The first animated feature produced and released after Walt Disney’s death was The Aristocats (1970); a minor charmer that managed to capture the essence of that old Disney magic, though it arguably lacks the fundamental stylistic elements to rank amongst the studio’s very best. On the basis of some very early preliminary sketches done by writer Ken Anderson, Walt had green lit the project as early as 1964. Bad timing, Walt’s failing health and more prescient financial matters facing the studio prevented the story from going beyond its initial phase until nearly a year after Walt’s untimely passing.
It isn’t an overstatement to suggest that after Walt died in December of 1966 the studio went into a state of shock from which its filmic output greatly suffered. The animators, Disney’s so called ‘nine old men’ who had been responsible for virtually all of the masterful accomplishments and visual masterworks made since the beginning, were nearing the age of retirement. After the release of Sleeping Beauty (1959) the art of animation – always laborious and expensive – was considerably streamlined by the Xerox process that effectively eliminated the need for the studio’s hand tracing ink and paint departments. What the studio gained in economy it regrettably lost in the fluidity of that hand drawn line. Still, this ‘new’ more graphic style had complimented the more contemporary backdrop of One Hundred and One Dalmatians; one of the most successful animated features ever made by Disney.
Despite being set in 1910 Paris, The Artistocats is a very contemporary movie in tone, creating a slight disconnect between its historical period and the film’s visual style. Viewed today it feels like a movie made in the 1960s, its curious amalgam of stately duchesses, British born geese and San Franciscan hippie jazz alley cats very much a cultural time capsule from that period rather than remaining timeless in its appeal.
Based on a story by Tom McGowan and Tom Rowe, The Aristocats opens with an appropriately Parisian fanfare sung by no less an authority on French culture than Maurice Chevalier, beneath which the audience is treated to rough pencil test animation seen elsewhere in the film modestly cleaned up and, of course, in color. During the opening titles these transparent images are photographed against lurid backgrounds. Like the main titles to One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Aristocats monochromatic palette eventually dissolves into a fully saturated backdrop, this time of Paris.
We are introduced to Madame Adelaide Bonfamilie (Hermione Baddeley); a dowager heiress living in her fashionable atelier with four cultured felines. All are readily attended to by Adelaide’s doting English butler, Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby). Adelaide has invited her aged attorney, Georges Hautcourt (Charles Lane) to discuss the particulars of her Last Will and Testament. Edgar eavesdrops on this conversation by lending his ear to a heating pipe and quickly realizes he is not the intended beneficiary of Adelaide’s considerable estate.
Instead, Adelaide has decided to leave everything to her cats; Duchess (Eva Gabor) and her three artistically inclined protégé kittens; Marie (Liz English), Toulouse (Gary Dubin) and Berlioz (Dean Clark). Enraged at having been snubbed after decades of loyal service, Edgar hatches a diabolical plot. He will drug Duchess and her offspring and steal away with them into the night. However, his plan to drown them in a country lake is foiled by two caustic watch dogs, Napoleon Pat Buttram) and Lafayette (George Lindsey).
After a harrowing night chase around an abandoned farm, the basket containing the unconscious cats is tossed from the sidecar of Edgar’s motorcycle down a steep ravine. It comes to rest beneath a bridge, a clasp of thunder alerting everyone to the fact that they are no longer within the creature comforts of their own home.
In yet another scene reminiscent from One Hundred and One Dalmatians, the next morning Adelaide comes to the horrible realization that her treasured pets are gone at approximately the same moment that Duchess’ friend, house mouse, Roquefort (Sterling Holloway) and carriage horse, Frou-Frou (Nancy Kulp) learn that Edgar is behind their kidnapping. Meanwhile Duchess and her brood are awakened by the smooth singing of alley cat extraordinaire, Thomas G. O’Malley (Phil Harris) who takes an immediate shine to them.
The group are met by Abigail (Monica Evans) and Amelia Gabble (Carole Shelley); a dotty pair of British geese on a walking tour of France that will culminate with a visit to their Uncle Waldo (Bill Thompson) in Paris. However, once arriving in town the girls discover that Waldo is quite inebriated. They are forced to separate from the group and take him home.
Lost, alone and tired, O’Malley decides to introduce Duchess and the kittens to Scat Cat (Scatman Crothers) and his jazz musicians (Lord Tim Hudson, Paul Winchell and Vito Scotti). After scaling the rooftops by moonlight, Duchess, O’Malley and the rest of the pack retire to an upstairs Bohemian flat where the kittens are introduced to the swingin’ melodies of the band and where Duchess and O’Malley fall in love. O’Malley offers to marry Duchess and make a home for her and the kittens; a proposal flatly refused, though mostly out of Duchess’ loyalty to Adelaide.
Meanwhile Edgar has decided that he must return to the farm to collect the umbrella he lost during his confrontation with Napoleon and Lafayette. When he sees Duchess and the kittens approaching the front walk Edgar seizes the opportunity to lock them in a trunk he plans to ship to Africa. The kittens send Roquefort to find O’Malley, who then returns with Scat Cat and the rest of the band to confront Edgar before his devious plan can be carried out. In the ensuing struggle Edgar is dumped into the open trunk instead and shipped to the Dark Continent. A relieved Adelaide revises her Will to exclude Edgar and include O’Malley. In the final homage to One Hundred and One Dalmatians Adelaide inaugurates a home for Paris strays and Scat Cat and his boys mark the event with a reprise of their jazzy solo.
The Aristocats is delightful on several levels – mostly in its seamless melding of character to voice actor – but it is also rather clumsily executed. Scripted by Ken Anderson, Larry Clemmons, Eric Cleworth, Vance Garry, Tom McGowan, Tom Rowe, Julius Svendsen, Frank Thomas and Ralph Wright, the film seems to suffer from the old adage of ‘too many cooks in the broth’ or in this case, too many scenarios unceremoniously thrust together.
As example, we are introduced to the characters of Roquefort and Frou-Frou early on; who are then discarded until near the end of the film. Upon repeat viewing the geese, Abigail and Amelia, seem more like transitional creations – merely inserted as a narrative bridge between vignettes without actually becoming integrated into the story. Earlier drafts were to have expanded the character of Adelaide with two deleted songs to reflect the reasons why she loves cats. Since these inclusions never appeared in the finished film, the audience is left to grapple with a rather one dimensional character who does not drive the narrative.
Worse, the musical program lacks cohesion. After the main title, the Sherman Brothers score jettisons any attempt to adopt a Parisian, or even vintage, flavour. The songs are briefly executed, hardly memorable and structured with a very sixties flair that completely belies the visuals. The score would have made much more sense had the movie been set in then contemporary San Francisco or even New York. But it seems woefully out of place in Paris circa 1910.
Indeed The Aristocats departs with Disney tradition on another level too; having a male figure as its villain. Virtually all animated features in the Disney canon up to that time had relied on a deliciously vial female antagonist to fuel the narrative. In her absence we are given Edgar, a rather bumbling and not terribly prepossessing evil. He desperately wants to be bad but cannot rid himself of some featherweight homey touches that make his character strangely sad and yet curiously loveable. After all, he cannot even pitch a basket of drugged cats into a stream to drown them so how frightening can he be?
Disney animated features have a longstanding appreciation for voice talent. But after The Jungle Book the studio began to rely more heavily on creating character through the strength of vocalization alone. As example, when we hear Eva Gabor we see the actress in Duchess’ mannerisms. It appeals in a timely sort of way, but in hindsight tends to hamper the animators from exploring other facets in the character’s development.
Consider that one of Disney’s most popular vocal artists, Verna Felton had a career as diverse in Disney films as playing Cinderella’s benevolent Fairy Godmother, the maniacal Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, Aunt Sarah in Lady and the Tramp and the good fairy, Flora in Sleeping Beauty. This luxury does not exist when a ‘name’ talent is hired because that talent eclipses the character.
The same is true for Phil Harris and Scatman Crothers; both distinctive voices in their own right who immeasurably flesh out their feline characters, yet perhaps also imbue them with a little too much of their earthly presence to be fully thought of as cats. Still, The Aristocats would be absolutely nothing without their unique and charming vocalizations.
The Aristocats was a box office hit when it was released in 1970. But today it doesn’t quite have that same changeless staying power that the best of the best in Disney’s canon do. Don’t get me wrong. The Aristocats is good wholesome family fun. It’s light hearted and carefree and does what it’s supposed to – entertain us. But in the final analysis it doesn’t quite reach for the top echelons of the Disney legacy and remains a middling to slightly better than average effort at best.
The Walt Disney Company’s stellar commitment to Blu-ray endures on The Artistocats. The 1080p image sparkles with superior clarity and colour fidelity. This is a gorgeous hi-def presentation, showing off the minute brush strokes in hand drawn backgrounds and animation: just wonderful. Age related artefacts are gone for a very smooth and film like presentation. The audio has been remastered in 5.1 DTS with superior clarity that is head and shoulders above previous DVD incarnations.
Extras new to Blu-ray include ‘the lost opening sequence’ and a music video, ‘Oui Oui Marie.’ We also get all of the extras previously made available on DVD. These include the deleted song, ‘She Never Felt Alone’, a featurette with the Sherman Brothers, an excerpt from ‘The Great Cat Family’, the short subject, ‘Bath Day’ and isolated chapter stops for the songs in the film. It would have been nice to have either an audio commentary or picture-in-picture feature as has been done on other animated features. But given The Artistocats status as a minor work in the Disney catalogue I can understand why these weren’t included here. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)