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The Modern Era (Post-Walt) continues with The Aristocats, a film with many similarities to its most immediate predecessors, but with a noteworthy difference: this was the first film in the animated canon to be released after Walt’s death, in which none of his personal touches were incorporated, although allegedly there was a lot of ‘What would Walt do?’ circulating at the studio. However, although it was released four years after his death, Walt did approve it and had involvement – but not in terms of what the film would turn out to be.
Walt approved the film in the early 1960s, and originally, The Aristocats was set up as a live action double feature for Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Colour conceived by Tom McGowen, Harry Tytle, and later Tom Rowe. They were inspired by a story featuring cats in New York, and the setting was changed to Paris, as they felt that the London setting in One Hundred and One Dalmatians made a huge difference to the film’s atmosphere. Walt did a lot of collaboration with McGowen, Tytle and Rowe, and the film was very different, even when they changed the idea to making it an animated feature. Edgar the Butler was accompanied by Elvira the Maid (voiced by Elsa Lanchester), there were no scenes with the geese or the dogs, the Sherman Brothers were to write all of the songs, etc… However there was a lot of politics in the studio at that point, which worsened when Walt died, as The Aristocats changed over the years to what it is now. Rowe even sued the studio. Tytle melancholically reflects, ‘In my opinion, the resulting film lost the very element we tried to build, the Parisian atmosphere and characters, all the French charm. I honestly think the original story that Walt bought was much better’.
So … aside from dark politics at Disney, The Aristocats (as we know it now) was in development for four years. It features a cast of ‘big names’, with Eva Gabor, Phil Harris, Pat Buttram, George Lindsey, Scatman Crothers, Monica Evans, Carole Shelley and Hermione Baddeley, many of whom were popular stars in the entertainment industry. We imagine that we will be seeing a lot more of this pop culture seeping through the canon from here on out.
No Original Trailer Time …
Editorial Note: If an original trailer ever pops up – we will of course edit it in and delightfully lampoon it.
Voiced by Hungarian actress, Eva Gabor, Duchess is a white Turkish Angora cat:
Whose eyes are like sapphires
She is an elegant, kind-hearted and ladylike mother of three kittens, who no matter what anyone says, do have different fathers (perhaps local neighbourhood purebred Tom cats – no Mr Stork in this story!). It is very easy to make comparison with Lady from Lady and the Tramp, being both purebred pets from fancy houses that fall for a loveable rogue-like stray. However, while Lady was clearly an ingénue, to the degree that she was naïve about the world outside of her own home, and was very angry when she discovered that player Tramp had had many lady friends before her, Duchess, despite being a house cat, seems to be much more worldly, confident and self-assured. She sees straight through O’Malley and is aware that he has ‘been around’ so to be speak, and of course she plays the flirtation game just as heavily as him.
We are glad that they did not go for the stereotypical path and make Duchess a clichéd rich priss (which would have been easy, considering it was and likely still is, a cinematic trope – rogue-like cad on a road trip with aristocratic spoiled brat). Even though she is out of her comfort zone, and is initially frightened in the stormy weather, she takes it all in her stride, admitting graciously that they need help getting back, and not moaning about their predicament. She even enjoys the journey back, particularly the party with the alley cats, embracing the experience. However despite her appreciation towards the idea of a life with Thomas O’Malley (and consequently having a father figure for her children), her loyalty and love for her owner or ‘Mistress’ as Duchess calls her, never wavers. She cares for her and is concerned for her all on her own, aware that she misses them dreadfully. As well as Madame, her children are her priority; in earlier scenes, she is keen that they behave like ‘charming ladies and gentlemen’, encouraging them in artistic pursuits, and when they are lost, making sure that they are safe and reassuring them not to be frightened, being strong for her children. As a character, she does not particularly learn much, except that she should not be so trusting, as she discovers when Edgar sticks them in a bag during the climax.
Thomas O’Malley, or to give him his full name: Abraham d’Lacey Guiseppe Casey Thomas O’Malley …
(Special Note from Both: At one point, O’Malley refers to himself as J. Thomas O’Malley, likely a nod to J. Pat O’Malley who somehow is not in this film … although it makes no sense as none of O’Malley’s ‘first names’ began with ‘j’ … bravo Terry Gilkyson)
… is voiced by Phil Harris, and there is enough of a distinction between this character and Baloo, even though Harris’ voice-work isn’t that different. Even Harris said, ‘I’m just playing myself again’ admitting that the character was very similar to Baloo. The male/female dynamic between O’Malley and Duchess enables the character to be much more of a smooth talking schmoozer (something that Baloo never had much cause to be in a largely male-dominated cast). Much like Tramp, O’Malley is a streetwise, worldly type, who has presumably broken many hearts along the way. This is never stated outright – like it was with Tramp – but it is implied, particularly when he looks at the camera and says “Come to think of it O’Malley you’re not a cat, you’re a rat! Right? Right!”
(Special Note from Both: This is such an odd moment, that it’s actually become one of our favourite parts of the film!)
Despite this he proves to be a consistently reliable presence, almost instantly. Although taken aback initially by the discovery that Duchess has three children, he quickly regains his composure and helps them find their way home – placing himself at risk in the process. Even though O’Malley initially seems like a schmoozer as he flirts with Duchess, he turns out not to be a cad, but actually genuine. We had a moment when watching the film when we suddenly said, having the same thought at the same time, that he is like Pierce Brosnan’s character in Mrs Doubtfire – seems initially like a schmoozer but you discover that he is actually quite smitten by not only his girlfriend but her kids as well.
People Cats change … pushing 40 8 … don’t want to spend the rest of my life by myself … three terrific kids, especially that little Natalie Marie
(Special Note from Both: Perhaps one of the kittens’ biological fathers will turn up in the sequel, pretending to be a female nanny, only to overhear O’Malley during a conversation with Scat Cat, saying that the guy is a loser … then O’Malley will become the victim of a run-by-fruiting)
O’Malley’s willingness to help the children in particular is an admirable character trait, but the problem is that he does not really have much of an arc as a character.
(Special Note from David: It seems that much of his development as a character has already taken place, and his resolution to be a good guy – “you’re not a cat, you’re a rat!” – is all we get to see)
(Special Note from Melissa: However he does become a house cat – which again is pretty much lifted from Tramp’s arc)
Both O’Malley and Duchess are animated in such masculine and feminine ways, that are very human-like, and yet simultaneously their movements are so distinctively cat-like – overall the anthropomorphic animation is top-notch. Their romance is best played during the flirtatious scene in which they first meet – in a way it is a step beyond maturity in a relationship that we previously saw with Lady and Tramp, likely because Duchess is more knowing – and their sensuous scene on the rooftop, which features a few iconographic Disney images:
Edgar, voiced by English actor Roddy Maude-Roxby, is probably the most sympathetic villain in the Disney canon (with emphasis on ‘pathetic’): the poor man demonstrates an exceptionally high tolerance for the cats, as well as Madame Adelaide Bonfamille’s annoying old friend, Georges, who almost kills him travelling up the stairs, and yet he discovers that he stands to inherit nothing in Madame’s Will (apart from continuing to take care of the cats). Years and years of labour for no reward; understandably he does not take the news very well. It’s not often we are given cause to feel sorry for the villain.
But then he drugs the cats by putting an excessive amount of sleeping pills in their cream (or “crème-de-la-crème-a-la-Edgar”) and smuggles them away at night, leaving them by a river. This is quite a dastardly thing to do, but his ineptitude whilst attempting to carry it out somehow enables him to remain sympathetic; particularly when he runs afoul of two dogs who chase him relentlessly. Even though the kidnapping was a botched operation, he somehow manages to make the front cover of the newspaper.
(Special Note from David: It would have been more plausible had he made the cover of Poof:
Initially a pleasant man, he clearly goes mad throughout the film, and practically has a breakdown as he becomes obsessed with getting the cats out of the picture. Although he is a devoted Butler, we discover that at heart he is a social climber, and looks forward to a life of wealth and status when Madame eventually passes.
(Special Note from Melissa: This is credited to our friend Kol, but she made a great point when she said that Edgar is like Shakespeare’s Malvolio from Twelfth Night. Malvolio is also a servant character that again you don’t know whether to feel sorry for him or dislike him. Plus like Edgar, although he is devoted, he is a social climber)
I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you
But when you consider previous heinous and despicable villains in the canon, Edgar is a largely ineffective villain, too clumsy to ever create much of a sense of threat, and too justified in his motives to ever be truly hated. But he pays for his actions nonetheless, as it is more than likely he will either suffocate or die of dehydration on the way to Timbuktu.
(Special Note from David: That’s actually rather dark! Oh well, never mind, let’s have a dance number!)
To the character’s credit he does have some good moments; both of his reactions when overhearing Madame and Georges discussing the will are hilarious …
… laughing at his own bad jokes, and firing a champagne cork right at Roquefort the mouse. The voice acting is excellent, although would perhaps be better suited to a well-meaning support character rather than a villain. You really don’t know whether to feel sorry for him or dislike him. Poor sod – he really should have thought it through. Even if the cats had inherited the estate and money, he still could have taken advantage of that. The cats were hardly going to use it!
Or he could have always gone down this route:
The three kittens, Toulouse, Marie and Berlioz are pretty straightforward characters, all of whom exhibit individual character traits (more of an effort was made with them than with the Dalmatian puppies). Named after icons in France, artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, composer Hector Berlioz, and former Queen of France Marie Antoinette, they all possess qualities that their namesakes possess; Toulouse paints, Berlioz plays piano and Marie … well she possesses the ability to make sassy remarks. They are believable as young siblings, who fight and tease each other; the two boys gang up on their sister, and she manages to hold her own. Marie tries to mimic her mother’s ‘ladylike’ behaviour and has a superiority complex over her brothers. She likes the notion of romance, and often fawns over O’Malley’s speeches towards Duchess. It is frustrating that Marie is always the one who needs to be saved, because any of the male kittens could easily have been in danger too. Toulouse often tries to appear tough and is the most playful and outgoing kitten, while Berlioz is quieter and somewhat grumpier than his brother.
(Special Note from Melissa: Perhaps they are making a comment on the difference between painters and musicians?)
One moment with the kittens that really tickled us is when they take O’Malley literally when they overhear him telling Duchess that they’ll ‘fly together on a magic carpet’, as quite rightly, kids have tendency to take things literally.
Don’t even try and explain O’Malley
(Special Note from Melissa: Even as a kid, I took O’Malley literally. I thought I was going to see ‘A Whole New World’ with cats and was gutted)
Roquefort the mouse is an unusual presence within the film. He is a well-meaning but befuddled character who is concerned for the cats’ welfare.
Although he is a bit of a freeloader who has his routine down to a fine art: ‘It just so happens … I have a cracker with me’
Out of all of Sterling Holloway’s characters thus-far, Roquefort is the most involved in the main storyline, and yet strangely manages to be almost entirely superfluous (apart from during the final scenes in which he does prove rather useful). Our theory is that this character was created solely so that Sterling Holloway could make weird noises.
He is almost as incompetent as Edgar … almost
One of the original creators of The Aristocats was annoyed that they inserted a mouse into the film: ‘We didn’t have a mouse in the original story; I, for one, felt it was a cliché and not vital to a cat story. For once, I wanted to do a cat story without a mouse’.
Also why does he have no eyeballs???
Madame Adelaide Bonfamille, voiced by Hermione Baddeley, is a glamorous and eccentric lady who is a lover of the arts and her fluffy pets. We see little of her in the film, which is unfortunate as she is an interesting figure from what we know about her. She was once an opera star, but it is unknown as to whether she ever married or had any children – it is just that now she has no living relatives. From what we see, her family are her cats, as she dotes on her Duchess and kittens so much that she is willing to leave her entire fortune to them, instead of the long-suffering butler. She does insist that Edgar would get the fortune when the cats die … no matter how you try and justify it, it is a mad idea, but then again it does sound like the stuff of eccentric billionaires that pops up in headlines. Madame makes ‘Crazy Cat Lady’ fashionable as she pulls it off with a flair, with an excellent wardrobe that she possesses, and of course her long white hair. If this were made as a live action feature, Vanessa Redgrave would surely play her – she is that elegant!
My home for ALL the alley cats of Paris!
She does not seem unhappy about having no living relatives, and although she would appear to be a lonely figure, she never feels alone as long as she has her cats. Again she is curious character, and you do wonder about her past.
(Special Note from Melissa: Perhaps she should go to Italy and find her long lost love from fifty years ago …)
So … do you still have all those cats?
(Special Tangent from Melissa: Madame Adelaide Bonfamille could easily have a film of her own that would likely, despite being set in Paris, star a British cast, end up being a sleeper hit, play at all the Picturehouse cinemas and win several Baftas – probably Best Actress and Best Costume Design. It would follow her opera career, the loves and losses she encountered, a stuffy mother pushing her about why she isn’t married yet (likely played by Helen McCrory … or Miranda Richardson putting on a French accent even though no one else is) and an eccentric composer father who encourages her to follow her dreams as an opera star (likely played by Bill Nighy). She would probably be played by an up and coming young female British actress and then by Vanessa Redgrave in her older years, with Georges being played by Jim Broadbent. Edgar would likely be played by the downtrodden Molesley from Downton Abbey.
And I come after the cats???
… But that likely will not happen. Probably 99.9% will not happen)
Anyway Georges Hautecourt, voiced by Charles Lane, is Adelaide’s attorney and her ‘oldest and dearest friend’. Also a lover of the arts, and eccentric to boot, it is no wonder the two of them are friends. He is an enjoyable figure to watch, as he is so delightfully animated and voiced that again it is a pity that we only see him in two scenes. He just seems like such a happy fellow in everything he does and he is unaware that he really should not climb stairs …
He seems like what Mr Dawes Sr could have been had he lived after the first time in which he laughed:
Ta ra ra boom de ay! Hahahaha wooden leg named Smith. Should have gone to the opera years ago hahahaha …
But even eccentric Georges thought that the idea of Adelaide leaving her fortune to her cats was mad (‘To your cats???’) … come to think of it, had Edgar listened further instead of scheming, perhaps he might have heard Georges advise her against the idea, especially as later Adelaide says ‘If Edgar had known about the will, I’m sure he never would have left …’. Yes it could mean that she thought he would have been thrilled by the will in which he is second to the cats, but still … we’ll never know.
On another note, ever wondered what Mary and Bert would look like decades later?
Also Georges seems to be driving Brum …
And Georges’s mischievous spirit was reincarnated into Brum
Scat Cat and his gang of Alley Cats are old pals of O’Malley’s; they serve as entertainment in the Everybody Wants to Be a Cat sequence and are a source of assistance in the climax.
It is a bit of a throwback to the pound scene in Lady and the Tramp (except far less miserable) as the cats are all cultural stereotypes – Black American, English, Asian, Russian (voiced by the very recognisable Thurl Ravenscroft!) and Italian. Some of these work fine, are enjoyable and are not inappropriate, but THIS one:
Just … no. Please NO. Just stop Disney, stop it right now.
Louis Armstrong was originally meant to voice Scat Cat, and the character was even modelled on him both facially and physically, including his trademark trumpet and the gap between his front teeth, but unfortunately Louis had to pull out due to illness. Scatman Crothers took on the role instead, and was advised to ‘Pretend you’re Satchmo’.
For a film that is supposedly set in Paris in 1910, this jazz band of cats does seem rather anachronistic. Now it is not as if Disney has never been guilty of anachronisms but in this case, it is much more obvious because (apart from there being talking animals and surreal slapstick of course), it is a rather realistic setting and they made a deliberate effort to say that it was 1910. Jazz did not become popular in France until after WWI, and to be honest the pad that the cats inhabit looks more like a 1960s haven.
This cat alone embodies the 1960s!
We wonder if they should have just, like One Hundred and One Dalmatians, set it in the present day. It seems like they wanted to; Paris would still look beautiful and it could still be set in an aristocratic house.
Napoleon and Lafayette are a mildly amusing and dim-witted double-act, but they have absolutely no bearing on the plot and unfortunately get bogged down in repetitive material. Napoleon’s Sherlock Holmes-esque ability to identify the properties of modes of transport and shoes purely based on the noises they make, is quite an entertaining trait, but beyond that there’s not much to either character. Although he has Holmes-like qualities, he of course has the voice of Pat Buttram, so there is absolutely no way he could sound like a pastiche of Holmes.
(Special Note from Melissa: Now if The Aristocats had been made today and they cast Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in these roles … we may have excused their having no bearing on the plot)
The rule-of-three system comes into effect in the form of an unfunny joke wherein Napoleon enforces his status as the leader, before stating the obvious. There’s not enough variance in this joke to warrant using it three times. With names like Napoleon and Lafayette, you would think that they would be French stereotypes, but instead they have cast Southern American actors known for performances in Westerns, Pat Buttram and George Lindsey.
(Special Note from Melissa: Even as a child I used to speculate ‘What are these characters doing here?’ They just seem so superfluous. If they wanted to make a short about dogs that pestered a man on the verge of a breakdown – they should have just done that)
They do have humorous moments, but because they do not ever interact with the main characters or have any impact on the plot itself, it slows the pacing right down.
Even Amelia and Abigail are more useful as they at least save O’Malley’s life and lead the cats to Paris. Yes, now Amelia and Abigail Gabble are geese who apparently are based on the Pigeon Sisters, Gwendolyn and Cecily from The Odd Couple, played by the same actresses who played those roles, Monica Evans and Carole Shelley. As we can see, pop culture reference is becoming more and more integrated. However even though they are a specific reference, it does seem to be satirising how in that era, English ladies would go on European tours, often in pairs (think E.M Forster and D.H. Lawrence)
A giggly and proper duo, they are another pair of eccentrics in the film, as they live in their own bubble, unaware that O’Malley is nearly drowning but instead thinking that he is trying to learn how to swim and they spend so much time together that they find each other’s ‘jokes’ very amusing. They play on their ‘properness’ as they go from thinking that O’Malley is charming and handsome, flattered by his flirty remark that he ‘thought they were swans’, to judging him as a cad and a philanderer with a crooked smile and eyes that are too close together when they discover that he is not married (GASP!)
(Special Note from Melissa: As a child, I thought that the ‘Goose Walk’ was the funniest thing ever)
Their Uncle Waldo is in one scene, voiced by Bill Thompson (a veteran of Disney who we love for his classic reading of the line from Alice in Wonderland ‘Well … there goes Bill’). The point of him is a gag – a chef was trying to cook him and had either ‘basted’ or ‘marinated’ him in white wine … alive … for some reason. We think that chef needs to go back to cookery school. Unless they are trying to insinuate that everyone in Paris is either mad or on the verge of a breakdown.
Like this poor fellow (best visual gag in the film)
But in a nutshell, the gag is that Uncle Waldo is drunk because of an incompetent chef. That’s it.
Artwork and Imagery
This may sound blunt, but as Walt disliked the use of Xerox in animation, to the degree that he scorned at the animation of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and made sure that the backgrounds in The Jungle Book were his preferred painted backgrounds, it seems as if The Aristocrats is a case of ‘Walt’s not here to criticise. We can do what we like!’ The pencil lines are much more prominent, and we noticed it not only in the characters but also in the backgrounds, looking much more like Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone than The Jungle Book.
See the black lines in the backgrounds
The human characters in particular look sketchy, as the pencil lines have not been particularly cleaned up:
There is a LOT of recycled animation, not only from other films, but also recycling moments from itself:
How many times did we see this?
Furthermore, there are design inconsistencies:
Also there are glitches reminiscent of the blank faces incident in Peter Pan:
Toulouse and Berlioz have no eyeballs!
The animators did research to capture the authenticity of Paris in the early 1900s, looking at many books and periodicals. One of the artists had spent a month painting in Paris, and based some of it on his own memories. At times, the backgrounds are reminiscent of bohemian French artists, and even Toulouse Lautrec. Here are some particularly beautiful shots from The Aristocats:
George Bruns offers his usual style in terms of the underscore, with some new touches. There are touches of French style in the underscore, through accordion musical sequences. Also whenever Edgar is smuggling away into the night, the underscore has a Pink Panther-esque tone and style, playing up the crime drama in the film.
The Sherman Brothers had left Disney after having completed work on The Jungle Book to follow up new projects, but did come back to the studio for a brief period to work on The Aristocats and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. This would be the last full length feature film in the Animated Classics canon to involve the Sherman Brothers (except for Winnie the Pooh but they are rather more a collection of shorts), and unfortunately they weren’t really utilised to their fullest potential; only two songs in the final film were their compositions.
(Special Note from Both: We were both really surprised to discover during the opening credits that the most famous song from the film, Everybody Wants to Be a Cat wasn’t one of theirs!)
The Aristocats plays over the opening credits and is a fun, lively number packed with French flavour. It has a very classic, cabaret feel to it, as it was sung by the legendary French entertainer, Maurice Chevalier, who was coaxed out of retirement by the Sherman Brothers for the purposes of performing this song. This song was his last musical performance in a film, as he would pass away in 1972. Chevalier, whether jesting or not, said that he imitated Richard Sherman (on the demo) imitating him.
Scales and Arpeggios is a fairly by-the-numbers tune written by the Sherman Brothers, it almost seems like a description of the creative process rather than a finished product. It is a pleasant number, but is sung horribly by Marie and Berlioz (unlike Karen Dotrice’s singing in The Perfect Nanny, the bad-singing is not charming, it’s very tinny and goes on for ages!). Albeit it sounds realistic of everyday kids ‘singing’, but it does not sound pleasant until Duchess joins in – the saving grace!
Thomas O’Malley Cat is performed by Phil Harris, and is used as the introduction to his character: he makes his entrance while singing it. Much like The Bare Necessities, this song was written by Terry Gilkyson. It is a fun and catchy jazz number, with trumpet fanfares in between each line, and a swaggering finger-clicking beat. To an extent, it is a ‘chat-up line’ song, as O’Malley spends nearly the entire song flirting with Duchess as he ‘shows off’.
It sounds even better in Danish!
Everybody Wants to Be a Cat, written by Floyd Huddleston and Al Rinker, is probably the most recognisable song from the film. It is a very energetic jazz number that embraces the free-form nature of improvised jazz. It starts off gentle and relaxed, turning into a fast-paced swinging number with all of the band playing, then into a languorous romantic mood as Duchess plays the harp and sings a rather sultry verse, and finally spontaneously livens up so much that the band break through several floors and go on singing and playing with their smashed-up instruments into the night, never quite ending the song. The song has the natural rhythm of a party – starts slow, livens up, slows down again, then concludes with a final touch of wildness. It joins I Wanna Be Like You in the ‘dance song’ catalogue!
Plus the kittens sing their own version as they fall asleep. Which is – at least – brief.
It is also reprised at the end when Madame has clearly gone mad as she has opened her home to ‘all the alley cats of Paris’. This sounds rather familiar:
We’ll have an alley cat plantation, and then we’ll… erm.. huh! That is a tricky rhyme! No wonder they gave up on it before! Throw in another reprise!
Strangely enough Frou Frou and Uncle Waldo also sing about how everybody wants to be a cat, while Napoleon and Lafayette just look puzzled (probably wondering why they are even in this film).
Something that is very unfortunate is that the Sherman Brothers wrote another song for the film called Pourquoi? to be performed by Madame at the start of the film, and then later reprised in the form of She Never Felt Alone. Curiously the latter number is credited in the opening titles, even though it wasn’t used, apart from a few of the lyrics which are spoken rather than sung, and a little of the melody as underscore.
(Special Note from David: That’s pretty sloppy, guys!)
Pourquoi cleverly plays on ‘pour’ as onomatopoeic ‘purr’ and of course using French lexicon, and thus fitting for French felines! Those witty Sherman Brothers! Both Pourquoi and She Never Felt Alone would have enhanced the film’s soundtrack – as they are very sweet numbers, which exhibited the Sherman Brothers’ penchant for word-play – but it would have also improved upon the story, and of course the character of Madame. We know so little about her in the film, and these songs emphasise her operatic career and of course her love for her cats.
Walt had been less involved in films such as One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone and consequently he wasn’t too pleased with how they turned out, and unfortunately a great deal of the problems that those films had, can also be found in The Aristocats. The studio were clearly struggling without Walt, or at least a leader figure, and in The Aristocats a lot of ideas were re-used, presumably in the hope that: “this worked before, so it will work again”. This is not to say that Walt himself was the only reason why a film would work or not, but something we’ve noticed throughout the canon is that whenever Walt was more directly involved, a feature would have more focus; it would keep the story on track.
For us, it is the story where the film really falls down. It is like a thinner and lighter version of Lady and the Tramp, as characters had flaws and failings in that film, whereas in The Aristocats, the writers seem unwilling to highlight those flaws for the fear that we may dislike the characters as a result.
(Special Note from Both: For anyone who has ever seen The Philadelphia Story and High Society, it is just like that – making initially flawed characters into spotless, less believable ones)
For us, strange decisions were made in the making of The Aristocats, such as cutting Pourquoi and She Never Felt Alone, meaning that the emotional gravitas of Madame losing her cats is lessened, as well as Duchess’s reasoning for wanting to return. Something that we love about Disney is that they are prepared to go to very emotional and sentimental places, and by cutting these sentimental songs, it delivers a message that they are suddenly ‘too cool for school’, especially when they replace sentimental scenes with superfluous ones that involve characters that have next to nothing to do with the main action. Yes Napoleon and Lafayette; again their scenes really slow the action down, and unlike many previous supporting characters, their ‘plot’ does not interweave the main plotline. As we said before, it does seem as if they wanted to make a short about dogs (or that they believed that viewers who are not ‘cat people’ may sneer at the film unless there are non-cat scenes). Why did they not have Napoleon and Lafayette turn up in the climax? That could have been an opportunity for them to impact the story – perhaps they track Edgar down all the way to Paris? Join the fight? Get him arrested? Hand the ‘evidence’ to the police? Anything! But no, they just … forget about them until the end, only to slap on a repeated joke.
Anyway much like The Jungle Book this film has a very simple story, but there is far too much aimless meandering, padding out the running time. Every scene in The Jungle Book was connected to the narrative, but in The Aristocats there is a pointless sub-plot involving Edgar attempting to retrieve his hat and umbrella which is really drawn out; a plotline which – incidentally – never factors into the main storyline. Some of the ‘padding’ is entertaining, but the story does have a tendency to wander off, as if while making the film, they wanted to make several other films and stuffed them into one film. In terms of threat and tension in the storyline, Edgar is so weak, ineffective and not that bright that the threat is never that prominent. We knew he would botch up the Timbuktu plan in the climax because he’d botched up everything before that:
Remember me as mediocre at best
This is another film that I remember from childhood, and so when it came around to re-watching it there were a few moments that were already engrained in my subconscious memory. I remembered Toulouse’s painting of Edgar, the line “crème-de-la-crème-a-la-Edgar” (although I slightly misremembered it), Phil Harris’ voice-acting, and the song Everybody Wants To Be A Cat. As such I have some fondness for this film, but the effect of nostalgia only influences my enjoyment to an extent.
There’s not a great deal within this film that hadn’t already been done before – and done a lot better – in Lady and the Tramp. The lead characters are very similar, and the main storyline follows a similar premise, but rather than taking this setup and doing something different with it (or developing it further) this feels like a simplified version. Not only that, it meanders quite heavily and there is a lot of filler; not to mention one of the ‘meh-est’ endings of the canon.
I really think that the storyline and the film in general would have been improved if the other Sherman Brothers’ songs had been included; it would have given the film more heart, and given more development to the characters. Instead there is just an odd moment where Madame Adelaide looks out of a window for a while (which is where She Never Felt Alone was supposed to be). The film-makers were clearly struggling without Walt, and the film is full of a lot of recycled ideas, but I can’t understand why they chose not to include Pourquoi/She Never Felt Alone in a film with so much padding.
Edgar has some entertaining moments, but is far too sympathetic, and never really threatening. The majority of the supporting characters aren’t much to shout about either (following on from The Jungle Book which had such an entertaining ensemble), and several of them out-stay their welcome: particularly Napoleon and Lafayette.
I do enjoy the soundtrack – apart from Scales and Arpeggios – which is probably the best thing about the film, although it would have been great to have heard Louis Armstrong singing Everybody Wants To Be A Cat. I also like O’Malley as a character, but I’m not sure how much of that is down to him being voiced by Phil Harris.
As a child, I adored The Aristocats; I had cuddly toys of Duchess, Marie, Berlioz and Toulouse (which are still around in the cupboard somewhere!), and I am sure either my sister and I or my friends and I used to play that we were the ‘Aristocats’ in the garden. Strangely enough, I did not have it on video, but we definitely used to rent it or borrow it frequently. It was not until I was older that I got a copy of it on DVD. It is not exactly that it is a film that is ‘not as good as I remember’, because I am very fond of the film and to an extent some of my feelings about it haven’t changed. As a child, I thought that the subplot with Edgar and the dogs dragged on and I used to be tempted to fast-forward those bits because I would want to get back to the cats. I still feel that way, and I am even more aware of it, as the film just seems to come to a halt every time those scenes take place. I agree with David that the film’s ending is ‘meh’ as it is packed full of recycled animation and concludes with a joke that has already been done by characters that had nothing to do with the main action.
The story, the antagonist and the support are primarily where the film falls down for me – there is so much padding and meandering, seemingly because they wanted to keep the antagonist occupied until the cats found their way home. As a villain, Edgar is so pathetic, and no matter what, the idea of leaving everything to your cats instead of your faithful butler just seems downright unfair (it is a rather pro-ruling class film isn’t it?). Catnapping is awful but he is a serial bungler and while amusing at times, he really falls flat next to many villains that have come before, especially since he is the only antagonist in the film. Of course there are things that I do like about The Aristocats. Everybody Wants to Be a Cat, The Aristocats and Thomas O’Malley Cat are terrific songs, and they have been stuck in my head since we watched it. I enjoy the jazz and Parisian-inspired underscore (in fact I wished that they had amplified the French atmosphere even more in the film), there is some lovely artwork and voice work in the film, the protagonists are likeable (with some sassy dialogue and romantic moments), I like the eccentricities in certain characters, the kittens had cute moments and there are very amusing visual gags. The Aristocats is light, easy-going and charming entertainment that makes me feel nostalgic, but a little more heart could have gone a long way, and perhaps by adding back in the songs with Madame and the development to her character, thus providing an emotional anchor. Take out the padding, make the villain more threatening, clean up the story and develop the characters that really matter rather than stretching itself thin with superfluous characters that amount to nothing, and the film would have been much better.
The Aristocats, released in December 1970, did well at the box office. At Variety, a critic called it ‘marvellous to behold’, featuring ‘outstanding animation, songs, sentiment, some excellent dialog and even a touch of psychedelia’. Although we don’t have Bosley anymore, Roger Ebert has appeared: ‘The Aristocats is in there with the good ones. It is light and pleasant and funny, the characterization is strong, and the voices of Phil Harris (O’Malley the Alley Cat) and Eva Gabor (Duchess, the mother cat) are charming in their absolute rightness’. At The New York Times, a critic wrote, ‘Bless the Walt Disney organization for The Aristocats, as funny, warm and sweet an animated, cartoon, package as ever gave a movie marquee a Christmas glow. The colour feature is a joy and—fortunately for everybody, young and young-hearted—theatres are playing it all over the metropolitan area. Talk about cats, man—these aristocats have it’. The film’s songs were nominated for a Grammy, and the film itself won ‘Best Children’s Film’ at the Sant Jordi Awards.
The Aristocats is the last film in which Eric Larson worked as an animator; from this point onwards, he would go on to teach and train animators. It was Disney veteran, Bill Thompson’s final film. A sequel for The Aristocats was in developed during the Pit of Despair Sequel Years, but fortunately it was cancelled when John Lasseter took over the studio.
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