“Banjo the Woodpile Cat” is a 26-minute short about an irascible talking kitten named Banjo (Sparky Marcus) who causes mischief to the point of damage. When he nearly kills one of his sisters, Banjo’s father (Ken Sansom) sends Banjo out to fetch a beating switch intended for Banjo’s corporal punishment. Rather than be beaten, Banjo takes to the road and treks into the big city (actually Salt Lake City where Bluth lived) where he runs afoul of the human traffic. He eventually falls in with numerous city cats before locating a truck that will drive him home. When he returns home, all is forgiven.
Like much of Bluth’s work, “Banjo” appears on its surface to be a lighthearted and delightful romp, but soon skews into darkness and sadness. A lot of Bluth’s films, especially in the early 1980s, emerges as dank, scary, or tragic. Even the Spielberg-produced “An American Tail” from 1986 is mostly about how sad the mouse characters feel in being separated. “Banjo” isn’t so much an adventure as a survival story.
The character animation in “Banjo” is first rate, and it’s certainly a sight better than a lot of Disney fare from the 1970s. If one notices a “shaggy” visual style in 1970s Disney animated fare, it’s because the studio had taken to using an animation technique called xerography, which would allow for the photocopying of animation cels. It was a great way to save money, but also a great way to make a film look cheaper than it was. “Banjo,” as its origin story would belie, looks like it was painstaking hand-animated over the course of four years. The story is detailed on various animation websites, as well as in the Los Angeles Times.