One of the easiest ways to make a movie is to pick a random animal and combine that with an unlikely hobby. There are dogs that play basketball, rapping kangaroos, secret agent gerbils, pigs that moonlight as sheepdogs, and spiders that spell words with their webs. It’s a sub-genre spawned from old fables and fairy tales, and turned into the most profitable of family movies — but no one makes ‘em better than Disney.
Disney’s early success came from turning old fables into animated movies, with talking animals becoming a staple of their greatest animated hits. But by the 1950s, Disney decided to dabble in the live-action realm — and it brought its talking animals with it. Sometimes that consisted of animated talking animals interacting with live-action humans, like in Bedknobs and Broomsticks or Mary Poppins. But most entertaining were the ones where a barely-trained dog or cat is “voiced” by an off-camera actor and becomes the star of a movie featuring human actors who are only slightly miffed that they’re being upstaged by their furry co-star. 1978’s The Cat From Outer Space is the strangest, and most gloriously idiotic, version of the latter.
The Cat From Outer Space has a pretty self-explanatory premise. What if there was a cat from outer space and it was part of a movie starring two of the cast members of M*A*S*H? The story is almost a moot point — the joy of The Cat From Outer Space is watching a cat who is always staring just off-camera at what is definitely some kind of chew toy or food. But there is indeed a story to The Cat From Outer Space. The movie follows Energy Research Laboratory scientist Frank Wilson (Ken Berry), who is studying a UFO taken into custody by U.S. officials. His unconventional theories get laughed at by his colleagues, but pique the interest of the UFO’s passenger, a cat-like alien named Zunar-J-5/9 Doric-4-7 that Frank decides to call Jake. Jake needs Frank’s help to return to his home planet, and the only thing that can help rebuild his ship is $120,000 worth of solid gold. So, of course, Frank sets about getting this gold by ... gambling?
I kid you not, this entire movie is about gambling. When betting on horse races doesn’t work, Frank turns to good old-fashioned billiards — a game which ends up taking up about the entire final third of the movie. There are other shenanigans too, including a master criminal villain that waltzed right out of a James Bond movie and a cute veterinarian who also gets roped into this gambling scheme. However, it definitely seems like screenwriter Ted Key presented half of a first draft and admitted, “This is all I got,” only for Disney to reply, “Well, I guess we gotta show our characters gambling for 45 minutes.”
The Cat From Outer Space manages to scrape by on the strength of its very ‘70s cast, which include Sandy Duncan (The Million Dollar Duck), Harry Morgan (Snowball Express, M*A*S*H*), Roddy McDowell (That Darn Cat!, The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin), McLean Stevenson (M*A*S*H*), Hans Conried (Captain Hook in Peter Pan), and James Hampton (The China Syndrome, Teen Wolf). But even then, it barely feels like a movie.
And then there’s the cat, a cute tabby with a special bejeweled collar that gives it super-intelligence and also the power to levitate people. It makes one wonder: If this cat has such amazing powers, why didn’t the movie didn’t think to stage something more exciting like a heist or a hijink? But perhaps heists test the realm of Disney’s morality — which is why gambling is the much safer alternative.
Ironically, The Cat From Outer Space was barely a gamble for Disney — the whole thing only cost $3.5 to $4 million and received mildly positive reviews. It ended up mostly fading from the cultural memory, now just a strange oddity that might be stumbled upon at the bottom of the Disney+ homepage. But with the talking animal movie far out of fashion these days, you get the sense that The Cat From Outer Space could’ve only been made back in Disney’s weird fallow period in the ‘70s — and never again.