The Cat From Outer Space is a 1978 Disney film, very much like many other Disney features from that period spanning The Shaggy Dog in 1959 through to The Love Bug in 1968 to three direct sequels culminating in a short-live 1982 television series. (Ultimately, there was the made-for-television The Love Bug in 1997, starring Bruce Campbell, and then the theatrically released Herbie: Fully Loaded in 2005 starring Lindsay Lohan.) These are formulaic films, produced on the cheap (except for the Lohan film) for an audience that was easily pleased. So it may come as something of a surprise that The Cat From Outer Space was really quite a good film.
Of course, in their way, they all were. They all starred excellent actors. Their scripts were written by very competent comedy writers. There’s nothing to impress a cinephile. But they were professional productions that created exactly what they set out to. Even the special effects were, for their time, quite good. On that front, I’d certainly rather watch The Absent-Minded Professor than North by Northwest.
Such “Nice” Films
The only problem with these kinds of films is that they are so very determined not to offend. The whole group of films (and there were a great many more than I’ve mentioned), was parodied brilliantly in Matinee as “The Shook Up Shopping Cart.” In it, Uncle Cedric is a shopping cart. In one minute of screen time, we see all the cliches: the inexplicable but undeniable character, the 1950s social mores, the clueless bad guys, the tired slapstick, and absolutely no moment when any of the protagonists feel like they are in any danger.
Just the same, the other parody in Matinee — “Mantz” — isn’t really any more threatening. It’s all good old fashioned American morality. Consider Plan 9 From Outer Space, where Ed Wood sets up an interesting premise: aliens have come to destroy humanity because we are on the verge of creating a bomb that will destroy the universe. The happy ending of this would be that the humans are destroyed. But let’s give Wood credit: he understood what he was saying, but he also understood that audiences wouldn’t stand for the proper ending.
I Never Did Like ET
While watching The Cat From Outer Space, I couldn’t help but compare it to ET the Extra-Terrestrial — made just four years later. Now I know, everyone is supposed to love the film. “ET phone home” and all. But as I sat in the theater at 18 years old, my main reaction was boredom. It had one of those plots that make you feel dragged through the mud. I’m not complaining that it was predictable — that’s given. But it took itself so seriously. It’s a silly film, but it was directed like it was Schindler’s List (which actually had more genuine laughs in it).
So what?! They create a different looking space alien and we’re supposed to think it is any more real? ET is every bit as silly as The Cat From Outer Space. The problem is that the people who made ET didn’t realize that. So it was really nice to sit down and watch Cat, which is totally without pretense. It’s just a silly comedy with a cat: That Darn Cat! with the wonderful addition of a some gentle ribbing of the Cold War mentality of the 1950s.
(One repeated joke is that the general gives a command to the captain. The captain gives the command to the lieutenant. And the lieutenant gives the command to the sergeant — played by Ronnie Schell, who also provides the voice of Jake the cat. Presumably, the sergeant is the only one who does anything. Everyone else just “delegates.”)
The Cat From Outer Space Is a Fine Film
The cast is really good: Ken Berry, Sandy Duncan, McLean Stevenson, Roddy McDowall, and Harry Morgan. It’s also filled with a bunch of great character actors — notably Hans Conried, Jesse White, and William Prince. There was also a brief appearance by Alan “Willlburrr” Young. Really, you could just set them all in a room and have them talk and it would be entertaining — even without a cat with a cool collar.
In it’s way, it’s a perfect film. Anyone who decides to rent or buy The Cat From Outer Space will be getting exactly what they expect. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have changed a few of things. Although the film tries hard, and most succeeds, at given human women their due, it rather fails in the world of cats. The ending goes on for far too long. And the epilogue is totally without merit (even if it does feature Sorrell “Boss Hogg” Booke). But none of that is surprising given that it is a Disney film about a cat from outer space.