CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 5 . . . . October 6, 2017
That cat - he came back - the very next day - again and again and again.
The cat has been coming back in many ways since 1893 when American lyricist Henry S. Miller penned this children's ditty. Miller would likely be pleased to know the many ways his song has been interpreted and enjoyed for more than a century.
Canadians especially know the version recorded by popular children's entertainer Fred Penner in 1979 and the 1988 National Film Board animation by Cordell Barker which was nominated for an Academy Award. But along the way, the cat has been exalted in song by the 1960s folk group The New Christy Minstrels, danced to by The Muppets, heralded by Australian musicians, translated into Afrikaans and found its way into the narrative of Stephen King's horror novel Pet Sematary as well as the script of Corner Gas, the quintessential Canadian sitcom of the early 2000s.
That cat has staying power! So it's no surprise, and indeed it's a pleasure to see that the NFB has released Cordell Barker's animations in picture book format to keep the feline's legend alive for another generation of young children. Barker's text is different from the version he and his friends sang on the cartoon, but the words follow the same plot - desperate Mr. Johnson, trying to rid himself of a stray cat that showed up on his doorstep - a cat with sharp claws that shred his furniture, rip his walls and make mincemeat of the many pictures of his sainted mother.
Children will love the look of old Mr. J's distress, his extreme expressions, the way Barker illustrates his ridiculous decisions, such as pumping a hand car to the top of a mountain to throw the cat off the top and then dynamiting his own house. They will laugh at the cat's bland stoicism as it eviscerates the couch, the wallpaper - and those pictures of Mr. Johnson's sainted mother. It's not a happy-ending story, but the "scary" gags are funny, mitigating concerns any children might have for the poor kitty (or even Mr. Johnson).
Barker's text can be read by adults or by capable early readers. It's fun and humorously suspenseful:
Barker's drawings look uncomplicated, although we know it's anything but easy to create exaggeration and gags with a pen. But their clean presentation can encourage young children to draw their own illustrated stories. Barker began drawing as a boy, beginning a career which led to two nominations for an Oscar (Strange Invaders was nominated in 2002), a Genie for Best Animated Film for Runaway in 2009 as well as many other awards for his work.
Barker used some of his original drawings for the picture book. However, he also had to redraw and recolour pictures and create new ones to suit the different format. The original animation took six years of work, but thankfully this project was completed in only 10 months.
Parents and teachers can read this incarnation of The Cat Came Back and use it along with Fred Penner's recording and the NFB animation to brand this silly song into young children's consciousness forever. And that would be a good thing!
Cordell Barker and Fred Penner are both Winnipeggers. What a city! Harriet Zaidman reviews books there, too.