The film was the directorial debut of former Disney animator Mark Dindal, and stars the voices of Scott Bakula, Jasmine Guy, Matthew Herried, Ashley Peldon, John Rhys-Davies, Kathy Najimy, Don Knotts, Hal Holbrook, Betty Lou Gerson (in her final film role), René Auberjonois, George Kennedy, and Dindal. Its musical numbers were written by Randy Newman and includes Gene Kelly's contributions as choreographer, before his death in 1996. The film was Kelly's final film project which is dedicated to him.
In 1937, Danny, an optimistic cat, dreams of Hollywood stardom, so he travels from Kokomo, Indiana to Hollywood in hopes of starting a career there. After meeting a new friend Pudge, Danny is selected by agent Farley Wink to feature in a film called Li'l Ark Angel that is in production alongside a white cat named Sawyer at Mammoth Studios. Upon joining fellow animals; Tillie, Cranston, Frances, and T.W., Danny is dismayed on learning how minor his role is and tries to weasel his way into more time in the spotlight. Danny winds up angering Darla Dimple, a popular, extremely spoiled child actress and star of the film, so she assigns her Valet Max to intimidate Danny into no longer trying to enlarge his part.
Danny learns from the studio's mascot Woolie that human actors are normally given more important roles than animals; a fact that none of them are very happy with but know they must accept. He longs for the spotlight and tries to make a plan that will encourage humans to provide animal actors with better scenarios — such as by assembling a massive cluster of animals and putting on a musical performance for the humans.
Later, Danny is given advice by Darla (while masking her true villainous nature with a sweet one as she always does) through song on how to interest and satisfy audiences. He takes this information to heart and groups the animals for an audition on the Ark in hopes of attracting the humans' attention. However, Darla, fearing that the animals are jeopardizing her spotlight, has Max help her flood the stage, while L.B. Mammoth, the head of Mammoth Studios; and Flanagan, the film's director, are giving an interview, gets the animals blamed for the damage, and gets them fired. The animals are depressed at being barred from acting in Mammoth Studios (especially Danny who was convinced by Darla that she was trying to help the animals). As Woolie tells Danny to leave for home, Tillie suggests Sawyer to follow Danny.
After a comment from the bus driver and seeing Pudge wander the streets, Danny comes up with a plan yet again. He secretly invites Sawyer, her friends, and Woolie to the premiere of Lil' Ark Angel. After the screening and a battle with Max that sends him flying away on a Darla Dimple balloon, Danny calls the audience's attention. Upon Sawyer, Woolie; Tillie bringing Cranston, Frances, and T.W. backstage to help Danny, the eight animals put on a musical performance that entertains and impresses its viewers. Meanwhile, Darla attempts to sabotage the show by tampering with the set and special effects equipment, but her attempts instead cause her to inadvertently enhance the performance as well as injure herself. Then last, she tries to ruin the show by pulling a big all-switch, though this sets off an enormous fireworks finale, making the animals' performance a complete success.
Furious and fuming at the animals, Darla berates Danny, then she accidentally confesses to flooding Mammoth Studios and framing the animals when it is broadcast over the theater's sound system thanks to a open microphone, revealing the truth about the incident to the audience, including L.B. Mammoth and Flanagan, who are horrified seeing Darla for her true colors. Pudge pulls a lever, sending Darla down a trapdoor. At last, the animals' demand for larger roles are met and their dreams are fulfilled after so long.
There is a montage of film poster parodies which put the main animals in roles. It is shown afterwards that Darla is fired from show business and is now working as a janitor as punishment for her crimes and getting the animals fired by flooding the stage. She puts up a "The End" poster on a wall, and it falls down and wraps around her.Scott Bakula as Danny, an ambitious, optimistically naïve tabby cat who wishes to become a famous Hollywood star.
Jasmine Guy as Sawyer, a beautiful, but disenchanted white cat secretary of Farley Wink and Danny's love interest. Sawyer eventually supports Danny on him being a successful Hollywood star and reciprocates his feelings towards her at the end of the film.
Natalie Cole provides Sawyer's singing voice.
Matthew Herried as Peabo "Pudge" Pudgemyer, a little penguin and Danny's first friend who looks up to him as a big brother.
Ashley Peldon as Darla Dimple, the evil and psychotic human child star of Hollywood. She conceals her anger and sinister nature from her fans and superiors through a facade of sweetness and innocence. She is referred to as "America's sweetheart, lover of children and animals!" Darla is an apparent parody of the famous former child star Shirley Temple.
Lindsay Ridgeway provides Darla Dimple's singing voice.
Kathy Najimy as Tillie Hippo, a happy-go-lucky hippopotamus who tries to find the best in every situation. She is a hilarious hippopotamus as hinted out by her giggling and snorting, and by how quickly she introduces lots of people (and fellow animals).
John Rhys-Davies as Woolie the Mammoth, the aging Indian elephant who portrays the mammoth mascot for Mammoth Pictures. He originally came to Hollywood to write and perform music where he acts as a mentor to Danny upon befriending him. Woolie is an obvious parody of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's mascot Leo the Lion, as he wears mammoth tusks made of marble and a wig, which are placed on him with doing the Mammoth Pictures icon.
Betty Lou Gerson as Frances Albacore, a sassy, sarcastic fish who dances with Cranston Goat and always holds a cigarette holder (like one of Disney's most popular villains, Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians).
Hal Holbrook as Cranston Goat, a cranky elderly goat who surprisingly loves to dance. He is always seen with Frances and they always dance with each other, implying they have feelings towards each other.
Don Knotts as T.W. Turtle, a nervous and superstitious turtle who always relies on the fortunes from fortune cookies. He originally came to Hollywood hoping to be an Errol Flynn-type star.
Rick Logan provides T.W.'s singing voice.
George Kennedy as L.B. Mammoth, the human head of Mammoth Studios. His secret of success when asked by anyone is "Simple, it's Dimple!"
René Auberjonois as Flanagan, the human film director of "Li'l Ark Angel" who is constantly kissing up to both Darla and L.B.
Mark Dindal as Max, Darla's enormous valet who obeys Darla's every command and will not hesitate to punish anyone who crosses her. He serves as the direct force that Darla physically lacks as a child.
Frank Welker as Farley Wink, a human agent for animals and Sawyer's boss, who is a blabber-mouth and talks fast. He thinks Sawyer is cute despite the fact that she dislikes him.
David Johansen as Bus Driver, a man whose insults towards the animals getting fired from Mammoth Studios inspire Danny with his last plan to give the animals their long-awaited stardom.
Dee Bradley Baker as Kong, a gorilla whose only appearance is while Danny and Sawyer are going to the set of Little Ark Angel at Mammoth Studios. Dee also voices incidental voices such as the Mammoth Studios guide tour.
Tony Pope as Alligator
Peter Renaday as Narrator
The film was launched in 1993 as a vehicle for Michael Jackson, who would produce, star, and be a consultant in the music and choreography. It would have been a hybrid live-action/CGI film. The film was ultimately made without Jackson's involvement. In its earlier stages, the film concerned less anthropomorphic stray cats that live among the sets and studio backlots. At one point, David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr. composed songs for the film before Randy Newman was hired.
At that point the core team of filmmakers was assembled and it was time to begin casting the roles. As is the tradition in animation, the voice actors are videotaped as they record the voices of their characters; this enables the animators to use specific body language from each of the actors to lend dimension to their characterizations.
Scott Bakula, best known to audiences as the star of the hit television series Quantum Leap, was cast as Danny. Explains Paul Gertz, "People will be very surprised when they hear Danny and realize that it's Scott's voice doing all that singing. Scott had a successful career starring on Broadway before he began working in television and film. He's a very experienced singer and dancer, and he was a natural choice for Danny."
Sawyer, Danny's verbal sparring partner and, eventually, his lady love, is voiced by Jasmine Guy, who became known to television viewers as snooty Whitley Gilbert on the hit series A Different World. Sawyer's singing voice is provided by recording diva Natalie Cole. "There was something special about working with Natalie, who's a wonderful talent on her own, and whose father, Nat, was a part of Hollywood's fabulous past," says David Kirschner. "Somehow I think it shows up in her interpretation of the music; there is a classic charm and romance to it."
Other character voices were provided by such talents as George Kennedy, Hal Holbrook, Rene Auberjonois, John Rhys-Davies, Kathy Najimy, Betty Lou Gerson (the voice of the animated Cruella DeVil) and Don Knotts. "Many of these actors have worked in animation before, and many others have done radio drama, which has trained them in using every expressive nuance in their voices," says Kirschner. "We wanted each character to be an individual -- to sound as if they looked, moved and acted a certain way."
The scheming star Darla Dimple was voiced by nine-year-old Ashley Peldon, who has herself been acting since her toddler days and is most recently seen in the acclaimed live-action drama The Crucible. The character Darla Dimple was a name parody of then child star Shirley Temple.
The voice casting of the cute penguin Pudge is its own version of the classic Hollywood story, recalls Mark Dindal. "A group of animators was eating lunch together in an outdoor cafe one day and a little boy came over to ask us for directions. Someone answered him and he walked away. At that same moment, another animator blurted, `That's Pudge exactly!,' and we all realized it was true.
"So we rushed after him and asked if he'd ever acted -- which he hadn't -- and if he'd like to -- which he would -- and the rest is moviemaking history. Little Matthew Herried became a terrific voice for Pudge."
During production, management at Turner Feature Animation changed repeatedly and each head that came in attempted to take drastic revisions, including updating the setting to the 1950s rock-and-roll era. "It's pretty hard to try and keep what you have finished so far, and then suddenly transition into a different period of time or introduce a different character or have a completely different ending that doesn't seem to fit the beginning you have," said director Mark Dindal.
Dindal's portrayal of Max was initially a scratch track and was never intended to be heard on the film. Dindal wanted Max to be voiced by a professional actor, but as the film started running out of money, he kept his own vocals in.
During the animation on Cats Don't Dance, Randy Newman was creating songs that gently poked fun at the idealism of the `30s movie hopeful while capturing the melodic, danceable sound that has made so many of those songs into classics.
Production PhotoMuses Mark Dindal, "One of the things that stuck in my mind after we spoke with people who'd been part of Hollywood's Golden Age was the number of times they described an effect or stunt that they had never done before. They said, `We just did it, and if it worked, we left it.'
"We're more analytical about film today -- we have more history to look back on, and the cost of making movies is so high that it leaves less room for experimentation. But we're still trying to push the boundaries of the possible, and some of that pioneering, risk-taking outlook is still what makes today's movies great.
"I like to think that we've kind of tipped our hats to the best of both worlds with Cats Don't Dance -- it's an homage to the past, but created with the talents of the present and the technology of the future. And the message -- giving everyone a chance to be his or her best by pursuing what they truly love -- is timeless."
Warner Bros. attached "Pullet Surprise", a newly produced Looney Tunes short featuring Foghorn Leghorn, to the original theatrical release, and "The Big Sister", a Dexter's Laboratory What a Cartoon! short, following the film in its original home video release.
Cats Don't Dance received a 69% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 16 reviews. It was the first non-Disney animated film to have won the Best Animated Feature award, and Randy Newman won the Best Individual Achievement: Music in a Feature/Home Video Production at the 1997 Annie Awards.
Cats Don't Dance became a casualty of the Turner/Time Warner merger: it received a traditional theatrical release in 1997 but without fanfare and did not draw an audience. The film's total domestic theatrical gross was $3,566,637 against its $32 million production budget. Director Mark Dindal was frustrated with Warner Bros. over the lack of advertising and the failed marketing campaign.
Cats Don't Dance got its first home video release on VHS and LaserDisc on August 19, 1997 by Warner Home Video. While a standard 4:3 VHS, the LaserDisc was special in the fact that it remains to this day is that it is one of the only two home video releases of the film in its theatrical widescreen format in North America until November 1, 2016 (the film is available on DVD in widescreen in Europe). The LaserDisc was never re-released and has become very rare. The VHS re-released for its second and final time on March 2, 1999. Home media sales improved more than its box office.
The film saw its first DVD releases on August 19, 1997 and September 3, 2002, as a 4:3 pan-and-scan DVD with bonus features. A re-release of the same DVD, but bundled with Quest for Camelot, was released on May 2, 2006. Internationally, in July 2008, Cats Don't Dance was released on DVD in widescreen in Germany, Spain, and the Benelux countries (Belgium/the Netherlands/Luxembourg). A widescreen DVD was released for the first time in North America on November 1, 2016 via the Warner Archive Collection. The original widescreen presentation is also available digitally for rental or purchase through Google Play and also through Amazon Video. WB has yet to release a Blu-ray version of the film.