You might remember this animated fable with the catchy theme song if you watched a lot of Nickelodeon. That’s how I first saw it. The cartoon is by Cordell Barker, a highly skilled animator who fills his work to bursting with clever details, and his massive talent is evident in The Cat Came Back.
For some reason, though, I don’t like it.
I should like it. The Cat Came Back is magnificently produced, and a marvel to look at, but I can’t help but feel like it’s missing something. Sure, it’s a little scary, and a little disturbing, but I like scary. I like disturbing. The Ren & Stimpy episode “Man’s Best Friend” is one of my favorite cartoons ever.
Maybe it’s because I don’t find the characters appealing. The cat is a terror, and Mr. Johnson doesn’t really deserve the trouble it causes him. And yet, Johnson earns no sympathy for this. His increasingly desperate attempts to murder the cat, and the increasingly dire situations he ends up in because of them, make him look like some kind of ugly, writhing insect forever trapped in a glass jar.
Barker’s direction is astounding. He can transform a flat-looking drawing into a flowing, three-dimensional landscape in a flash. He knows how to use the camera as a character. He plays fun tricks with sound design. He has ideas that I would never have come up with, and I greatly admire his skill. When I watch The Cat Came Back, however, I feel sad, like I’m watching something mean and low, even though its creation was clearly full of love. This confusing paradox is what makes the cartoon so special to me, even if it’s not one of my favorites.