Warner Bros via Everett Collection
It’s officially awards season, and the Annie Awards are the latest to announce their picks for the best films of the year, with Frozen, The Croods, Monsters University, Despicable Me 2, and The Wind Rises facing off against each other for the title of Best Animated Picture. Not only are all of those films considered to be contenders for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, as the is often a great deal of overlap between the winners of the two awards, but all of the current major forces in animated films are accounted for: Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, and Studio Ghibli. They’ve all had a feature win the top prize before, which is unsurprising as the Best Picture award tends to go to the biggest animated film of the year.
This year’s winner could be more difficult to predict than usual, due to a number of factors. Both traditional Disney and Pixar films have long records of success at the Annie Awards, each with more wins than any of the other studios, major or minor. Both Frozen and Monsters Univeristy were highly-anticipated, box office successes, and they’ve recieved positive reviews. As such, this category could really be a fight between these two films, as they could both easily be considered the biggest animated picture of the year. However, Despicable Me 2 and The Croods were also major commercial successes, which could help them out if Pixar and Disney split the vote. Then, of course, there’s The Wind Rises, which not only got wonderful reviews, but is the last film that Hayao Miyazaki will ever make, and the desire to reward the great animator could swing voters in its favor. Of course, there’s also the slight chance that the Annie for Best Picture could bypass all of these big films and be awarded to either Ernest & Celestine or A Letter to Momo, the two lesser known films. It seems very unlikely, but it has happened before… when the 1997 Annie for Best Animated Feature was awarded to Cats Don’t Dance, a cult favorite that was a disaster at the box office.
When looking back at the list of Annie Best Picture winners, Cats Don’t Dance is a clear outlier. Nominated against Hercules and Space Jam, it was certainly not the most attention-grabbing film of the year, nor was it the most successful, earning just over $3 million at the box office. Sixteen years later, the film is not nearly as well remembered as its competitors. After all, a cast that included Scott Bakula, Kathy Najimi, and Jasmine Guy of A Different World isn’t nearly as attractive as Michael Jordan, R. Kelly, Danny DeVito, and James Woods. Cats Don’t Dance was also unfortunate enough to be released during the merger between Time Warner and Warner Bros, resulting in very little promotion, which couldn’t stand up to the Disney renaissance. But even with the right promotion, there’s no telling whether or not children would have flocked to Cats Don’t Dance, which feature a more adult-friendly plot and soundtrack than most animated films at the time.
The story of Cats Don’t Dance follows Danny, a cat from Indiana who moves to Hollywood to pursue his dream of movie stardom. However, once he arrives, he finds that animal actors aren’t treated as well as the humans, and his attempts to gain attention and screen time for himself and his animal actor friends earns him the wrath of Darla Dimple, a nightmare child star who makes it her mission to destroy Danny. Not only is the storyline of Danny trying to “make it in Hollywood” not very likely to attract children, the film is full of references and jokes to the 1930s movie musicals that were its inspiration, which would go over the heads of most children. Even its score, composed by Pixar favorite Randy Newman, is a little too sophisticated for the average child’s taste. So how did Cats Don’t Dance manage to walk away with the Annie, despite all of the odds stacked against it?
Well, to put it simply, it was the best animated film of the year. In fact, in my humble opinion, it may be one of the best animated films of all time. The story is by turns funny and emotional, and the kind of movie that you understand better as you get older. The more jokes you understand and the more references you get, the more entertaining the film becomes, and the themes of determining whether to keep following your dreams or to walk away from them are something that resonate much more with an older audience than with children. The centerpiece of the score, “Tell Me Lies,” which is sung by Natalie Cole, not only becomes more poignant the older you get, but is also much more sophisticated than anything found on most animated scores. It might not be more memorable than Space Jam, but it is a much better film.
Even though the Annies tend to go to the biggest, splashiest film of the year, those films are, more often than not, the best animated films of the year as well. When Disney was winning the Best Picture award year after year it was for films like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, which are still considered some of the greatest films the studio has ever produced. Likewise, all of the Pixar films that have won the award are regonized as stellar films. In that respect, at least, Cats Don’t Dance fits right in. It might be the least famous and the least successful film to win an Annie, but there’s no doubt as to its quality. And it only gets better with age.
The winners of the 2013 Annie Awards will be announced on February 1. In the meantime, check out the finale number from Cats Don’t Dance, below, or stream the whole thing on Netflix.