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Disney Sundays: The Aristocats (1970)


         When someone talks about The Aristocats like it’s one of the Disney classics I can’t help but be a little dumbfounded. Really? The Aristocats, you think is a classic along the lines of Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, or Bambi? That stuns me, I just don’t get it at all!
          The Aristocats is the first Disney film made after Disney’s death and it shows. By Disney standards it’s remarkably lazy, irritating, and just plain dull. Even as a kid I never got into it, and it feels like the perfect example of a film meant to distract kids for an hour and a quarter while the grown-ups do their taxes or something. There certainly isn’t much in it for adults to appreciate.
          Set in Paris in 1910, Duchess and her three kittens whose father is never spoken of, are the pets of a wealthy old cat lady called Madame. Preparing for her death in writing her will she decides to give all her wealth and possessions to the cats leaving her loyal butler Edgar high and dry. Baffled, Edgar decides to kidnap the cats and leave them somewhere in the country so he can collect the inheritance himself. He does this, but the cats are soon found by a streetwise snarky alley cat called Thomas O’Malley who agrees to help them get back to Paris. Through their journey Thomas begins to both fall in love with Duchess and become a father figure to the kittens.
          So yeah, the gist of the plot is basically a lesser Lady and the Tramp with cats and kittens. At the very least I’m sure that’s what the pitch was. But even taking that earlier film out of the equation, the story of this one is just uninteresting. I mean really, who wants to watch rich and pampered cats become slightly less rich and pampered (and only temporarily). It’s clear the filmmakers liked the idea up to the point where we meet Thomas, but then had to grasp at straws for what to do. There clearly wasn’t enough story to fill up the runtime which is why we got the extended slapstick sequences with the two dogs, which are fine in concept as a comedic offset to the main journey. But then you have the drawn out sequence where Edgar tries to get his hat back that just becomes boring. Or there’s the bit where the mouse decides to go and rescue the cats, and discusses this with the horse only to be thrown from Edgar’s motorbike almost immediately. What was the point? It feels like the story’s being stretched as much as possible with some of the worst ideas and characters we’ve seen from Disney.
          Has there ever been a worse comic relief duo than those geese? Disney has stereotyped British characters plenty of times before but there was no reason for it here and it was completely devoid of humour. Them and their drunk uncle (explain that one to the kids!) deliver a number of awful awful jokes. Were they really needed to get the cats back to Paris? None of the other characters fare well either. Which is a shame because there’s talent in the supporting cast, like Hermione Baddeley as Madame, Sterling Holloway as the mouse, and Scatman Crothers playing essentially himself as a cat; not to mention the usually funny Pat Buttram and George “Goober Pyle” Lindsey as the redneck dogs. Phil Harris created a very unique and fun character as Baloo in The Jungle Book so Disney decided to have him do the same thing for Thomas O’Malley who has little substance apart from being another Baloo. The only difference is his love interest in Duchess but he doesn’t sell the charming crooner nearly as well as the Tramp. We don’t see much of his relationship with the kittens apart from him saving them a few times and referring to one as “Tiger”, but when we do you can tell they’re going for the same dynamic as Baloo and Mowgli. However Mowgli was bearable. Oh my god those kittens are annoying! They’re unfunny, one-note, and excruciating to listen to! I feel bad for the child actors who to their credit don’t have much to work with. Disney’s never been that good in portraying its child characters, but after a reasonably good one with Mowgli, these obnoxious brats are the worst. I feel like if I were Edgar and I’d heard them speak I’d have gotten rid of them ages ago. They deserve a lesson in humility out in the country. 
          By the way, The Aristocats could have been called “The Butler Did It”. Edgar’s a very weak villain largely out of how sympathetic he is. He overreacts a tad by abandoning the cats, but in his situation, he’s a hard-working butler who’s been with Madame for years, is respectful of even her most eccentric guests and is rewarded by being second-in-line to felines. It’s the epitome of a crazy cat lady to give her inheritance to her pets and it stretches the reality of the premise. I know it’s Disney which is never very realistic anyway, but this feels like pushing credibility too far. If the story existed in a world where humans and animals were on equal footing like Pinocchio for example, it would make sense. But with the world portrayed as basically our own except that animals can talk to each other Madame’s intents are ludicrous. It irritates me too because the last Disney film to be about pets, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, felt real to how people treat animals even to a brutal degree. I think that if Edgar had some crueller intentions like actually killing the cats he might have worked better as a villain. But all he had going for him was comedy routines with those dogs and waving his arms in the most pathetic way possible.
          The animation on this film is okay but at times feels very lazy. They reuse a number of the same sequences, and the artistic style though not bad, feels made on a budget. It just feels a very long way from the grand animation of Disney’s prime years. The only place where there is added detail seems to be in the human characters. Every wrinkle and frail bone in Madame and her lawyer Georges is animated, which actually results in the two of them looking rather hideous. It’s like Hans Moleman on The Simpsons in how it feels exaggerated on purpose. There’s an identity crisis to this movie’s style that comes through in the animation as well as the choice of music and character. Where The Jungle Book was able to work combining modern influences with a period story because of the rich atmosphere and source, The Aristocats doesn’t have that; so the modern characterizations and inclusion of time inappropriate scat music is more noticeable and at times distracting.
          This film is not without a few redeeming qualities though. For instance Eva Gabor as Duchess is great. She’s got a very lovely voice that’s soothing to listen to and helps get through some of the kitten-centric moments. And while I’ve criticized the animation, there are times when it does look pretty good. There are even a couple decent jokes near the end like a man disposing of his wine after seeing a mouse chasing cats, and everyone stopping their fight so the mouse can unlock a crate. The songs for this movie were written by the Sherman Brothers, and while they’re not good and a far cry from Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, they’re certainly better than The Sword in the Stone’s. “Everybody Wants to be a Cat” is admittedly one that’s going to be hard to forget, but not in a good way.
          The Aristocats is probably not the worst Disney movie, but it’s one of my least favourites. I can’t stand the characters, the story is ripped-off and half-assed, the villain more likable than half the cast, and the animation not awful but not that enjoyable to look at. I feel like this is the fear Studio Ghibli has moving forward without Miyazaki and thus why they’ve closed down (though I have a lot more faith in them). At best it’s mediocre; at worst it’s a sign a great studio has lost its touch without it’s founder. Will Disney be able to regain its footing, or is this a frightening indicator of a coming dark age for the studio? Let’s find out.

Next Week: Robin Hood (1973)

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