Animation as a whole has an incredible capacity for expressing the wilder sides of human imagination. With the ability to draw whatever you want and be able to bring it to life has allowed for all kinds of transgressions, especially ones that upend the status quo and challenge the laws of nature. And as a social species, we often wonder about the inner thoughts of the animals we share our daily lives with. If only we could figure out what was going on in their cute widdle heads... if only they could talk! Widely seen as more intelligent and human-like than dogs, as well as much easier to anthropomorphize using the power of cartoons, cats appear to be a common feature of animated films regardless of country of origin. The movies below range from hauntingly realistic, musing and philosophical, to downright zany, featuring cats in all sorts of roles as colorful villains, amateur detectives, snappy side kicks, and top-hatted dapper dans. Yet each film has a unique take on our understanding of our feline friends, and each teaches us a different lesson about what it means to be animals ourselves. So sink your teeth in to this fancy feast of cat-themed films!
Catnapped is a bizarre adventure that follows a pair of young siblings, Miiko and Toriyasu, as they get transformed into cats and must make their way in a topsy-turvy all-cat alternate universe! The best features of this film include insane character designs, wacky high-flying inventions, and a completely unique cat-world where bright colors and mat hatter logic reign.
9. The Cat Returns
The Cat Returns presents another world of cats, and is the spiritual successor to the 1995 film Whisper of the Heart. This story follows the young schoolgirl Haru, who is whisked away by the head of the Bureau of Cats, debonair tomcat, Baron, after rescuing the Prince of cats, and in doing so turns into a cat herself! A Studio Ghibli nouveau classic, this 2002 film is filled with beautiful scenery, unique characters, and lots of magic.
8. Night on the Galactic Railroad
Pensive, philosophical, and loaded with symbolism, this magical journey follows two best friends that journey out into the night and explore the far reaches of the Milky Way galaxy via locomotive through a web of strange locales. Based on a popular novel in Japan, this film is dense with mystical references and a winding plot that may leave some folks behind. However, the dreamy visuals and ponderous soundtrack make it a must-see.
7. Lucky & Zorba
A true happy-go-lucky film for cat lovers who want a pick-me-up, this limited-release Italian musical will leave your heart warmed! It follows a group of quirky cats and their young charge, an orphaned seagull they dub Lucky. Zorba is a young tomcat whose ego is put in check as he must take on the role of mother to Lucky and teach her how to fly. Featuring a fun soundtrack, including the hit song, "I'm so happy to be a cat!", this film is truly a hidden gem.
6. Oliver & Company
While Oliver and Company stars an almost all-dog cast, the titular cat, Oliver, makes up for it with his adorable kitten charm. A gritty underdog (undercat?) trying to make his way in the wilds of New York City, Oliver finds a group of friendly dogs that teach him street smarts in this contemporary take on Oliver Twist. Filled with catchy songs and a star-studded ensemble cast, this truly American toe-tapper is a Disney classic.
5. Kiki's Delivery Service
Black cat Jiji is young witch Kiki's quick-witted assistant in this Studio Ghibli masterpiece. The whole film subverts tropes associated with witchcraft, taking strange or esoteric features of magic and making them whimsical and accessible, of which Jiji is a prime example. Instead of bestowing bad luck upon Kiki's venture, he is the cantankerous voice of reason, advising her to take less risks running her small business and on her journey into womanhood. Luckily, Kiki's chutzpah keeps him from being a boor, and we get to enjoy watching Jiji continually get pushed out of his comfort zone!
4. April & the Extraordinary World
Riffing off of the adventure comics of mystery-solver Adele Blanc-Sec penned by Jacques Tardi, April & the Extraordinary World is a French steampunk-inspired tale that takes place in an alternate-universe Paris. While the cast is mostly human, April's hyper-intelligent best feline friend Darwin completely steals the show with his quick-witted humor and high-energy optimism. We get to laugh and cry watching this spunky old coot claw his way from death's door all the way to the moon in this exciting sci-fi mystery!
3. The Rabbi's Cat
Based on the acclaimed comics series by Joann Sfar, this cat tale is a languid look at Talmudic philosophy through the eyes of a Rabbi's cat that has gained the power of speech and, surprisingly, has fallen in love with the Rabbi's affectionate daughter. Spanning the plots of several of the original comics, this sprawling tale is a feast for the eyes as well as the mind that asks pointed questions about the nature of life, love, and the divine without giving many answers.
Arguably one of the best musicals Disney has produced, this jazzy tale of Dutchess and her kittens' journey back home with the help of O'Malley the alley cat and his wild band of strays will keep your toes tapping for years to come. Their big hit "Everybody Wants to be a Cat" says it all!
Felidae is a German-Danish feline thriller (Der Katzenthriller!) that will keep you on the edge of your seat right up until the curtain closes. Wild sex, blood sacrifice, eugenics, mad science, a religious cult, and grisly murder color this unique and gripping film that raises the question: "Is man good?" Rated R upon its release due to adult language, gore, and graphic sexual content, this film is not for the faint of heart, but is easily the most complex yet vastly underrated of the films listed here.
Cats Don't Dance
While many remember this film fondly, Aristocats and Oliver and Company pushed this one off my list. But if you like corny musicals with Hollywood glamor and zany villains, eat your heart out!
Whisper of the Heart
While the Baron figures largely in the Cat Returns, he isn't exactly a main character in this story that focuses on humans. That said, if you enjoyed the Cat Returns, put this on your watch list next.
A Cat in Paris
Great film, but the cat doesn't talk. Though neither does the human he's best friends with! If you liked April and the Extraordinary world, give this French feature a try.
Given our predilection for projecting human psychological attributes onto animals, these films about cats reflect the sentiments that we project onto the species as a whole, yet are aspects of being that we respect and admire. We figure cats as simultaneously cute and lovable (Lucky & Zorba, Aristocats, Oliver), wild and aggressive (Felidae, Catnapped!), as well as clever and biting (April, Kiki's Delivery Service, Cat Returns), and they always look like they're thinking about something deep that's just out of our grasp (Night, Rabbi's Cat), and who's to say that they're not? In each of these films, we get answers to all of our questions about cats' personalities by exploring them without boundaries.
Through these limitless depictions of animals, we get to enjoy stories that celebrate the freedom and adventure that animals represent. We desire their independence, their wild temperament, their primal, raw nature. Something about cats reminds us about the wilder side of ourselves, and in these films, we get to participate in the journey of these cats' lives as equals. By endowing them with the power of speech, and sometimes by also making them more physically human in form, we elevate the cats' status to near-humanhood. This way, we are allowed into the lives of cats and can explore life from their perspective.
With different takes on the secret inner life of cats from Germany, Italy, Japan, the US, and France, I think what we can all agree on is that cats are a fantastic mechanism for exploring human emotions and relationships from a slightly different vantage point. Like any form of creative media, even the most fantastic of films is still a reflection on our own experience as humans. Even a flight of fancy is a form of wish fulfillment, and seeing how these creators from different cultures have different ways of handling this central magical premise is telling. And by briefly summarizing the above interpretations of the subject of talking cats, I can confidently conclude that this microcosm of animation is worth delving into, even just for the warm-and-fuzzies.
As always, if you have any extra suggestions about what films you would add to this list, or if you want to dispute my choices, comment below or fill out the form under the "Contact" tab! Thanks for reading!