If you can’t answer these three questions, the cat will die. So pay attention. Who walked on the moon – was it Alan Bean or Hugh Jass? Obviously not Hugh Jass. Who had more heads – Simon and Garfunkel or the Wu-Tang Clan? Come on, this isn’t Mastermind. A good therapist says: “Our time is up” or “Oh, boo-hoo”? Idiot! It was obviously the first option.
Welcome to Cat Burglar (Netflix), an interactive cartoon in which you, the viewer, are asked increasingly tricky questions so that our hero, Rowdy Cat, can get past security dog Peanut to his goal – the priceless painting in a museum. Once he’s nicked the cat-faced approximation of the Mona Lisa, Rowdy will be so obscenely rich he’ll realize his dream of having a concert pianist play for him while – get this – they are both inside his stretch limo.
But now look what you’ve done. You’ve answered three questions incorrectly, and Rowdy is dead, floating to heaven on cartoon wings. Outside the pearly gates is a sign for newcomers that reads: “Neutered? Your testicles are waiting.” Result. But no! Peanut who, we must suppose, can fly, snips Rowdy’s wings. The cat falls straight to hell, where the devil uses Rowdy as a ball on his infernal pool table. Rack ’em up, Satan, while I call the RSPCA.
Up pops a box on screen: Try again. You have a chance to redeem yourself. You go back to the start, where Rowdy is on the street outside the museum selecting a way of breaching the wall. Rowdy has three lives, which, as a cat, must make him feel short-changed, but that’s how this Netflix drop works.
If you attempt to watch Cat Burglar in the normal Netflix manner, splayed on the sofa, the cat comes on screen shouting at you in an accent straight out of Top Cat. Don’t just sit there, you muppet: interact!
Cat Burglar was created by Charlie Brooker, along with a few geniuses including one who worked on BoJack Horseman. Four years ago, Brooker had a stab at TV interactivity with an episode from his Black Mirror series called Bandersnatch. The drama unfolded as though you were in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, making decisions at choice points that changed the course of the adventure – though, if you didn’t choose in 10 seconds, a default decision was made for you.
Bandersnatch reportedly offered one trillion paths to take. The average viewing time was 90 minutes, though adepts could cut that to 40 minutes by making the right choices.
By comparison, Cat Burglar is minimally interactive. Viewers must answer general knowledge questions at points they have to pass in order to get Rowdy to his goal. It’s like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? – if you were both viewer and contestant and couldn’t phone a friend.
There’s no attempt here to match the interactive sophistication of video games such as, say, Life Is Strange, where the player gets embroiled in fetch quests and must choose from different dialogue boxes during conversations that have both short and long-term effects on the unfolding narratives. There is no strategic balancing act, only frustration that, if you answer wrongly, Rowdy loses a life.
The chief pleasures of Cat Burglar aren’t really the interactive ones at all. Rather, the joy comes from the brilliantly observed homages to cartoons of the golden era before health and safety became a thing and cartoon violence was of exquisite imagination. At one point, Rowdy is doing a high-wire walk into the museum compound, but a bird snips the phone wire in two. Rowdy, witlessly, holds the pieces of wire together before realizing his mistake. There’s a split second in which his hapless gaze confronts the viewers’ – like Gromit’s when Wallace has done something stupid, or Sylvester the cat before he plummets to oblivion – then Rowdy is electrocuted. As Rowdy gets fried, the orchestra strikes up a rumba, angel wings sprout from his body and the cat ghost starts shaking a pair of maracas.
The incidental music, too, is a note-perfect nostalgia trip for screwball cartoon fetishists. There’s a bongo roll whenever Rowdy starts his run-up, pizzicati when he tiptoes into the museum, sarcastic trumpet wa-wa-wahs when he gets his comeuppance. The credits don’t read Tex Avery or Fred Quimby, but their spirits haunt the show.
It took my daughter and me about half an hour to get to the end – and then only after some minor unpleasantness when she was poised to give the answer Cumberbatch to the question “Which is a type of dad clothing?” (Correct answer? Cummerbund). But we’ll be going back to the beginning – there’s a superb fight involving a guillotine in the Hall of Ancient Weapons between Peanut and Rowdy that cries out to be seen again. And again.