The Aristocats (1970)
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
In early 20th century Paris, housecat Duchess and her three kittens live in the house of a wealthy retired opera singer, Madame Bonfamille. One day, Madame calls a meeting with her lawyer, and leaves her entire fortune to the care of her cats – much to chagrin of her butler Edgar, who’d assumed that he would inherit the estate since Madame had no family. To insure his place in her will, he decides to take the cats out into the countryside and abandon them.
After waking up far from home, Duchess and her children encounter a stray alley cat named Thomas O’Malley, who offers to help them find their way back to Paris. Several misadventures later, they reach Paris, and stop for the night with O’Malley’s friends, a cat jazz band led by Scat Cat. There, O’Malley proposes marriage, but Duchess is still too attached to her life with Madame to abandon it for an alley cat.
Returning to the mansion the next day, the cats are once again captured by Edgar, who plans to literally mail them to Timbuktu this time. The mansion’s mouse, Roquefort, fetches O’Malley and the band for help. After a fight to rescue them, Edgar ends up being shipped to Timbuktu himself, and O’Malley is adopted into Madame’s family.
Production on The Aristocats actually started around the same time as The Sword and the Stone and The Jungle Book did, in 1961. It wasn’t originally intended to be a theatrical movie, however. It was originally planned as a two-part episode of Disney’s Wonderful World of Color TV show, an anthology series that aired made-for-TV movies and edited theatrical films from the studio. The script went through lots of tinkering and edits, and was eventually shelved as a TV production in 1963.
In 1966, Wolfgang Reitherman, the director of all of Disney’s 1960s films, learned of the project and thought it might make a good follow-up to The Jungle Book, which was in production at the time. Disney had a team re-write the film from scratch, and greenlit the production of the film as one of his final acts before his death. Like with The Jungle Book before it, multiple celebrity voice actors were hired, including Phil Harris again in the second of three consecutive Disney movies for him. Having decided against casting Louis Armstrong as an ape in the previous movie (good call, there), they tried to get him for Scat Cat this time around. He ended up dropping out at the last minute due to poor health, prompting them to hire Scatman Crothers instead, who was told to do his best Armstrong impression.
The film was a moderate critical success, with reviewers enjoying it in general but frequently complaining of its similarity to One Hundred and One Dalmatians. It was a big hit with audiences, however, making it into the top ten for the year in America and topping the charts in several European countries.
As I mentioned above, this is the first Disney animated movie in which Walt Disney himself didn’t have any real creative input. He passed away very early in the film’s production, and never saw much more than a first draft script and some storyboards. And honestly, it really shows. This movie is a bit of a mess.
They were obviously taking most of their cues from the success of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Cute animal leads (cats instead of dogs)? Check. A human who kidnaps them for nefarious purposes? Check. An “exotic” European location (Paris instead of London)? Check. An episodic series of adventures as the animals travel cross-country while trying to get home? Double check. About the only thing this one does differently is that it makes more of a pretense at being a musical, with four songs instead of just one. Otherwise, it’s just a rehashed, remixed version of the previous movie.
It doesn’t help that the ostensible villain, the butler Edgar, is no Cruella de Vil. He’s remarkably shortsighted, even for a Disney villain (seriously, who exactly did he think would live in the mansion and take care of the cats after they inherited Madame’s money? It’s not like they’d get credit cards issued in their names). He’s also not particularly effective at his criminal pursuits. He attempts to abandon the cats in the countryside, when he could have easily just killed them and hidden the bodies and be done with it. And his plan when they come back is to mail them to Timbuktu?? What is this, a Bugs Bunny cartoon? He’s maybe the weakest Disney villain since Brom Bones. Captain Hook might have been just as incompetent, but at least he was entertainingly so. Edgar is just sad.
Now, I actually did find myself enjoying the journey of Duchess and her kittens back to Paris. Yes, it was episodic, but travel narratives like this tend to be so. Most of the characters they met along the way (O’Malley, the geese) were interesting, and I think the animation was noticeably better whenever the plot focused on the core characters. If the whole movie had been just them trying to get home, a la The Incredible Journey, I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more. Unfortunately, the movie comes to a dead halt, not once but twice, for slapstick action sequences between Edgar and two dogs; first when he attempts to abandon the cats, and second when he goes back to retrieve incriminating evidence that was left behind the first time. They’re pretty lengthy sequences, too, taking up maybe 15 minutes of the movie’s 80-minute run time, and contribute absolutely nothing to the movie other than some mildly amusing sight gags.
For all that the xerography process was supposed to signal the “dark age” of Disney animation, most of my complaints about the movies that have used it so far have been ones of plot and writing, not the animation itself. This is the first movie where I think the cracks are definitely beginning to show in the process. While all of the animals tend to be animated well, the humans are…less so. It’s especially noticeable at the end of the movie, where Madame looks glaringly unfinished. And the recycled animation has become a little more noticeable too.
One thing that the movie does have going for it are the songs, which are universally excellent. Maurice Chevalier came out of retirement to single the title song, and “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat” is a highlight of the film. Of course, once again I have to complain about Disney’s racist caricature problem. The percussionist for the cat band in the song is a Siamese cat, and not only was he given squinty eyes and buck teeth again, but actually sings a verse which consists of literally nothing but stereotypes and plays the piano with chopsticks. It’s so blatant that Disney has even edited the verse out of all of the more recent soundtrack compilations.
I think that there’s a much better movie here in this material, but it got weighed down by an exceedingly poor villain and a lack of focus in the writing and storyboarding. Walt Disney’s absence is keenly felt, and I think that his input would have done wonders for the final results. Unfortunately, it will take another decade and half, and a lot of shakeups behind the scenes, before the studio will really recover from his loss.
Animation: C (Most of the animal animation is pretty good, but there’s some really dreadful stuff with the humans, so it’s a wash)
Main Characters: B- (The kittens definitely have more personality than the dalmatians did, though Duchess and Thomas are pretty much just Eva Gabor and Phil Harris)
Supporting Characters: B (None of them get a lot of screen time, but there’s some decent gags involving the geese, Scat Cat & co. and Roquefort)
Villains: F (We’ve had ineffectual villains, and we’ve had stupid villains. But we haven’t really had one who was both to this degree before. Simply put, probably my least-favorite antagonist of the entire canon)
Music: A- (Pretty much the one draw of the movie. There’s a verse or two I could have done without, but it’s probably the strongest overall group of songs since the 1950s, just edging out Jungle Book)