Mark August 2016 down as the exact moment 90s nostalgia reached peak ridiculousness, since we’re apparently now making movies about corrupt businessmen who learn life lessons by getting turned into talking animals again (in this case a cat). And I’m talking real movies with real theatrical releases, too, not just some straight-to-DVD trifle from Air Bud Entertainment. Said talking animal comeback film, Nine Lives, even features two (!!!) Academy Award-winning actors and hinges its lovable furball antics on topics as hefty as greed, adultery, the ethics of leaving a vegetative state loved one on longterm life support, and attempted suicide. The result is a violent clash of tones that, as evidenced by the surprisingly well-attended screening I just witnessed, will have both toddlers and gin & soda-clutching wastoid drunks (It me.) alike laughing for the entirety of its runtime, albeit for wildly different reasons.
The most impressive thing about Nine Lives to me is how it finds a way to satisfy both sides of the toddler-drunk divide in its audience. For instance, the movie opens with a montage of cat videos lifted from YouTube, a tip of the hat to the audience that says, “Hey, we all know why you’re here, you pathetic thing you.” If you regularly find yourself losing valuable time to internet wormholes of cat-themed home video, you’re likely to get a kick out of Nine Lives‘s simple pleasures: a cat drinking scotch, a cat falling over, a cat slow-dancing with his human daughter, a cat rushing to prevent his human son’s attempted suicide. You know, the little things. If that weren’t enough, and if you don’t mind me spoiling a climactic moment in a children’s talking cat movie, Nine Lives presents internet permakitten Lil Bub as if she were the biggest celebrity cameo get of all time (and she very well may be). The movie’s dedication to broad comedy is inherent to its DNA, so it already has younger kids on the hook, but it also finds ways to rope in a goofier older set who showed up to chuckle at some cat-themed schlock. It does so both in its reverence for internet cat irreverence and in its subversive tendency to tackle dark, chilling topics in an incongruously lighthearted way.
Nine Lives opens with a greedy businessman (Kevin Spacey, Oscar Winner #1) ignoring his wife’s texts & daughter’s birthdays in pursuit of constructing the largest tower in the Northern Hemisphere, a monument to his own grotesque ego. Through a texting-while-driving PSA machination, our business prick anti-hero finds his body trapped in a coma and his mind trapped in an ordinary house cat. This arrangement is orchestrated by a mysterious pet shop owner (Christopher Walken, Oscar Winner #2), who uses his magical, secretive powers as a “cat whisperer” to teach the absent father, now known as Mr. Fuzzypants, a thing or two about humility & familial love. Mr Fuzzypants’s wife & daughter are super bummed about the unexpected coma patient in the family for about the length of a cab ride home and then immediately shift focus to the wacky hijinks of their new furball pet, who meows up a storm in frustration. In between getting drunk, spying on his wife’s suspected infidelity, leeringly watching her undress, and trying to maintain control of his business, Mr. Fuzzypants walks the audience through an inner monologue journey of sarcastic quips until he finally realizes, “I should’ve been a better dad.” His daughter comes to the same realization, declaring “I wish Daddy was more like the cat,” and bonding with the fatherly feline over slow-dances to The Coasters’ “Three Cool Cats” & retaliatory attacks on snotty preteen social media bullies. It’s all very silly (until you reach the suicide crisis of the climax, a moment so shockingly out of place it’s worth mentioning thrice).
One of the weirder aspects of Nine Lives I haven’t touched on yet is the film’s visual palette. Overall, it has an uncannily unreal, cheap feeling to its slick, CG look, recalling the living cartoon artificiality of titles like Speed Racer, Spice World, and Cool as Ice. The overall look of its sarcastic cat protagonist, however, is actually fairly realistic. This obviously isn’t the state of the art technological epiphany of Jon Favreau’s recent Jungle Book adaptation, but the cat genuinely looks pretty great considering the film’s budget. What’s really weird is how the realistic feline navigates the shoddy Photoshop aesthetic of his environment, creating a strange fantasy realm space in the drastic contrast. Nine Lives thankfully doesn’t pull any last second “It was all just a dream” revelations in its conclusion, but its entire story could have all been revealed as a coma-induced hallucination at the end and the visual style would’ve comfortably supported the twist.
The king of anthropomorphic animal schlock in 2015 was undoubtedly the Jack Russell terrier pro wrestling picture Russell Madness. Nine Lives is a clear winner for 2016 so far (though it could’ve easily been surpassed by The Witch or The Shallows were they nudged a little harder in that direction). There’s something absurdly anachronistic about Nine Lives‘s very existence that makes it a fascinating watch as a modern theatrical release. Beyond its Jack Frost-type plot structure & cheap CG production design, Nine Lives manages to feel out of step with time in small details like its multiple George W. Bush & mean ex-wife jokes and its Gremlins-esque magical pet shop. And all this 90s-00s nostalgia haze serves to do is mask a truly disturbing tonal clash between toddler-friendly physical humor & pitch black subject matter, sometimes fused together, like in gag where the mysterious cat whisperer threatens to have Mr. Fuzzypants fixed.
I can’t promise you’ll get as hearty of a laugh out of lines like [trying to operate a computer tablet] “Ironically, I could use a mouse right now” & “Is this cat my dad?!” as I did, but I do think Nine Lives is recommendable for its horrific train wreck appeal in its inner conflict of tone vs. subject matter. When I first bought my ticket I was shocked that it was stamped with the incredibly high rating of PG. By the end credits I was shocked that it was marketed for kids at all. But there we all were, laughing in the theater together, children & tipsy adults alike, each clutching our respective juice boxes & hard liquor containers, finding a wealth of small joys in a dumb movie about a talking cat. A lot of people have declared this a dull summer for major releases without any particular film standing out as a one-of-a-kind event, but I can’t imagine a more essential cinematic experience than that.