Completely inept and incredibly bizarre, Spy Cat is not worth paying money to see but it’s also not not worth a viewing.
Note: a truncated version of this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Disclaimer: this review was made possible thanks to a review provided by the film’s UK distributor, Signature Entertainment.
I am becoming ever more convinced that Wolfgang and Christoph Lauenstein are aliens from another planet who have yet to hold a successful conversation with a human being. The twins, German filmmakers and Academy Award winners for their 1989 surrealist stop-motion short Balance, have put out feature films aimed at children in back-to-back years and both those films have been so utterly bizarre and uncanny, coupled with appalling animation qualities and random-happenstance plotting, that I’m having to cook up conspiracy theories in order to explain the strangeness away. The exact strange badness of Luis & the Aliens, their work from last year, and Spy Cat, known as Marnie’s World in its native Germany, are not mere results of slapdash dubbing and translation from its native language, although both movies most assuredly feature those. No, they extend way baser than such an excuse, so much so that not even the usual rationalisation of opportunistic charlatans trying to copy the 2000s Pixar and DreamWorks formulas without understanding how or why they work covers it.
Now, to be clear, Spy Cat is bad in almost exactly the same ways that the vast majority of rubbish cheap animated shovelware from foreign countries slopped into cinema screens by distributors expecting a guaranteed easy profit are bad. It’s an ugly and astonishingly cheap-looking film with flat backgrounds, crude textures, a sickly colour palette, ultra-basic boarding and character models that are inconsistently proportioned (many times changing sizes between shots), plastic-y and dead behind the eyes. The animation itself is lacking in fluid motion which makes conversations look like animatronics at a rundown fairground ride and action setpieces barely meet the level of the cutscenes from Mort the Chicken on the PS1. The characters all have a total of one trait each (if they’re lucky) and many of them grate on the nerves. The narrative is simultaneously under and over-plotted, burying a premise that could barely sustain a single 12-minute Disney Jr. episode under a mountain of pointless detours and side-plots which add nothing except the minutes required to reach feature-length. And the dub is atrocious with alternately flat and shrill line-reads from incompetent actors, sound effects frequently missing altogether, and many instances of dubbers talking even though their character’s mouths aren’t moving.
In many such films, a contemptuous sense of “they’re kids, they have no quality control so it’s good enough” pervades their being. But the films of the brothers Lauenstein are bound by too much… let’s charitably term it “ambition” for me to go to such a cynical interpretation. Luis & the Aliens may have began from a generic “loner kook child with parental issues makes friends with oddball outcast aliens” premise utilised by, to name just the most recent example, DreamWorks’ Home, but that soon spun out to include tonally-jarring scenes of emotional neglect, an inciting incident involving infomercials for electric massage machines, homicidal school principals and eventually intergalactic governmental conspiracies, all performed by characters who talk and act like a rudimentary artificial intelligence’s best approximation of conscious organic life forms. It was also ugly to watch, shrill on the ears and plotted with all the care of a Madlibs session whose participants have ingested a kilo of cocaine, but the eventual weirdness at least made sitting through the thing constantly intriguing rather than a slog.
Spy Cat, meanwhile, starts at weird and never truly stops. Set in a tiny village called Drabville, we follow hyper-pampered and weirdly human-like even by animated kids film standards housecat Marnie Sunshine (Karoline Maskvar-Oppen who delivers all her lines as if her recording session was at 3am in the morning in perpetual fear of waking the neighbours) whose daily routine of sleeping, eating at the table with a knife and fork, and watching her favourite spy show is about to be interrupted by the arrival of Paul (Phil Lewis). Paul is the cousin of Marnie’s owner Rosalinde (Manon Kahle) who hasn’t been seen for years until he turns up on their doorstep in a wheelchair asking for a place to stay. See, it turns out he’s a world-famous cat burglar with a flying wheelchair as his getaway vehicle and he’s in Drabville to steal kitschy paintings by a local artist that are somehow worth millions of dollars. When Marnie discovers the ruse, a whole mess of SHENANIGANS ensue that lead her to team up with an abused guard-dog named Elvis (Tom Zahner), a spiritual rooster named Eggbert (Tony Clark) on the run from a bunch of sexually-frustrated chickens that want to sacrifice him to their farmer’s chicken soup, and a donkey named Anton (Lewis again) pretending to be a zebra in order to bring down the robbers.
That ungainly summary isn’t even the half of it, folks. Accompanying press materials quote Spy Cat’s inspiration as being the Grimm fairytale The Bremen Town Musicians which at least retroactively explains why these specific animals, but doesn’t dispel any notions that this was a script written for human characters and otherwise had animals swapped in at the last minute. Example: much is made of Eggbert and Anton not having hands, it’s a minor plot point, yet both characters will still end up carrying objects firmly in their non-hands throughout anyway. Another has our animal cast holding a conversation with the police through judicious editing of television dialogue in order to get around their being animals incapable of human speech, yet every other instance in the movie the humans act as if the animals are everyday humans capable of talking, driving, and being master-thieves. What is with the entire Eggbert subplot, exactly? If the farmer is so enthralled to his weekly chicken soup, then why is he sacrificing his own chickens, whom he names and shows great remorse over eating, to the pot each week? And who out there was crying out for infrequent cutaways to a mob of sexually-frustrated chickens who seem to think that rooster is a like substitute for chicken in chicken soup?
Questions like these pile up in a surprisingly rapid fashion throughout Spy Cat. Why does the film break into a North by Northwest homage for one brief setpiece which is never mentioned again afterwards? How are a bunch of kitschy portraits of unassuming villagers, many of which must have been fairly recently painted given their lack of age difference, worth several millions of dollars? Since Drabville has a working Internet, how does no-one else in the village know that said painter is very famous until our animals spell it out for them by doing a Google? Where is Drabville supposed to be, exactly? It’s not quite European, but it’s not quite English countryside either, and there’s that Northwest homage but nothing else about the setting is reminiscent of anywhere in America.
Are we supposed to care about the one-sided love-story between Rosalinde and a random postman with a son of his own, cos the movie makes that a lynchpin of the climax despite the characters only interacting twice up to that point (the first seemingly being the first-time in-universe too)? What are we supposed to make of Rosalinde having Marnie’s two predecessors stuffed and mounted on the top of a cabinet, with a spot reserved for Marnie in the future, because that’s a highly disturbing detail the film only uses for a brief “avoiding detection by blending in” gag? Why does everyone refer to Marnie’s TV show as a “crime show” when it is clearly a spy show? Why does Elvis’ voice change every four or five lines?
Some of those queries may seem inconsequential and nitpicky, but they all add up over time to create a film whose continued viewing becomes bizarrely compulsive. Even though the truly strange moments that provoke spontaneous “WHAT THE HECK?!” reactions aren’t as frequent as in the best bad movies, their appearances act more as exclamatory punctuations to the mundane off-ness the rest of the film provides, like a family-friendly Tim & Eric sketch albeit possibly unintentional? That’s what most gets me about this and Luis & The Aliens. Both films are so fundamentally strange and surreal but such surrealism doesn’t feel wholly intentional, like the Lauensteins’ movies are in a tug-of-war between generic convention and gonzo absurdity with neither side truly winning.
It’s mesmerising to watch in the way all good trainwrecks are. And, in fairness, it does mark a genuine improvement on Luis which even in its wackiest beats could be unbearably shrill and irritating. So, Spy Cat is not worth watching, definitely not at a cinema and most definitely not with money exchanging hands in any capacity. But Spy Cat is also not not worth watching, if you get my drift. For bad movie aficionados, I can’t help but recommend it for further study. For me, if I have to sit through cheap animated shovelware, I will gladly take the barely-explicable cuckoo-birds over the generic lifeless cash-grabs any day of the week.
Spy Cat will be playing exclusively at VUE cinemas nationwide for families unable to get into sold-out Endgame screenings from today.
Callum Petch is out under the big bright yellow sun.