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Review: 'The Rabbi's Cat' is a chatty rationalist

The animated film presents a philosophical debate involving a thoughtful rabbi and a disputatious feline. Their costar: 1930s Africa.

January 17, 2013|By Sheri Linden
  • A scene from "The Rabbi's Cat."
A scene from "The Rabbi's Cat." (Handout )

The title character of "The Rabbi's Cat" is not your everyday cartoon fluffball. He's scrawny, apparently hairless and unapologetically disputatious. The animated world he inhabits is no kid-friendly adventure but a philosophical quarrel in the form of a frenetic road trip through 1930s Africa.

Based on several volumes of the graphic novel series by Joann Sfar, the hand-drawn film is directed by Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux, who use a rich palette and a mix of visual styles ranging from blunt to dazzling.

Like Sfar's live-action biopic "Gainsbourg," the movie brims with incident and fantasy. It's also exceptionally talky, and as good as the voice cast is — it includes Maurice Bénichou as the rabbi and Mathieu Amalric — that wordiness can be wearing, or at least an occasionally unwanted distraction from the images, with their delightful detail.

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The cat too contributes to the talkathon, having received the power of speech after devouring the family parrot. Voiced by François Morel, he's a lovable rationalist who engages the rabbi in debates on religious precepts but nonetheless wants very much to be bar mitzvahed.

The episodic story, which begins in atmospheric Algiers and doesn't so much conclude as stop, tracks a ragtag bunch of characters on a transcontinental expedition in search of "Africa's Jerusalem." Traveling through desert and jungle, they confront zealotry, colonialism and racism as well as a self-impressed twit who's an obvious parody of Tintin.

It's a wild and vivid ride and a spirited reminder of the kinship between Jewish and Arab cultural traditions.

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"The Rabbi's Cat." No MPAA rating; in French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. At selected theaters.

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