Cat lovers should enjoy the opening scenes of this animated fizzle from Belgian directors Jérémie Degruson and Ben Stassen. True, it imitates the opening of “Rango,” but for a moment it seems like it might do for poignant pathos what Gore Verbinski’s Oscar-winner did for surreal absurdity.
A car pulls up to a curb in an Emerald City-like Boston that could only be dreamed up by European filmmakers. A ball bounces out, followed by an adorable tiger kitty. He’s all eager-to-please eyes and oversized head, but as he chases the toy, the car zooms off. Abandoned, the cat (Murray Blue) — later called “Thunder” for reasons as banal as the name — runs after the car and into a world of woe.
The animators clearly have studied cats, because not since “Puss and Boots” (2011) have such feline athleticism and pitifulness been captured so well on the screen. Thunder almost breaks your heart as he eludes deadly traffic and is rebuffed by cold-hearted strangers. Finally, he falls victim to the toughest challenge of all: terrible dialogue.
He gets his first taste of the latter in his encounter with a Chihuahua who speaks with a grotesquely caricatured urban patois. He then enters the title house, and it seems like the film has regained its footing as he explores a spooky attic and cellar and sees the whimsical automata created by the resident magician, Lawrence (Doug Stone). But before Thunder can make himself at home he crosses paths with Jack (George Babbit), a mean cockney bunny, and Maggie (Shanelle Gray), a malicious mouse. They dominate the rest of the movie and resemble unpleasant people in a Mike Leigh film.
As in many children’s stories, the premise involves an ostracized character who makes friends by helping others overcome a common problem or enemy. Here the villain is Lawrence’s nephew, a real estate developer eager to put his uncle in a home and sell the house. But the real adversary is the film’s screenwriters.
Not only do they come up with trite dialogue, but they can’t imagine anything more clever than bird poop and cat allergies as ways to drive away the interlopers. Later, Thunder and company try to frighten the snooty buyers by making the house seem haunted. Where’s “The Banana Boat Song” from “Beetlejuice” when you need it?
“It’s not scary at all,” reassures Stassen in the press notes. “It’s completely fun because the whole thing has been orchestrated by the characters.” I think the kids would prefer some scariness. “Thunder” falls into the common mistake of many children’s films — it underestimates its audience.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.