Sometimes it’s hard not to watch movies now through the eyes of a parent. My son is 6-years-old now and quite impressionable, so I’ve grown more sensitive to family entertainment. Men In Black series director Barry Sonnenfeld has previously turned in more family-focused entertainment, like the Robin Williams-helmed RV, so his newest effort, Nine Lives, isn’t too foreign for him. However, Nine Lives is kind of a mixed bag in the sense that Sonnenfeld isn’t really sure who his audience is. The film mixes some serious adult themes into what is otherwise a cat movie for kids.
The theme of a career-driven father who’s lost sight of what’s important in life is no new idea. But the fact that Kevin Spacey’s character, Tom Brand, is a man who seems to care more about prestige than his family, and how he gets “cursed” into living inside of a cat after missing his child’s birthday, isn’t really far off from Jim Carrey’s 1997 film, Liar Liar. In that story, Carrey’s character is a lawyer who lies his way to success and chooses the job over his son’s birthday. This leads to his son making a wish that he can’t tell a lie for 24 hours. Tom’s life-changing moment even happens on his daughter’s birthday, which he also misses out on, in this film. (And there’s even a scene in both films where the main character comically struggles with a blue pen shortly after their magical makeover.) The similarities do end there, but the gist of a father needing to correct his ways is especially familiar.
The aforementioned adult themes come in several different ways. For starters, Brand’s wife Lara, played by Jennifer Garner, is his second wife, with his 11-year-old daughter being from this current marriage. His ex-wife Madison, played by Cheryl Hines, is a mean-spirited alcoholic with a rather spiteful daughter as well. Brand has an older son from that marriage, played by Robbie Amell, who’s only ever wanted his father’s love and approval. There’s a moment where Madison encourages Garner’s Lara to connect with a man named Josh, leading Brand to believe she’s been cheating on him. We soon learn she’s actually been contemplating leaving him (and Josh is a realtor), which is also a pretty heavy theme for a kids movie. Also, the scene where Tom is injured and wakes up a cat is preceded by a man from his staff looming over him and letting him fall potentially to his death. Lastly, there’s a sequence where a character seems to be going off to commit suicide–which we later find out he’s not–but for the time period we think that is happening, it makes the film feel surprisingly dark. Some of this isn’t really unexpected for a Sonnenfeld film, but you have to wonder who thought such heavy themes were a good idea for what is being passed off as a lighthearted film for the whole family.
The laughs are also rather hit-and-miss, and some of it is also pretty corny, but overall, it’s handled better than the similar Garfield films. For those movies, however, Garfield was entirely CGI, while the cat in this film is primarily performed by a real feline. The action scenes and moments where the cat has to do stuff unusual for a cat are enhanced with CG. And while it’s obvious those moments are animated, they’re still pretty good (and worlds better than in Garfield).
The content for the film, as I’ve already touched on some, is definitely edgy for a family outing. I think the PG rating is fair, since it’s not especially crass or vulgar, but the themes addressed are certainly more adult in nature. There is some language, including Tom as the cat using Jesus’ name in vain in a long, drawn out exclamation at one point. There’s also a handful of other cuss words, including an incomplete “Son of a–,” and a few uses of “h*ll” and “d*mn.” There’s briefly implied infidelity regarding Tom’s wife, Lara, but we soon realize she is not cheating on him, and Tom’s ex-wife drinks in pretty much every scene she’s in, while Tom gets completely drunk as the cat in one sequence. There is plenty of slapstick violence, usually played for laughs, as well as some more serious violence, like the possibility of a character committing suicide (but it’s a misunderstanding)n. Overall, it’s enough to warrant exercising caution before showing the whole family.
Nine Lives is a vibrant, colorful film with a mixed tone that ends up holding it back from being all that it could be. Diehard cat lovers will especially appreciate this one, but for families looking for safe, wholesome entertainment, they probably should turn instead to Pixar’s latest outing, Finding Dory.