Home > Reviews > CAT BURGLAR – Christopher Willis

CAT BURGLAR – Christopher Willis

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A new project from the mind of the British satirist and filmmaker Charlie Brooker – whose anthology series Black Mirror received general critical acclaim – Cat Burglar is something very, very different. Do you remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books when you were a kid? Actually, probably not, if you were born at any point after 1990, but they were basically novels where, at certain points in the story, you were asked to make a decision about what the hero did next. Walk through Door A? Turn to page 28. Walk through Door B? Turn to page 23. And so on and so on… and depending on what you chose, the hero lived or died or got the girl. Cat Burglar is something like that, except it’s animated and on Netflix. The story follows a cartoon cat named Rowdy who is trying to steal valuable artwork from a museum which is being protected by a security guard dog named Peanut. The viewer uses their remote control to answer a series of trivia questions in order to advance the story, with the animation having different outcomes depending on how the viewer answers. It’s a clever idea that combines interactive video games with classic cartoon animation, and it will be interesting to see whether the concept takes off or becomes a one-off novelty.

The score for Cat Burglar is also innovative. It’s written by the brilliant British composer Christopher Willis, who is most well-known among film music fans for his outstanding scores for The Death of Stalin and The Personal History of David Copperfield, but who has actually spent most of his mainstream career writing music for dozens upon dozens of Disney animated short films starring Mickey Mouse and his cast of friends. Willis’s pedigree in this field made him the ideal composer to tackle this project, because like the Mickey Mouse shorts it makes direct homage to the classic Disney and Warner Brothers Looney Toons shorts from the 1940s and 50s, in tone and approach and animation style.

First of all, the music is a technical masterpiece, in terms of it seamlessly integrating with Brooker’s Choose Your Own Adventure concept. Not only does the story change each time the viewer makes a certain choice with their remote but, naturally, the music does too – depending on what the viewer makes Rowdy do, the music follows the same story, and because the number of potential story choices increase exponentially as it progresses, so too the cues that can potentially play increase exponentially too. Having a TV show where the music changes in real-time to match the interactive element is a concept which sort of fries my brain a little. Of course these things are storyboarded and diagrammed out so that there is a logical progression, and in that way it’s similar to writing music for a video game with multiple potential responses to game play, but still… the entire idea is fascinating and obviously required Willis to write an absolute ton of original music for the show, some of which may never be heard by the viewership if they don’t make the right choices.

And this is where things will be make or break. Taking his lead from the show’s loving acknowledgements to the classic Disney and Looney Toons animations, Willis chose to do the same thing, and wrote a score which is, for my money, the best and most authentic re-creation of classic Looney Tunes music since they stopped making them in the mid-1960s. There’s a term for the style of music that those cartoons contained: mickey mousing. It basically means writing music that matches the movements of the animated characters so closely that it almost starts to sound like a sound effect. Styles and tempos and instruments and entire melodies change constantly, sometimes every few seconds, and there are comedic boings and whizzes and honks and boinks performed by the orchestra to accentuate the pratfalls, visual gags, and everything else these cartoons contained.

These days the term is usually used as a pejorative, suggesting that the music is unsophisticated, silly, and old-fashioned, but the truth of the matter is that it is incredibly hard to do this sort of music well. The most well-respected practitioners of classic mickey-mousing were composers like Milt Franklyn, William Lava, Scott Bradley, and especially Carl Stalling, whose name is basically synonymous with the style. Stalling was especially innovative in that, in addition to his own music, he was a master practitioner of the ‘musical pun,’ in that he would incorporate a few bars of a classical work, or a popular song from the American songbook, to accompany specific recurring thematic or conceptual ideas. It’s because of Stalling that we associate Greig’s ‘Morgenstemning i Ørkenen’ from Peer Gynt with the concept of waking up in the morning, and why pieces like Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, and a whole host of other classical masterpieces too numerous to mention, are etched in the subconscious of children all over the world – because Bugs Bunny conducted Carl Stalling’s version of it.

So, to put it plainly, Cat Burglar is Christopher Willis’s absolutely perfect, impeccably authentic musical homage to Carl Stalling, with all the positives and negatives that would imply, depending on your point of view. The music is, in a word, anarchic. Like Stalling’s scores, it jumps around from style to style almost without pausing for breath – one minute it’s raucous orchestral chase music, then it’s 1920s ragtime or jazz, then it’s jaunty strutting walkabout music, then it’s an intentional pastiche of Indian or Arabic or Chinese classical music. All of this is interspersed with musical sound effects and wacky comedy noises, sliding trombones and boinging electric guitar chords, xylophone runs and piano crashes, twittering woodwinds and scampering plucked pizzicato strings, and heavenly harps and choirs for the unfortunate moments when Rowdy dies as a result of missed trivia answers. It’s orchestrated within an inch of its life, dense and complicated and timed to the millisecond, so that each new musical figure is clear and distinct from the previous one, but it still flows as a cohesive piece of self-contained music.

The opening “Prologue” is drenched in the classic sound of the era, before switching to a period jazz tune featuring a bank of swarthy muted trombones which acts as a recurring personal theme for Rowdy, and crops up later in several subsequent cues. Following on from this, there are numerous cues I really liked. “Pole Position” and “The Great Skeleton Swap” have a healthy additional dose of that terrific swaggering Gershwin-style jazz. Elyse Willis’s unmistakable tones resound as an opera singer in “Lasso Come Home”. The spy-caper sounds of “Highly Strung” have a touch of Henry Mancini to them. “Cat at the Bat” is a wonderful slice of rah-rah Americana in the style of John Philip Sousa.

The entire sequence from “Entering the Museum” through to “Skullduggery” is awash in a flurry of groovy jungle drums, the interjections within which have a 1966 Batman Neal Hefti vibe. “Dino Dog Fight” and “Tarpit Tailspin” are both built upon a bombastic and patriotic explosion of horns. “Cleo-Catra” is a sultry homage to Golden Age romance, with plenty of Max Steiner vibrato in the strings, while the brilliant sequence from “Pharaohs and Felines” through to “Egyptian Conniption” prominently features the classic Hollywood chord progressions that have become familiar with Egypt – which itself were inspired by Saint-Saëns’s ‘Bacchanale’ from Samson and Delilah, with its snaky and exotic oboe sound. “Piles o’ Pots” has some wonderful Chinese influences with an especially vibrant xylophone part, “En Guard Dog” has some terrific Korngold-style swashbuckling, and the whole thing ends with a terrific final statement of Rowdy’s jazzy theme in the “End Credits”.

One of the other things that Willis did as an homage to Stalling was to quote classical pieces and popular songs within the context of the score. Some of them last for no more than a few seconds, but I definitely picked up on the flashes of ‘Rock-a-Bye Baby’ in “Pole Position” and “High Wire Histrionics” and “Electri-Frying,” Stephen Foster’s ‘Oh Susanna’ in “Lasso Come Home,” ‘Brazil’ in “Tropical Detour,” ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad’ in “Tunnel Trouble,” Brahms’s ‘Wiegenlied’ lullaby in “Highly Strung,” ‘My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean’ and the ‘Sailor’s Hornpipe’ in “All at Sea,” Julius Fučík’s ‘Entrance of the Gladiators’ in “Carnival Barker,” The ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ in “Dino Dog Fight,” Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’ in “Meow You See Me,” a wacky version of Chopin’s ‘Marche Funèbre’ in “Hammer Heads,” and Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture’ in “Mined Over Matter”. I probably overlooked or didn’t recognize dozens of others, blink and you miss them, but the fact that Willis took the time and effort to really dig deep into the weeds of the classical repertoire and the American jazz standard songbook is mightily impressive.

However, the inescapable fact remains that, if mickey mousing irritates you, and if the broad slapstick comedy of this type of music drives you up the wall, then no amount of rationalization or acknowledgement of technical brilliance will make any difference whatsoever. It WILL drive you bonkers. It’s designed expressly to sound the way it sounds, and if that approach gives you migraines or triggers your ADD… well, there’s nothing that can be done. You WILL hate it.

Personally, however, I found the whole thing to be deeply, deeply impressive. When you take the classical brilliance of a score like The Death of Stalin, or the bucolic beauty of a score like The Personal History of David Copperfield, and you place it against the boisterous chaos of this music, or the scores for the Mickey Mouse shorts, it’s scarcely believable that it was written by the same person. But that’s what makes Christopher Willis such a tremendous composer – one minute he’s satirizing Soviet Russia with sophisticated Shostakovich, then he’s capturing the beauty of the English countryside like Vaughn Williams, and then he’s making his trombones roar to score an animated cat breaking into a museum a la Carl Stalling. Cat Burglar will absolutely not appeal to everyone, especially anyone who finds constant mickey mousing a headache-inducing mess, but I thought it was a superb homage to a true musical pioneer, with its own special kind of manic genius.

Buy the Cat Burglar soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (1:50)
  • Pole Position (1:13)
  • Lasso Come Home (0:38)
  • Another Brick in the Wall (0:31)
  • Tropical Detour (0:51)
  • Tunnel Trouble (1:02)
  • High Wire Histrionics (1:11)
  • Electri-Frying (0:52)
  • Nine Lives (0:35)
  • Highly Strung (1:24)
  • Dog Delivery (0:44)
  • Finger Puppets (0:55)
  • In a Twist (0:37)
  • Cat at the Bat (1:08)
  • All at Sea (1:16)
  • Entering the Museum (1:14)
  • The Great Skeleton Swap (0:33)
  • Bad to the Bone (1:01)
  • Carnival Barker (0:38)
  • Dino Dominoes (0:54)
  • Skullduggery (0:31)
  • Dino Dog Fight (1:20)
  • Tarpit Tailspin (0:46)
  • The Purr-ly Gates (0:48)
  • Cleo-Catra (1:07)
  • Meow You See Me (0:35)
  • Domestic Blues (0:34)
  • Pharaohs and Felines (1:26)
  • Horrific Hieroglyphics (1:17)
  • Egyptian Conniption (1:00)
  • Piles o’ Pots (1:24)
  • En Guard Dog (1:26)
  • The Peanut Song (0:32)
  • Like Cats and Dogs (0:58)
  • Bubonic Tonic (0:32)
  • Ship of Tools (0:52)
  • Hammer Heads (0:32)
  • Culet Confusion (1:11)
  • A Cat in Hell (1:00)
  • Sliced Cat (1:39)
  • Mined Over Matter (1:23)
  • Puss in Bits (1:26)
  • Bombs Away (1:18)
  • The Art of the Steal (1:36)
  • End Credits (1:10)

Running Time: 45 minutes 52 seconds

Maisie Music/Netflix (2021)

Music composed by Christopher Willis. Conducted by Chris Egan. Orchestrations by Niall Taro, Daniel Brown, Nathanael Tronerud and Drew Conley. Special vocal performances by Elyse Willis. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage and Satoshi Noguchi. Edited by Iko Kagasoff. Album produced by Christopher Willis.

  1. bobamike
    March 5, 2022 at 8:19 am

    This works so well in the cartoon! The music is the best tribute to Scott Bradley I’ve ever heard…if you loved the old Tom & Jerrys, the old Droopy cartoons, this is for you.

    Also, check out the Cuphead show, which is a take on the old 1930s Warner/Disney shorts.

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