Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Aristocats (1970) - Everybody Wants to be a Cat!

The Aristocats: Yeah, I'm a Cool Cat, Baby, Wanna See Me Meow?

The Aristocats 1970
The Aristocats (1970).
Walt Disney Productions labored over its films, sometimes taking decades to get them done. "The Aristocats" (1970), based on a story by Tom McGowan and Tom Rowe, already was in production at the time of Walt Disney's untimely passing from lung cancer in 1966.

The Aristocats 1970
The essential Disney team was still intact for this production, some for the last time: The Sherman Brothers and George Bruns did the songs and soundtrack, Wolfgang Reitherman directed, Phil Harris, Sterling Holloway, and Thurl Ravenscroft were on hand for key voices. While there are the first, tiny signs of a decline in quality - the occasional descent into Saturday-morning slapstick was a bad omen - this is still a worthy entry into the Disney animated feature film canon.

Marie, Berlioz and Toulouse The Aristocats 1970
Aren't they cute?
It is Paris, 1910, and cat Duchess (Eva Gabor) and her three kittens Marie (Liz English), Berlioz (Dean Clark) and Toulouse (Gary Dubin) live with retired opera singer Madame Adelaide Donfamille (Hermione Baddeley) and her butler Edgar (Rodd Maude-Roxy).

The Aristocats 1970

Madame loves her cats, and tells her lawyer she wants her fortune left to Duchess and her kittens until their deaths, then to Edgar.

Edgar listening to Madame The Aristocats 1970
Edgar just getting himself into trouble
Edgar is impatient and has no intention of waiting for a bunch of kittens to die naturally. He drugs the cats and plans to take them far out into the wild and release them. Two hound dogs, Napoleon (Pat Buttram) and Lafayette (George Lindsey) intervene, and Edgar leaves not only the cats but the sidecar of his motorcycle with several of his personal items.

The Aristocats 1970

The Aristocats 1970

The Aristocats 1970

The Aristocats 1970

Edgar later comes back and has a struggle retrieving the items from Napoleon and Lafayette. An alley cat named Thomas O'Malley (Harris) sees Dutchess' plight and volunteers to guide her family back home to Paris.

Edgar and Napoleon The Aristocats 1970
Edgar had a lot of trouble with Napoleon and Lafayette.
The group heads set out, hitchhiking part of the way and meeting some English geese tourists, Abigail (Monica Evans) and Amelia (Carole Shelley) Gabble, who eventually have to leave to take their drunk uncle Waldo (Bill Thompson) home.

The Aristocats 1970

They then meet Scat Cat (Scatman Crothers) and his mates at O'Malley's "penthouse pad." They sing the tuneful "Everybody Wants to Be a Cat." O'Malley later asks Dutchess to stay with him and forget about the mansion, but she says she must take her family back because Madame expects it.

O'Malley and Dutchess The Aristocats 1970
Dutchess always seems to be like this around O'Malley.
Once they make it back to Madame's mansion, O'Malley sadly leaves. Edgar catches the cats and puts them in the oven, but the cats tell Roquefort (Sterling Holloway), their mouse friend, to run and get O'Malley. O'Malley tells Roquefort to go and get Scat Cat and his band. Egar locks the cats in a trunk that he is going to send to Africa, but O'Malley, Scat Cat, and Frou-Frou the horse (Nancy Kulp) intervene. A battle ensues between Edgar and the animals.

The kittens The Aristocats 1970
There are those crazy cats again!
There are unavoidable similarities between "The Aristocats" and previous Disney films, particularly the style and plot of "101 Dalmations." At least they hadn't started copying exact scenes at this point. The animation is controversial, as it has a sketchy look that may or may not have been deliberately used to create the desired carefree effect.

DVD cover The Aristocats 1970
The Disney DVD - alternate cover.
The colors are good, there is a lot of humor, and the jazz songs are energetic and fun though not particularly memorable. Maurice Chevalier liked the idea of this film so much that his very last performance was the title song (the fact that the Sherman Brothers' father had written his big hit "Living in the Sunlight, Loving in the Moonlight" probably didn't hurt).

Scat Cat in O'Malley's pad The Aristocats 1970
Scat Cat wailing.
The voices are perhaps the best thing of all, as Phil Harris has the perfect amiable "with it" tone for the savior O'Malley, while Eva Gabor gives Dutchess just the right upper crust "isn't that interesting" tone. Several voices were done by then-current television stars, such as Gabor, Kulp, and Lindsey, which foreshadowed the excesses to which this practice would reach in the 1990s and 2000s. It works well here because the voices really do fit the characters and were distinctive. Throw in slapstick humor in several places and you have a fine film that, if you examine Disney films closely, feels like another winner - and, indeed, it was, scoring well at the box office.

Scat Cat's band playing The Aristocats 1970
The songs are the film's high points.
At heart, the film has a lot of charm. Everybody loves kittens, and the film moves at a relaxed pace that gives you time to enjoy them. Berlioz and Toulouse playing the piano together are lots of fun, and the two squabbling hounds Napoleon and Lafayette are a high point in Disney animation. The story itself is clever, it is all about relying on your friends to survive and the bonds you create while doing so.

O'Malley and Dutchess The Aristocats 1970
Dutchess playing the harp, O'Malley listening.
There are a few things that keep the film from being a true classic. The animation was beginning its slide towards being cartoony (see "Robin Hood"), and does not have the pristine look of "Sleeping Beauty" or "Peter Pan." It is not poor, as the animation crew of the '50s was still largely intact and knew what it was doing, but the animation undeniably is not up to earlier standards.

Print ad The Aristocats 1970
Print ad for "The Aristocats" - note how they use Baloo from "Jungle Book" to help sell it even though he isn't in it.
Some of the alleycat characters, such as Shun Gon (Paul Winchell) the Chinese cat, are drawn a little too broadly in order to distinguish them and may offend modern sensibilities - but you could also make the case that they are poking fun at stereotypes, though it is easier to criticize. Besides, they are just cats! There also are some anachronistic elements from '60s culture, such as psychedelic lighting, that are fun but do date the film. Some scenes are scary, such as a speeding train, but almost every Disney film has scary aspects.

Abigail and Amelia Gabble The Aristocats 1970
The Gabble sisters are a great addition.
Disney quietly de-emphasized this film for a while, and the reasons are unknown, but Disney never really promoted this much since its release. A sequel was planned for 2007, then canceled without explanation. The Gold Classic Collection disc was withdrawn around the same time, and a planned 2-disc release for 2008 was cut to one "Special Edition" disc. The current Disney regime is not too into bringing out sequels for the older films, so it may be some time before a sequel ever appears. A 2-disc Blu-ray edition and new single-disc DVD were released in August 2012.

Edgar fighting the animals The Aristocats 1970
Edgar is in a HEAP of trouble.
"The Aristocats" was a worthy send-off for Walt, but the decline had begun. The film is lots of fun and very affecting in places, but not among the true Disney classics. It is probably, though, Disney's best film until the Disney Renaissance began in 1989 with "The Little Mermaid."

The Aristocats 1970


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