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"The Aristocats": Making Money the Old Old-Fashioned Way—Inheriting It

by on February 8, 2008

In hindsight, 1970 was a strange time for Disney. The great man himself had died in 1966 during the making of The Jungle Book. The films that followed (Robin Hood in 1973 and The Rescuers in 1977) have long been considered second-string releases and, fairly or not, are less well loved and fondly remembered than the likes of Snow White, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Bambi and so on. The Aristocats looks like the end of an era for Disney and the beginning of a slow decline that would last until the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989.

With The Aristocats, the studio for the first time had to make a film without Walt’s personal drive and vision. Perhaps understandably, the studio rested on its laurels. The cast and crew reads like a Who’s Who of Disney Legends. Five of Disney’s “nine old men” were on board for the animating duties, and the film was directed by another, Wolfgang Reitherman, who directed every official canon feature from One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) to The Rescuers (1977). The cast features many instantly recognisable voice actors including, amongst many others, Phil Harris (better known as Baloo the Bear from The Jungle Book) as Tom O’Malley; Sterling Holloway (much more widely known as the voice of Winnie the Pooh or the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland) as Roquefort the mouse; and Bill Thompson (who played the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, Mr. Smee in Peter Pan and Droopy the Dog) as Uncle Waldo. The cast also boasts some fairly major Hollywood stars in Eva Gabor (the sister of Zsa Zsa), who is refined if unspectacular as Duchess and almost identical to Miss Bianca in The Rescuers seven years later, and Charles Lane who is wonderful in his cameo-sized part as Georges Hautecourt, Madame Bonfamille’s lawyer and old flame.

In such steady hands, the keynote of The Aristocats is familiarity. The plot is unusually slight: in Paris, a rich retired opera singer plans to leave her fortune first to her cat, Duchess, and her three kittens and then to her butler, Edgar, upon their death. For some reason, Edgar finds this unacceptable (if I were him, I know I wouldn’t complain!) and catnaps the kitties, dumping them in the French countryside. The cats want to return to Paris to get back to their doting owner and, ultimately, to claim what is rightfully theirs. On the way home, they bump into a swinging, streetwise alley cat called Tom O’Malley and a pair of English geese and their drunken uncle; there’s also a spot of jazz thrown in for fun. And that’s about it! Oh, and there’s also a side plot involving Edgar, perhaps the oddest and least threatening of all Disney villains, in which he loses his hat and umbrella. The hat falls into the possession of two hound dogs with Deep South American accents. Edgar spends most of film trying to retrieve it from them while being followed and spied upon by Roquefort the mouse, a friend of Duchess’s, who has donned a Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker hat and figured Edgar’s motives out. Plainly, the plot does not drive the film. Instead, The Aristocats relies on its characters and its familiar feel.

Perhaps for the first time (although cases might be made for Lady and the Tramp or One Hundred and One Dalmatians), this is Disney filmmaking by numbers. There are very few characters here that we haven’t met before (or since) in some shape or form. Most obviously, Tom O’Malley is a carbon copy of Baloo from The Jungle Book, even down to his attitude and love of music. It is just a star vehicle for Phil Harris—Little John, the character he plays in Robin Hood, is exactly the same. One of the kittens, Toulouse, is a slightly tiresome reincarnation of the friendly but feisty youngster we’ve already met at least three times (Thumper in Bambi, Nibs in Peter Pan, and Patch in One Hundred and One Dalmatians) and would meet many times again (see, for example, Chip in Beauty and the Beast). Roquefort the Mouse is, basically, Winnie the Pooh in all but appearance and honey fixations. Even the bumbling Edgar has a precedent in the folding layers of skin of Sir Ector and Pelinore from Sword in the Stone. It’s all as comfortable and snug as an old jumper.

The film also looks great. As you’d expect, Disney have done a fine digital transfer job on this DVD special edition and the artwork really stands out. It has that chalky quality that Disney seemed to favour under Reitherman’s direction. Just as in Sword and the Stone, the animated sequences of Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, and Robin Hood, the artists favour a pale, pastel colour palette and you can see lots of faint pencil lines; at times it borders on impressionism, which is perhaps fitting, considering The Aristocats‘ French setting. It’s a great look, distinctive from the clean lines of the 1940s (see Snow White and Pinocchio), the chubby cheeks of the 1950s (particularly Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, which, the leads aside, seem to be inhabited entirely by plump characters) and the vibrant colours of the 1990s (see Aladdin and Lion King). The Aristocats probably epitomises the ‘impressionistic look’ better than any other Disney film, particularly in the opening sequence where the pencil marks and chalkiness really bring out the age in Madame Bonfamille and Georges Hautecourt. In terms of animation alone, I’d rank The Aristocats way up there in the Disney canon, probably in the top ten.

But at the same time it’s difficult not to feel that The Aristocats lacks soul. Familiar character templates and distinctive visuals can’t compensate for the lacklustre story. The plot so meanders that it perfectly emulates the loose structure of the jazz to which it pays homage. However, I can’t make a virtue out of that. When judged against those other Disney films, The Aristocats suffers. In terms of telling a coherent story only Fantasia and the package films of the late 1940s, such as Make Mine Music, do worse—and they have valid excuses! Speaking of music, the songs don’t really hit all the right notes and there aren’t many of them either. Within the context of the film they are fine and sound nice, contributing to an easy jazz atmosphere, but after it’s finished there’s only one (“Everybody Wants to Be a Cat”, which includes vocals from Scatman Crothers) that is really memorable. The title song, the last sung by the legendry French crooner Maurice Chevalier, sounds a little too clever, tongue twisting and over complicated to me. It does a fine job of setting a Parisian tone, but the film does little to remind us we’re in France after the opening credits finish.

It’s also hard to be moved by or interested by the love story between O’Malley and Duchess, which plays out like a lazy retread of Lady and the Tramp without the chemistry or romance. Duchess is also far too kind, down-to-earth, and entirely without upper-class pretensions, and O’Malley far too eager to please his social superior, for the story to work properly. There are no character arcs here. The couple seem like kindred spirits from the get-go, so there’s little room for them to grow. There’s also the question of why we should care for this little family of cats at all. Spoilt, privileged and set to inherit millions of francs worth of money that they can’t spend: do the cats really deserve our sympathy? Edgar seems to have a point. What are they going to spend their money on — kitekat?

The film never even hints at any questions about class here, either. The so-called “common kitties” accept the aristocats into their world and are only too happy to help them. This is in stark contrast to some of the other social hierarchies we see in Disney. Ariel, for example, struggles with her aristocratic background in The Little Mermaid. Arthur from Sword in the Stone, Cinderella, Robin Hood, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, and, of course, Aladdin, all ask subtle and not so subtle questions of the class systems they inhabit and fulfill the classic rags to riches story. And look at some of the more oppressed and exploited Disney heroes: Pinocchio, Dumbo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and, most obviously, Pocahontas. Each one of those has to overcome severe disadvantages in life to gain what they want and mostly deserve. But what happens here? Riches to riches? People born into privilege deserve no matter what to get their due inheritance? To put it bluntly, this is an incredibly strange and morally empty story for a Disney film, in which, seemingly, none of the characters learn anything at all. It subverts the usual A to B structure of filmmaking by going from A to A—which is especially odd for a film that rests so heavily on tried and tested formulas. Thus, The Aristocats is flatly conservative in both its politics and use of characters, but bizarrely avant-garde in its storytelling. However, one gets the impression that this was not through design: it’s just a poor story.

Despite this new special edition, little can disguise the fact that The Aristocats is one of the safest films in the Disney canon. And in a canon as safe as Disney’s, that is quite an extraordinary feat of risk-free filmmaking.

There’s a fair amount of cat-related goodness packed into this special edition. There’s only one disc and the games are a little rubbish but it’s a pretty decent effort.

  • “Disney Virtual Kitten”: Adopt one of the kittens and guess what he or she wants to do to increase his or her “love” for you. A good idea in principle, poor in execution.
  • The Aristocats Fun with Language Game”: Small game for children to help them learn the name of musical instruments. A bit of filler.
  • “The Great Cat Family”: Now this is a great extra! 12.50 minutes of Uncle Walt (yes the epitome of “avuncular” himself!) from 1956 telling us about the history of cats with the help of some cartoons. As always, Walt is in his study and starts by getting a book about cats from his shelf—it’s sad to say but there is something inherently comforting about that, even to someone who was born in 1982 and has never even seen Disney Land/ The Wonderful World of Colour. Here, he emphasises the “aloof and mysterious” qualities of the cat and seems to admire its independent nature and ability to catch mice and rats. At one point he tells us in deadly serious tones: “the rat has killed more people than all the wars in history. Man’s greatest weapon against this army of death and destruction was the cat”. It’s good fun, mildly entertaining and informative. Not to mention a little shocking in its brutal depiction of the persecution of cats during the middle ages—Walt makes it sound like one of Stalin’s purges. It makes you wish for a DVD length treatment of this sort of thing, in addition to what’s already out there.
  • “The Sherman Brothers: The Aristocrats of Disney Songs”: Five minutes of the Shermans talking about their work on the film. Richard Sherman plays the piano and sings too.
  • “Deleted Song: ‘She Never Felt Alone'”: Richard Sherman plays and sings the song on a piano with random stills floating around him. It’s quite surreal. The song, however, like most of those actually in the film, is unremarkable.
  • “The Aristocats Scrapbook”: 18 pages of drawings and concept art.
  • “Bonus Short: ‘Bath Day’ (1946)”: Delightful little short in which Minnie Mouse attempts to bathe and dry a thoroughly reluctant Figaro (the cat from Pinocchio). Afterwards, Figaro promptly gets into a scrap with some alley cats and needs another bath. Good stuff.

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