Release Date(s)1986 (November 28, 2023)
Studio(s)Pannónia Filmstúdió/Sefel Pictures International/Infafilm (Deaf Crocodile/Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A-
Cat City (aka Macskafogó, more accurately translated as Cat Catcher) is a landmark 1986 animated film from Pannónia Filmstúdió in Hungary that was directed by Béla Ternovszky and written by József Nepp. It’s a spy movie pastiche that mixes the influence of Western spy characters like James Bond and Danger Mouse with an Eastern Bloc critique of Soviet-style communism. Yet it’s not so much East-meets-West as it is an example of Eastern self-critique viewed through the lens of Western cultural tropes.
In the best Tom & Jerry tradition, it all comes down to cats vs. mice, set in the year 80 A.M.M. (After Mickey Mouse) on the Planet X. The civilian mice of Planet X have been threatened with extinction by multinational criminal gangs of bloodthirsty cats, so the covert spy agency Intermouse turns to their best operative Grabovszky (László Sinkó) in order to retrieve plans for a device that can stop the threat once and for all. The Blofeld-style feline supervillain Mr. Gatto (János Körmendi) wants to keep those plans out of the hands of his archrivals, so he gives his lieutenant Mr. Teufel (Miklós Benedek) the task of stopping Grabovszky by any means necessary. That includes hiring a group of rat mercenaries called the Four Gangsters, who are constantly on Grabovszky’s heels. Yet sometimes it takes an ordinary Joe to save the day, and where the superspy Grabovszky may fail, the schlubby police officer Lazy Dick (István Mikó) will succeed. True revolutionary success doesn’t necessarily come from the elites.
Cat City offers a fascinating mélange of ideas that can’t be fit into any simple boxes. That’s partly due to the unique nature of animation in both Eastern Europe and Asia. In the West, animation is frequently organized into the broad categories of family entertainment and adult animation, while those lines are far more blurred in the East. Of course, the reality of Western animation has never been quite as simple as it may appear on the surface. When legendary animators like Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and Bob Clampett were making the classic Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes shorts for Warner Bros., they weren’t really aiming them at children, but they weren’t necessarily targeting adult audiences either. Instead, they made their cartoons just to amuse themselves—and generations of audiences were happy to come along for the ride. In that sense, Cat City really is a spiritual heir to classic Warner Bros. animation. Ternovszky, Nepp, and their team of animators were having fun with the limitless possibilities of the medium, doing whatever happened to tickle their own fancies, and they achieved a similar kind of universal appeal for Hungarian audiences.
Cat City is replete with sight gags, in-jokes, puns, and other references (not all of which translate well into English, unfortunately). It includes some surrealistic touches right out of the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker school of comedy, like when Grabovszky is talking into a police radio and then suddenly starts using it as an electric razor instead. (In fact, ZAZ used a variation of that exact same joke in Kentucky Fried Movie.) There are also a few Tex Avery style gags such as when the exhaust trails from a group of rockets ties themselves into knots. There’s even a handful of Ralph Bakshi style postmodern flourishes, especially during the musical numbers like the Four Gangsters advertisement that convinces Mr. Teufel to hire the mercenaries. (In that case, it’s also a blatant lift of the music from the 1947 Woody Herman instrumental Four Brothers, with vocals added in a similar fashion to how The Manhattan Transfer did it on their 1978 album Pastiche.)
All that, and it’s not even beginning to scratch the surface of the ways in which Cat City critiques both Soviet oppression and the feckless nature of the Hungarian bureaucracy. There’s a lot to digest in Cat City, which is one reason why it has remained such a perennial favorite in Hungary. It’s a bit violent by the standards of Western animation, although most of that violence is completely bloodless. Still, there’s a hefty body count by the end. That’s something that has never bothered Hungarian audiences, and it shouldn’t serve as a barrier for Western ones either. Animation is far too multifaceted of an art form to dismiss as being simple “kid’s stuff.” There’s nothing even remotely simple about Cat City, so hopefully Western animation fans can learn to love it the same way that Hungarian ones have.
Cat City was created via traditional cel animation and photographed on 35 mm film by cinematographers Csaba Nagy, Mária Neményi, and György Varga, framed at the full Academy aperture of 1.37:1. This version utilizes a 4K restoration that was performed at the Hungarian Film Lab in 2018 under the aegis of the National Film Institute-Film Archive of Hungary. The negative was actually scanned at full 6K resolution, with the rest of the restoration work being finished in 4K. The resulting image is clean and free of damage, but with all of the fine detail and grain intact. While the animation itself is relatively simple, there’s plenty of detail in the watercolor background paintings—they have some real texture to them. The overall color design of the film is relatively muted, favoring browns, tans, and blues, but it does get a bit brighter during sequences like the Four Gangsters musical number. Thanks to the usual fine work from David Mackenzie at Fidelity in Motion, everything runs at a consistently high bitrate, and there are no encoding artifacts of note. This is another winner from Deaf Crocodile that perfectly shows off the wonderful world of classic Soviet Bloc animation.
Audio is offered in Hungarian 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with removable English subtitles. Cat City was originally recorded and released in mono, so both of these tracks just apply a bit of processing in order to provide a pseudo-stereo presence. There’s a bit of support feeding into the main left and right channels, but the reality is that everything still remains firmly anchored to the center channel. When comparing the 5.1 version to the 2.0 run through a surround decoder, there’s little practical difference between the two (other than the fact that they’re not level matched). Either way, it’s a clean mix with little in the way of distortion, noise, or other issues. The Hungarian dialogue is always clear, and the music sounds fairly robust. (There was an English-language dub for the film, but it hasn’t been included here.)
The Deaf Crocodile Films Blu-ray release of Cat City is packaged in a clear amaray case that displays a layout from the film on the reverse side of the insert, which is visible when the case is opened. It also includes a 20-page booklet with an essay by Walter Chaw. There’s also a spot gloss slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 2,000 units, that was designed by Alessa Kreger. The following extras are included, all of them in HD:
- Audio Commentary with Samm Deighan
- Modern Training Methods (6:24)
- Let Us Keep a Dog (6:00)
- Where Is the Limit (7:03)
- Ahead of Its Time (26:53)
- We Just Made It for the Fun of It (30:39)
- The Director Answers: Béla Ternovszky (23:14)
- Interview with György Ráduly (45:02)
The new commentary is by author and film historian Samm Deighan, and she gives a broad history of Hungarian animation in general as well as an overview of Cat City in particular. She explains the ways in which Hungarian animation pulled from different artistic backgrounds, including references to American and European cinema at large. She talks about how the popularity of animation in Hungary meant that audiences were up for anything, adults and children alike. She also does her best to try and decipher some of the puns and other references that don’t translate well into English. In the end, she sees Cat City as a left-wing critique of Soviet-style communism, in contrast with the anti-communist propaganda of the west.
Modern Training Methods (aka Modern edzésmódszerek), Let Us Keep a Dog (aka Tartsunk kutyát!), and Where is the Limit (aka Mindennek van határa) are all short subjects written by Nepp and directed by Ternovszky. Modern Training Methods (1970) is a ruthless satire of the athletic world, with its protagonist suffering the tortures of the damned while undergoing a rigorous athletic training program across a variety of disciplines. (Success always comes at a cost.) Let Us Keep a Dog (1974) turns to the world of pet ownership instead, offering a catalogue of various arguments in favor of owning a dog—needless to say, the canines frequently manage to turn the tables on their masters. Where Is the Limit (1975) provides a commentary on the world of animation itself, with its cheerfully irrepressible orange-skinned protagonist never letting the travails of being an animated character get him down—that is, until he finally figures out a way to escape into the real world, where the law of unintended consequences always applies. There’s no information available regarding the mastering work done on these three shorts, but they do appear to have benefited from the same kind of restoration efforts as Cat City—they’re in terrific shape.
Ahead of Its Time is a 2020 video essay produced by the National Film Institute of Hungary, hosted by film historian Zoltán Varga. Varga examines the circumstances behind the creation of Cat City and explains its significance to Hungarian animation in general. He also provides a brief look at the career of Béla Ternovszky. We Just Made It for the Fun of It is a 2020 interview with Ternovszky, who also talks about his own career while covering the making of Cat City. It’s not just a static interview, though, because it’s filled with film clips, behind-the-scenes footage, and samples of the original artwork.
The Director Answers: Béla Ternovszky is a new 2023 interview with Ternovszky that covers some similar ground, but it’s focused more broadly on his career as a whole. It also includes some different clips and artwork than what’s seen in We Just Made It for the Fun of It. Finally, the Interview with György Ráduly is an extended zoom chat between Ráduly and Deaf Crocodile’s Dennis Bartok. They discuss the restoration process as well as a variety of other topics related to the film. (Ráduly says that the original audio stems were no longer available, so that explains why the stereo and 5.1 remixes are just processed mono.)
It’s a great slate of extras to accompany a beautiful presentation of Cat City. Deaf Crocodile has been performing an invaluable service by making Eastern Bloc fantasy and animation available to Western audiences. From Alexandr Ptushko classics like Ilya Muromets to unforgettable Czech stop-motion films like The Pied Piper to Romanian animation like The Son of the Stars, they’ve been consistently knocking it out of the park with these kinds of releases. Cat City is no exception, and it’s a great addition to their catalogue.
- Stephen Bjork