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That Darn Cat (1997) DVD Review

"That Darn Cat" (1997) movie poster That Darn Cat

Theatrical Release: February 14, 1997 / Running Time: 89 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Bob Spiers

Cast: Christina Ricci (Patti Randall), Doug E. Doug (Zeke Kelso), Dean Jones (Mr. Flint), George Dzundza (Captain Boetticher), Peter Boyle (Pa), Michael McKean (Peter Randall), Bess Armstrong (Judy Randall), Dyan Cannon (Mrs. Flint), John Ratzenberger (Dusty), Megan Cavanagh (Lu), Estelle Parsons (Old Lady McCracken), Rebecca Schull (Ma), Tom Wilson (Melvin), Brian Haley (Mervin), Mark Christopher Lawrence (Rollo)

Buy That Darn Cat (1997) from Amazon.com: DVD Instant Video

After decreasing the production of family-friendly live action films in the 1980s, the Walt Disney Studios returned to full speed a few years into the '90s. One of the things this expansion of projects would lead to is an influx of remakes. The company first explored the territory by updating its more popular '70s live action works for television: new filmings of Escape to Witch Mountain, Freaky Friday, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and The Barefoot Executive all claimed network airwaves in 1995. Then, the Mouse moved to do the same with bigger budgets and expectations.

Disney's theater-bound remakes, while all live-action, would not be limited to tapping this medium or even only in-house productions. In 1996, the company scored one of its biggest non-animated hits in years, with a Glenn Close-headlined version of 101 Dalmatians. This was merely the start (at least, if you consider 1994's Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book a different adaptational approach and forget that MGM made its own Angels in the Outfield in the early '50s);
feature-length versions of non-Disney cartoon television series, non-Disney sitcoms, and non-Disney live action films ensued. Some were successful (George of the Jungle and Inspector Gadget, which both would spawn direct-to-video sequels); others not so much (Mr. Magoo, Mighty Joe Young, and My Favorite Martian). Next summer's Underdog notwithstanding, today has found Disney moving away from adapting/remaking external properties.

The studio's own works, however, still seem to be fair game. Whether it's in creating new direct-to-video adventures inside beloved animated universes or reconfiguring lucrative live action comedies of the past to appeal to contemporary audiences, Disney has actively sought to extend the lifetimes and reaches of some of its most popular stories. This trend also has its seeds in the mid-1990s, shortly after the apex of CEO Michael Eisner's reign. Before the high-profile (and generally warmly-received) remakes of The Absent-Minded Professor (Robin Williams' Flubber), The Parent Trap, and Freaky Friday, there was That Darn Cat, released to theaters in February of 1997.

A scratched watch + relevant newspaper report = Patti Randall (Christina Ricci) is onto something this morning! Doug E. Doug, the man so nice they named him twice, plays Zeke Kelso, the amusing FBI agent assigned to the case.

Based on the 1965 film which marked Hayley Mills' last, and Dean Jones' first, of many Disney cinematic outings, That Darn Cat tells the story of a teenage girl's resourceful feline who may be the key to solving a kidnapping mystery that is eluding the FBI. This remake retains the central characters' names and that basic plot, but otherwise changes most other aspects. That's a good move, though, since complete fidelity to the original would be pointless and since the passing of thirty-two years has rendered change that wouldn't allow everything to fit in the contemporary setting.

Patti Randall, Hayley Mills' hip, free-spirited protagonist, has been updated to an angsty teenage girl (played by Christina Ricci) who loathes her hometown of Edgefield, a tiny neighborhood outside of Boston. Though in the entirety of the original film, Patti and her older sister went parentally unsupervised, this Patti is an only child and all too closely watched by her mother (Bess Armstrong) and father (Michael McKean), who are friendly, and therefore, in Patti's eyes, not the most fun people to be around. Patti is pleased when some excitement creeps into her oh-so-mundane life from an unexpected place: her inquisitive cat D.C. comes home from one of his nightly roams wearing a watch that says "HEll" on it. With some optimism and an opportune photo/report on a local kidnapping, Patti takes a leap in logic to assert that the watch is meant to read "HELP", which must mean that it belongs to the kidnapped woman.

Patti pursues reporting this matter and when the town police aren't interested, she hops a bus to Boston and drops by the Federal Bureau of Investigations. There, a dorky agent named Zeke Kelso (Doug E. Doug) is assigned to hearing her out, something he does with much skepticism. Nevertheless, Kelso soon becomes Patti's partner on the case, and the two oversee a team trailing D.C. on the cat's regular prowls. As in the original, there are obstacles to be overcome, not least of which is rampant disbelief that the troubling case's best witness could be furry and four-legged. Still, Kelso (who, in addition to being allergic, now has an accomplished father to live up to) and Patti explore their options and try to figure out the whereabouts of the hostage and the identity of her captors.

Zeke and Patti are ready for action, but D.C. isn't yet ready to prowl. A star of the original movie and a genuine Disney legend, Dean Jones shows up for this remake as the once-wealthy Mr. Flint. Dyan Cannon, left, plays his cosmetically-enhanced wife.

That Darn Cat offers a much faster pace than its '60s predecessor, covering seemingly more ground in 27 minutes less running time. That is due in no small part to the screenplay (from the writing duo behind Problem Child and Ed Wood), which fleshes out the original plot to include more angles. This nature demands a much larger cast, which in turn, explains the presence of plenty of quirky townsfolk, who are brought to life by likable character actors. These include two competing car repairmen (John Ratzenberger and Mark Christopher Lawrence) engaged in an ongoing duel,
an odd female butcher who likes to dress up and dance alone in her shop after hours (Megan Cavanagh), and a pair of dim-witted cops (Brian Haley and Back to the Future's Tom Wilson). A happy return is in order for Dean Jones, who holds a supporting role as half of the financially wrecked couple whose maid (Rebecca Koon) is the kidnappee. The other half is Dyan Cannon, playing a high-maintenance woman with a history of plastic surgery.

The movie has a good sense of humor, with some of the biggest laughs emanating from small, downplayed moments. Not all of the jokes land. One gag creates a series of misunderstandings around Patti's parents, which should be cleared up pretty quickly, but isn't. Unfortunately, the concluding scenes do not live up to the promising start, with a ridiculous revelation, some moments of poor taste, and a mess of a chase spoiling a bit the bubbly fun which preceded them. The British television director in the helm seems like an odd match for the material. But if there is little evidence of Bob Spiers' storied past in Britcoms in this treatment, there is also nothing to suggest he would next unleash Spice World on humanity.

In their various parts, the cast is generally charismatic and adds to the film in ways beyond widespread familiarity. Ricci does a good job at making her lead sympathetic, which is no small task for a character which could easily be quite annoying. Doug E. Doug showcases some of the fine comedic timing he lent to Cool Runnings, even if his role borders on cartoonish at times. Also deserving recognition is Elvis the Cat, who plays D.C. well, even if he doesn't match the original's Siamese in screentime or screen presence.

"What are you lookin' at, butthead?" Yes, that is the one and only Biff Tannen, half of one the film's numerous odd couples. Speaking of which, John Ratzenberger and Mark Christopher Lawrence play a couple of car repairmen who are always at odds.

Despite its connection to what is probably Hayley Mills' third most-liked/well-known Disney film, That Darn Cat did not make much of a mark at the box office, earning a very modest $18 million. By comparison, three other Disney comedies released the same year -- Jungle 2 Jungle, George of the Jungle, and Flubber -- each grossed three to six times as much. Even Mr. Magoo, 1997's much-maligned Christmas opening, took in a little bit more.

The public's unwillingness to take to the film may have mirrored critics' sour reactions. But don't let either of those facts, nor That Darn Cat's disappointing final act put you off. Admittedly, this remake is not likely to supplant the original in viewers' minds the way it seems like 2003's Freaky Friday and, to a lesser degree, 1998's The Parent Trap, have done for young modern audiences. Nor should it, since as a whole, the remake is nowhere near as satisfying as its predecessor. That still doesn't change the fact that this romp offers some good-spirited fun that seems more in line with the live action films of Walt's era (for obvious reasons) than the fare the studio has put out more recently.

Two final related notes... There are just enough contemporary elements to already date this a little bit, which is not a negative thing and may even make it ripe for nostalgia suckers in the future who missed it the first time around. To that degree, whereas the original film had then-boss big band crooner Bobby Darin singing the opening title song, here there is a catchy (slightly punk) rock theme (by curiously uncredited performers) which is repeatedly weaved into the movie's active score and makes for memorable opening and closing music. That darn cat!

Buy That Darn Cat from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French),
Dolby Surround (Spanish)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
Release Date: May 6, 2003
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $14.99 (Reduced from $19.99)
White Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

That Darn Cat (1997) came to DVD two years (to the week) before That Darn Cat! (1965) did. While progress would suggest the original received better digital treatment, that's not necessarily the case.
For instance, the original movie came to disc in the US in a cropped fullscreen transfer; this was confirmed just this year when Region 2 got the movie in a wider, 16x9-enhanced transfer via the film's UK debut. The remake's package plainly claimed a "Fullscreen (1.33:1)" presentation for it, which doubtlessly would have been compromised. It was believable, though, since it reached stores at a time when pretty much all live action films were turning up pan-and-scan.

Gladly, the packaging lied. (It supposedly has been corrected for subsequent printings.) The film is actually presented in a 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen transfer. The lack of 16x9 enhancement is a disappointment, to be sure, and it's not the only one. As an apparent laserdisc-to-DVD port, the picture here is not the best it could be. There's some edge enhancement, coupled with elements having jagged edges. A tiny bit of shimmering and compression that clearly is not what it is now (nor what it should have been three years ago) mar the proceedings a bit as well. Still, overall, the video is pretty good and the print is largely immaculate. While there's room for improvement, this is not a title which will be revisited on DVD, unless somehow the stars align for a welcome 2-movie original + remake set that is not merely a repackaging. At least it's in widescreen (something that can't be said for the original and countless other live action films) and at least it's highly watchable.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack leaves less to be desired. It's a solid mix, which delivers the crisp dialogue and consistent volume levels expected, plus occasional but potent directional effects in the surround speakers (most notably in Kelso's fire escape fall). In addition to the pleasant aforementioned theme-incorporating score, there are a few apt prerecorded song selections to enjoy here, including the best use of The Beach Boys' "Help Me Rhonda" since "ALF" Season 1 (which was among the numerous casualties of that show's DVDs).

BONUS FEATURES and MENUS

In the bonus features department, That Darn Cat matches its '60s counterpart, which is to say it has nothing. Actually, the original has an auto-playing promo for vintage live action films on DVD, so you can chalk the absence of a similar ad here as a plus or minus based on your viewpoint. By 2003, Disney had already given up including trailers for the feature presentation on most of its films' DVDs, but even such a simple bonus would have been welcome. I'd also be shocked if there weren't some deleted scenes content (or at least bloopers) that existed for such a brisk comedy film.

The menus opt for simplicity; there is no animation or music. The minimal listings have you covered as far as the disc's limited options go, while the imagery is randomly and crudely compiled.

The end of the movie is a bit of a mess, literally. That Darn Cat!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Released near the beginning of the wave of remakes that marked Disney's mid-to-late 1990s live action output, That Darn Cat did not delight critics or earn much in the way of public support. That, coupled with the studio's notoriously poor DVD treatment of its live action catalogue, explain why its long-overdue DVD debut was far from momentous. While the video is disappointingly not 16x9-enhanced and leaves room for improvement, the facts that the movie is in its original aspect ratio (despite what the packaging claims) and equipped with a very good Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack help to overlook the complete, utter and all too common lack of bonus features.

It should be obvious then that your decision to check out this DVD rests squarely on the film itself. Though it may not equal or outdo its Hayley Mills-starring predecessor, That Darn Cat still has a fair amount of merit as a comedy/lightweight mystery. The original plot has been comfortably updated to match the times and a noticeably quicker pace, plus the movie boasts competent performances from a wide cast of likable actors. All things taken together, this may not be worthy of a recommended purchase, but it deserves more than a dismissal and a rental may very well lead to this fun flick joining your Disney collection.

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Related Reviews:
The Original: That Darn Cat! (1965)
Jungle 2 Jungle (1997) The Big Green (1995) Cool Runnings (1993)
Hercules (1997) Inspector Gadget (1999) The Phoenix & The Carpet (1997)
Hocus Pocus (1993) Angels in the Endzone (1997) Halloweentown (1998)
Remakes: The Parent Trap (1998) Freaky Friday (2003) The Shaggy Dog (2006)
Cats: The Three Lives of Thomasina (1963) Oliver & Company (1988) The Cat From Outer Space (1978)
Featuring Christina Ricci: Prozac Nation (2005) Grey's Anatomy: The Complete Second Season (2005-06)
Featuring Dean Jones: The Ugly Dachshund (1966) The Love Bug (1969) Million Dollar Duck (1971)

The Book: Undercover Cat by Mildred and Gordon Gordon
The Soundtrack: That Darn Cat: An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack
The Original Movie on DVD: That Darn Cat! (1965)

Footnote: 1. The Edgefield filmed in is actually Edgefield, South Carolina, while Augusta, Georgia stands in for Boston.

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Reviewed October 19, 2006.