I am becoming ever more convinced that Wolfgang and Christoph Lauenstein are aliens from another planet yet to hold a successful conversation with a human being. The German twins have put out films aimed at children in back-to-back years and both have been so utterly bizarre, coupled with appalling animation qualities and random-happenstance plotting, that I’m forced to cook up conspiracy theories that explain the strangeness away. The badness of last year’s Luis & the Aliens and Spy Cat are not merely the results of slapdash dubbing and translation from their native language, they go way more fundamental.
To be clear, Spy Cat is still bad in the same ways most animated shovelware from overseas slopped into cinemas by distributors expecting an easy profit are bad. It’s an ugly and astonishingly cheap-looking film with flat backgrounds, crude textures, a sickly colour palette and character models that are inconsistently proportioned, plastic-y and dead behind the eyes. The animation itself is extremely stiff, so conversations resemble rundown animatronics and action setpieces barely meet the level of cutscenes from the PS1’s Mort the Chicken. Characters have just one trait each and many grate on the nerves. The narrative is simultaneously under and over-plotted, burying a premise that couldn’t sustain a single 12-minute Disney Jr. episode under a mountain of pointless detours and side-plots. And the dub is atrocious with alternately flat or shrill line-reads, sound effects often missing, and instances of characters talking even though their 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 works of the Lauensteins display too much… “ambition” for me to go so cynical. Luis began from a generic “loner child with parental issues makes friends with oddball aliens” premise but soon spun out to include tonally-jarring scenes of emotional neglect, an inciting incident involving infomercials for electric massage appliances, homicidal school principals, and intergalactic governmental conspiracies, all performed by characters who act like a rudimentary artificial intelligence’s approximation of organic life forms. It was ugly to watch, shrill on the ears and plotted like a Madlibs session whose participants have ingested a kilo of cocaine, but the eventual weirdness at least made sitting through the thing constantly fascinating.
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 housecat Marnie Sunshine (whose actress delivers all her lines as if 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. Paul is the cousin of Marnie’s owner Rosalinde and hasn’t been seen for years until he turns up on their doorstep in a wheelchair asking for a place to stay. See, he’s secretly a world-famous cat burglar with a flying wheelchair as his getaway vehicle who’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 with an abused guard-dog named Elvis, a spiritual rooster named Eggbert on the run from a bunch of sexually-frustrated chickens who want to sacrifice him to their farmer’s weekly chicken soup, and a donkey named Anton pretending to be a zebra in order to bring down the robbers.
That ungainly summary ain’t even the half of it. Press materials quote Spy Cat’s inspiration as being the Grimm fairytale The Bremen Town Musicians which explains why these specific animals, but doesn’t dispel any notions that this was a script largely written for human characters with animals swapped in at the last minute. Example: much is made throughout of Eggbert and Anton not having hands, it’s a minor plot point, yet both characters will carry objects firmly in their non-hands throughout anyway. Another has our animal cast holding a conversation with the police through television dialogue 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 driving and being master thieves. What is with the entire Eggbert subplot? Why is the farmer sacrificing his own chickens, whom he names and shows great remorse over eating, to the chicken soup each week instead of buying special chickens from elsewhere?
Questions like these pile up in a surprisingly rapid fashion throughout Spy Cat. What’s with the sudden North by Northwest crop-duster homage? 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 in the village know this until our animals do a Google? 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 the film doesn’t do anything with it? 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, but they all add up over time to create a film whose continued viewing becomes bizarrely compulsive. Although 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. Both films are so fundamentally strange 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. For bad movie aficionados, I can’t help but recommend it for further study; 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 this Friday.