Saturday, March 11, 2017

NYICFF ’17: Rudolf the Black Cat

Hiroshi Saito’s series of children’s books could be likened to a more feline-centric Incredible Journey. A plucky young kitten is indeed determined to reunite with his owner. However, he will learn some hard lessons about what it means to be a cat in Kunihiko Yuyama & Motonori Sakakibara’s Rudolph the Black Cat (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Through his own boneheadness, Rudolf (named after the Habsburg prince, not the reindeer) lands in a Tokyo bound lorry. Prior to this misadventure, he had no conception of the scale and intensity of the larger outside world. He is an older kitten, but he is still ill-prepared for the life of a stray. Fortunately, gruff, street smart Gottalot (a.k.a. Tiger, a.k.a. Boss, a.k.a. etc., hence his preferred handle) takes the naïve black cat under his wing (and teaches him Kanji).

He also makes pals with Bucchi, a randy calico with a mild case of ADD, but the notorious bulldog Devil gives Rudo (as he is now known on the streets) some seriously bad vibes—with good reason. Of course, Rudo and his new friends concoct a workable plan to get him home, but there will be unforeseen complications that really put a cat’s life in perspective.

In terms of animation, it is no Studio Ghibli masterpiece, but Yuyama & Sakakibara (of Pokemon and Final Fantasy fame, respectively) keep it lively and inviting. Their cats (and dog) are enormously expressive and their Tokyo backdrops are surprisingly evocative. Technically, it should earn a pass from animation snobs and its big heart will win over a wide spectrum of viewers.

Yes, lessons will be learned and throats will get choked up, but there is still a lot of mischievous fun to be had along the way. Yôichi Katô’s presumably faithful adaptation also makes sure young viewers end up at a safe and comfy place—just not the one they were probably assuming. Frankly, it is probably just challenging enough for youngsters and just sophisticated enough for oldsters.

Black Cat is sort of a variation on the Finding Nemo theme, but Rudo and company take it in a very different direction. Kids will most likely find it far more captivating than adults, but the latter should still appreciate its charm. Recommended as a sweet and worthy work of animated storytelling, Rudolf the Black Cat screens again on Sunday the 19th, the final day of this year’s NYICFF.