The Aristocats (1970)
It’s strange how the majority of Disney’s ’70s and ’80s output falls by the wayside when brought up in discussion. With a company like Disney, there are very few truly forgotten films, but the 18 year run of animated theatrical releases between The Jungle Book and The Little Mermaid struggle for a place amongst the “proper” classics. To be honest, it’s a quality issue. After Uncle Walt cursed the Jewish faith one last time and turned up his toes, the company staggered about trying to recreate the original Disney magic. The films from this time aren’t bad per se, but they are shallower in terms of heart and ambition. As there seems to be no proper term for this time, I shall refer to it as “The Hollow Era” as I’m sure I’m going to have to refer back to it. Hate to say it, but The Aristocats seems to have kickstarted the tailspin.
“Ladies don’t start fights, but they can finish them!“
Pampered cat Duchess (Eva Gabor) and her three kittens live the life of luxury with an old rich Madame (Hermione Baddeley) in 20th century France. Madame Bonfamille draws up her will and having no family, she intends to leave everything to the cats, with the loyal house butler Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby) to inherit after the cats die. Edgar overhears this and kidnaps the kitties, dumping them in the wilderness to cut out the middlecats and become the sole benefactor to her estate. Duchess and the kittens meet Thomas O’Malley (Phil Harris), a streetwise alley cat who endeavours to return the family home. Here’s the thing with The Aristocats– apart from it being a pale facsimile of Lady and the Tramp, none of evolves past Duchess’ desire to get home. Homeward Bound had this too, but the characters learned something about themselves and each other. The Aristocats is a series of disconnected sketches featuring new characters and the occasional musical number. Most of it is just scenes that happen sequentially rather than having a reason why scenes are happening. The voice cast are great. Eva Gabor is cool, the richly-voiced Phil Harris does his Baloo schtick again, but it works. Fellow Jungle Book star Sterling Holloway also lends his unique voice to Roquefort, a plucky mouse who is determined to rescue Duchess and co. Scatman Crothers pops up as the jazz-loving Scat Cat, confusingly doing a Louis Armstrong impression to match the character design. Whatever the reason, it’s a whole lot of fun. Let’s not talk about the buck-toothed “me rikey” Siamese cat.
The Aristocats is charming, don’t get me wrong. The animation and art are beautiful. I’ve seen a lot of detractors calling the film rough-looking, but I think it suits. It’s not as clean as previous films, but I like it. Plus, the animation on the animals is fantastic and realistic. The songs are high points too, especially the catchy “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat”. To me, the film seems like a series of vignettes. We have the two dogs Napoleon and Lafayette who don’t impact on the story at all, apart from making it more difficult for Edgar to cover his tracks. The cats then meet two geese Abigail and Amelia, who don’t do much. It goes on like this. The story is dictating what the characters should do, instead of the characters’ decisions driving the story. It’s practically a recipe for ensuring your film has a limit on how much it can appeal and entertain. Plus, when it doubt, the film puts Marie in danger. It’s lazy, basically. That’s not to say these scenes are bad. Whilst I’m not a huge fan of the two dogs (despite Napoleon being voiced by the awesome Pat Buttram), I have a soft spot for the ditzy English maid geese and especially their Uncle Waldo. The Waldo sequence is genuinely funny and features some of the best drunk voice acting you’ve ever heard:
My main problem with the film is that there’s no real heart to it or lesson to be imparted. Duchess and the kittens don’t learn anything from their big adventure, aside from maybe having their world view broadened. Madame doesn’t learn anything. O’Malley doesn’t learn anything. Nobody does. There’s an undercurrent about the difference between Duchess and O’Malley’s attitudes towards humans, but it’s mostly forgotten about. A lot of ideas in the film are like this. The sheltered kittens have a very specific idea of what an alley cat is, but aren’t surprised by O’Malley and like him from the get-go. They float an idea and then just drop it. It’s frustrating because there’s evidently some top quality work gone into making it, it’s just disappointingly hollow. A lot of decisions seem arbitrary. For example, why is the film set in Paris? Apart from making sense of Maurice Chevalier’s opening number, there’s nothing about the story that specifically requires a Parisian backdrop.
“Aloha, auf Wiedersehen, bonsoir, sayonara and all those good bye things, baby.”
Despite all this, I still like The Aristocats. As I said, it’s charming and that takes it a long way. Whilst it doesn’t hit the highs of other Disney films, it still has enough energy and playfulness to make it worth a watch.