Nine Lives (2016)

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Even the cat is embarrassed.

Wow, what a mixup! “Nine Lives” — a benign, cheap-looking family comedy about a workaholic dad who learns What’s Really Important when he becomes trapped in the body of a house cat — was clearly supposed to be a Disney Channel movie. It carefully avoids profanity, it’s the perfect length to fill a two-hour time slot with commercials, and the visual effects (even basic ones like green-screen backgrounds) were designed under the assumption that they’d never be seen by anyone who would care that they’re terrible. There’s no way this was intended to play in theaters.

And yet here it is, not on the Disney Channel, and not even from Disney! Somehow it accidentally stars Kevin Spacey, too, and was inadvertently directed by semi-respected filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld (“Men in Black,” “The Addams Family”). I don’t know how all these mistakes happened, but man oh man, is someone ever going to get fired for it.

Spacey plays Tom Brand, a Manhattan real estate tycoon on the verge of opening what will be the tallest skyscraper in North America. His adult son, David (Robbie Amell), works for the company but doesn’t have Dad’s respect because he’s afraid to go skydiving with him. (This is the only reason the movie gives.) Tom’s younger second wife, Lara (Jennifer Garner), and their daughter, Rebecca (Malina Weissman), are used to Tom being at work all the time and ignoring them.

For Rebecca’s 11th birthday, Tom, an inveterate hater of cats, finally caves in and gets her one. He gets it from a mysterious shop in an alleyway run by one Felix Perkins (Christopher Walken), which ought to be a red flag. After the scene between the two Oscar-winning actors is finished and Tom has departed, before the sadness of knowing these two might never be in a real movie together hits you, Perkins says to the pets in his shop, “OK, cats. Let’s do this!”

“This,” as it turns out, is a curse or something (the movie doesn’t even pretend to provide details). Later that day, at the moment that Tom is seriously injured in an accident and his body falls into a coma, his soul is transferred to the cat. Lara and Rebecca take Mr. Fuzzypants home, and it only takes them a day to remember that cats need food, water, and a litter box, so everything’s probably going to be fine. Tom has to reevaluate his priorities, connect with his wife and daughter, let David know he’s proud of him, AND save his company from an unscrupulous board member (Mark Consuelos), all while being a cat. And he must do this before his comatose body dies, or he’ll be feline forever.

You’re familiar with how this whole “talking animal” business works. We hear Kevin Spacey’s voice, but the other characters just hear meowing. (Except for Perkins, the cat whisperer. He hears Mr. Fuzzypants in plain English. I would not be surprised if this is an actual skill possessed by Christopher Walken.) It’s funny, though: we only hear meowing to represent Tom’s efforts to speak when the cat’s mouth is not visible. When we can see the cat’s mouth, the cat is silent — even when we hear Spacey’s voice. Is it that hard to train a cat to meow on command? (I mean, I’m surprised anyone can train a cat to do anything. But I’m not the one who made a movie about a talking cat.)

A few things in the film, which was written by five (5) people, help it come close to not being awful. Cheryl Hines appears as Tom’s first wife (David’s mother), a martini-guzzling socialite whose brief scenes with Tom’s current wife are jovially catty (ha!). Scenes of Tom-as-Mr.-Fuzzypants trying to write a note or stumbling around the kitchen drunk after getting into the liquor cabinet are amusing, especially the shots that involve an actual cat and no CGI (it’s mostly CGI, and not the expensive kind).

But most of the physical comedy is clumsily cartoonish, the Apple product placement is overdone, and the story (perhaps needless to say) fails to connect on anything approaching the emotional level it aims for. (Just wait till they come back to the skydiving thing!) It’s ultimately not even a pro-cat movie, either: the lesson Tom learns is that cats are selfish and mean, and he needs to not be like that.

It’s also best that you not contemplate the reality the film establishes: Perkins is an omnipotent wizard who can magic you into a cat’s body to teach you a lesson, and keep you there forever if you fail to learn it. He alone decides. The cats in his shop are the damned souls of the people he’s done this to before — making him exactly like Ursula the sea witch, except that Ursula’s victims willingly made bargains with her. Perkins just sucker-punches you.

Anyway. The movie is bad, but it’s bland enough not to be excruciating. It’s not something you’d pay money to see, though. The theatrical release was almost certainly the result of an embarrassing bookkeeping error, and it would be indelicate to compound it by purchasing tickets.

C- (1 hr., 27 min.; PG, mild thematic elements and rude language.)