an adolescent's desire to shock and offend, because after all, genuine honest-to-God adults never feel the need to assert their own adulthood. Which is why I can't bring myself to think of something like e.g. Don Hertzfeldt's powerfully morbid It's Such a Beautiful Day as "adult animation", even if it is squarely and securely about the difficulties of navigating life as one grows ever older and more incapable of change.

I bring all of this up because the 1994 German animated feature Felidae is "adult animation" by every inch of the definition I just gave, and it does something miraculous: it made me feel happy that I was watching adult animation. I mean, I want to like adult animation. I am, in a sense, professionally obligated to admire it. But it tends to leave me feeling very tired at the effortful nastiness of it all. And by all means, Felidae is nasty, much nastier than anything that Ralph Bakshi has ever done, for example (this film very strongly resembles his work, right down to being about cats). The difference is that this is, somehow, "authentically" nasty, whatever I mean by that. It still has the same snotty desire to tweak Disney with edgy, nihilistic content (The Aristocats is name-dropped, and it seems self-evident to me that the film is drawing a great deal of its visual style from Oliver & Company), but it probably helps that this didn't begin life as an animation project, but as a book, a 1989 mystery novel by Akif Pirinçci, who co-wrote the film's screenplay with Martin Kruger. Insofar as it is possible for this material to be wholly serious, Felidae is, and I suspect that literary foundation helps.

For it's a very philosophically-oriented work, maybe even surprisingly so; in particular, I had no idea when I started that I'd end up watching yet another in the infinitely long line of German artworks trying to grapple with the country's unhealed psychic lesions from the Nazi regime, this time with a focus on the way that cruelty blossoms in a world where everybody is seen as an untrustworthy stranger. And with a subplot that basically states that an unhealthy fascination with genetics can't help but lead to the depraved human experimentation perpetrated during the Holocaust, when the celebration of science isn't carefully checked and constrained by a fiercely-defended code of ethics. Which is a lot for an 82-minute cartoon about talking cats.

Foremost among these is our narrator, Francis (Ulrich Tukur), who immediately takes on the mien of a '40s private eye, telling us about the time his human owner (Manfred Steffen), an author of romance novels, moved into a new neighborhood in the city. Taking an instinctive dislike to the smell of his new flat's second floor, Francis goes out walking, and, like, immediately finds the body of another cat, its throat torn out. He also finds an old, badly disfigured, and growlingly self-satisfied new acquaintence in the form of Blaubart (Mario Adorf), who encourages him to start investigating. Seems that these cat deaths have been happening a lot lately, and while Blaubart is convinced the perpetrator is a "can-opener" - cat slang for humans - Francis is sure that it must be another cat, based on the wounds. Thus begins a story that's equal parts detective thriller and serial killer horror, as Francis discovers several other mutiliated cat corpses, some of them depicted with a remarkable attention to how their visceral might splay out of their ruined bodies, for what simple line drawings of cats in blocky colors. He also discovers a secret history involving some deeply vicious animal experiments that were conducted in the area some years earlier, along with a bizarre cat suicide cult that is, in some unclear way, connected to those experiments. And he mostly finds that the world is a grotesque hell where suffering is absolute, where cult behavior leads only to ruin and misery, where meddling in God's domain is the work only of the most depraved egotists, and that evil thrives if good cats do nothing.

This is all heavy enough as written, and the execution amplifies that: it's very eager to make sure we've had a good long think about the ways that bodies can be tortured and broken, and while we virtually never see that torture (though there's an electrocution scene that uses the standard slapstick cues of a wacky animal with its tail caught in an outlet - the starbursts, the giant oval eyes, all that - to thoroughly unnerving effect. Turns out that when you play cartoon slapstick without any sense of humor, it looks pretty horrific), we see its after-effects often enough that it's hard to shake. Honestly, the only thing keeping me from just up and calling this "Se7en with cats" is that I'm not entirely sure that Se7en is worthy of the comparison.

Given as dark as the film's mood is - I mean, it's a German film about talking animals, what else would you expect - it's hard to communicate how exciting and watchable Felidae actually is. It's a great detective yarn, harmed only by its extremely weird pacing: 82 minutes is just about perfect for this, except it's been mis-applied across the running time somehow, so that the first third is much too fast and the second third much too slow (the last third hits the Goldilocks zone). Which does, in part, mean that it's a race to keep up with the movie as it sets its story in motion, and there's something to be said for that: it puts us in Francis's fur rather succinctly, as he is unexpectedly plunged into a confusing situation and forced to stay caught up before he's even aware that he's running.

Plus, the thing is simply a beautiful piece of animated filmmaking. This was the most expensive German film ever made at the time of its production, which wasn't enough to come even a little close to the budgets Disney was giving its productions even at their most penny-pinching. Which was decidedly not where Disney was by 1994. Despite this, director Michael Schaack (who almost exclusively worked in comedies other than this film, which probably speaks to how bright it is, and how effortlessly sarcastic, despite the gloom) and his team of artists pushed themselves to do some incredibly ambitious things in both the character animation and layout of the film. The large number of cats we see are all distinctive personalities, designed with rather more variety of shapes and sizes than I think actual cat breeds possess (with enjoyably exaggerated vocal deliveries to match), the better to play with different ways of moving realistic feline forms through space. As for the space, that's where the layout comes in, and it's stunning. The drawn camera leaps and glides through rooms and down roofs with the weightless grace of one of the cats themselves, giving us a wonderful view of the world from a foot off the ground, spinning quickly through backgrounds drawn with painterly warmth and detail that give the film a surprisingly full sense of place, even without the inquisitive 3-D movement further emphasising the presence of the environment.

It's a weird combination of dazzling spectacle and spiritual bleakness; snappy talking animal satire and heavy moral inquiry; for reasons I'm still not fully able to articulate, though, it works. This is terrific as both an animated adventure for grown-ups - a different thing from being "adult animation", though of course it's that also - and as a thematically resonant serial killer picture, and I wouldn't know exactly what to make of that combination even without the fact that the characters were all cats. It brings all kinds of nastiness to the world of the Disney-style animated feature, but treats its medium too sincerely to feel like it's mocking; rather, it seems that they figured out, correctly, that Disney-style animation as the best fit for this story, and proceeded accordingly. Whatever the hell is going on here, it's gripping and tough, a film with much too small of a reputation, even though I've only ever heard very impressive things about it. It is extremely easy to find it streaming online, in both English and German (as in, multiple copies presently exist on YouTube, though you didn't hear that from me), and if you're in the market for a short, punchy, playfully thorny downer, I can't recommend it highly enough.




*"Hey everybody, who wants to watch some adult animation? I brought Grave of the Fireflies, Cool World, the collected short films of Jan Ε vankmajer, and an episode of Bojack Horseman. I thought we could do a marathon."