'Darn Cat's' second life no better

February 14, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Forget the cat. Darn that script!

"That Darn Cat!" is a low-energy, low-laugh, low-end remake of a mid-'60s Disney comedy that wasn't very interesting anyway. So why bother? Only the marketing department knows for sure.

In any event, the signal item of interest in this version is Christina Ricci as Patti, a role once played by Hayley Mills at the height of her cuteness. Ricci isn't nearly as cute, and she's in an odd spot: She's trying to make that most difficult of transitions from astonishing child actress to acceptable adult one. Mills herself didn't even make it, at least not to an adult film career at the same level as her childhood one. Will Ricci?

That's hard to say. Let's chalk this one off as a provisional effort that leaves Ricci in the awkward middle, not yet finished, yet no closer to the big time. In "The Addams Family" films, she was an astonishment: dead pale, deadpan, with grave, huge eyes and drop-dead timing.

But now her face is much fuller, which makes her eyes seem smaller and less powerful. She's lost her sense of strangeness, even though she's still in black: She looks more or less normal and the deadpan passivity doesn't work. What does work is a surprise: She really does have a great smile, and when she unleashes it, it lights up her whole face, and the movie.

As this film has it, she's an unhappy new girl in a Massachusetts town, lonely in school, assailed by a perky mother (ever perky Bess Armstrong), and her only friend is her cat, D.C. That slinky guy, given to nighttime peregrinations, shows up one morning with a watch around his neck, which he's evidently picked up from a kidnap victim being hidden in the back of one of the town stores.

A subtext to the story is somewhat David Lynchian: the VTC strangeness of small towns. As a big-city gal, Ricci thinks everybody is dull, but as the cat slips through the night, pulling a gyro-stabilized mini-cam team along with it, we become aware that everybody has extravagantly bizarre lives, fantasies, dreams, agonies.

But the plot does little to capitalize on this idea. Soon enough Ricci has convinced the FBI to come to town, with amiable Doug E. Doug as a bumbling special agent. The caper involves mysterious kidnappers -- if your IQ is 33 or lower -- who've stolen a wealthy man's maid and are demanding a ransom. Excessively cute, meaningless touch: The rich guy is played by Dean Jones, who played the FBI agent 27 years ago.

Mostly this film is pratfalls, hijinx and elaborate if fake movie destruction. It certainly never takes the crime of violence at its heart very seriously and is only remarkable when the high-tech cameras go after D.C.'s night moves.

Ricci, Ricci, Ricci -- she comes, she stars, she doesn't conquer.

'That Darn Cat'

Starring Christina Ricci and Doug E. Doug

Directed by Bob Spiers

Released by Disney

Rated PG

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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