Dir:- Wolfgang Reitherman
Starr:- Phil Harris, Eva Gabor, Sterling Holloway, Scatman Crothers, Nancy Kulp, Roddy Maude-Ruxby
What makes The AristoCats a noteworthy film nowadays is its historical significance. It was both the last film to be approved by Walt Disney and the first to be produced and completed after his death. Alas, The Jungle Book would seem a more fitting epitaph for the great animator. It is not that The AristoCats is particularly bad, it is simply blandly mediocre in comparison to anything Disney had produced up to this point. By the end of the 1970’s many Disney fans would be looking back on the film as the last great production that the ailing, financially stricken, animation studios had produced. Yet such rose-tinted nostalgia should not be allowed to paper over the glaring deficiencies of Reitherman’s fourth major feature for the studio.
The brisk narrative is a bit like a magpie approximation of some of Disney’s finest moments from the recent past. There are bits of 101 Dalmatians in there (particular with the mercenary butler Edgar), as well as Lady and the Tramp (the alley cat Thomas O’Malley and Duchess’s wrong side of the tracks affair) and a little of the vibe of The Jungle Book (particularly in its utilising adult cultural references such as the Beatnik jazz scene of Scat Cat’s crew). Duchess (Eva Gabor) and her litter of kittens Berlioz (Dean Clark), Marie (Liz English) and Toulouse (Gary Dubin) are well looked after by their doting spinster owner Madame (Hermione Baddeley). Living in palatial splendour in a Parisian château the cats are treated like human beings, being fed the finest vanilla cream and having the opportunity to play piano, paint and generally behave as spoiled little rich kids. Madame decides that she is going to leave her wealth to the cats, so that they may be secure for the rest of their lives, after which the money will go to her put-upon Butler Edgar (Roddy Maude-Ruxby). Overhearing this Edgar decides to try to eliminate the cats immediately, so that he might inherit the wealth sooner. Driving out into the countryside Edgar abandons the cats to their fate, but thanks to an encounter with a resourceful alley cat called Thomas O’Malley (voiced by Baloo’s Phil Harris) the pampered felines are able to find their way back to Madame.
The AristoCats feels like a leisurely film, as if it were attempting to simulate the bored luxuriance of wealthy, aristocratic life. This lack of dynamism doesn’t make for a particularly exciting kids cartoon, nor is their enough sophistication in the humour and animation of the piece, to appeal to adults either. Whereas The Jungle Book had a rather simplistic and clean visual style, The AristoCats, although similarly dated, deploys a busier and more detailed scenery, whilst leaving everything with a rather static, museum quality. This doesn’t matter so much during the films interior sequences, or the sections in the country, however it impacts severely on the films credibility when it comes to the city street scenes. Never has Paris seemed so relentlessly dull and boring. Not even the desperate attempts at cultural significance, which by and large worked in The Jungle Book, have any real effect here. The portrayal of Scat Cat and his band of hip groovesters is an embarrassing take on the already outmoded Beatnik scene of Kerouac and Ginsberg.
There are further problems to be observed in the animation, particularly with the representation of the human figures in the story. Ever since Snow White and the Seven Dwarves Disney films had prided themselves on at least presenting cutting edge animation technology. However by the mid-sixties the studio was already experiencing financial constraints, as well as the effects of an ageing talent pool. The result had been a gradual stagnation in the innovation of the studio’s animation techniques. In The Jungle Book there were the first signs that Disney’s much lauded animation style was fossilising. However, it is with The AristoCats that the first signs of a much deeper malaise really set in. Human figures like Madame and Edgar are demonstrably sketchy in their animated realisation, with stray pencil lines breaking free from their body, as if the viewer were looking at a crudely realised flickbook. There are also moments where the animation ceases to be smoothly described, when Edgar has to hobby-horse the lawyer up the stairs, for example, which manages to breakdown that elusive and seductive spell that Disney movies had always aimed to weave.
Even the music, normally an area that Disney films excel in, is fairly forgettable. Roping Maurice Chevalier in to sing the Gallic-tinged title track seemed a coup, but its lyrical hook is almost completely absent and the melody nowhere near as memorable as a ‘Bare Necessities’. As for O’Malley’s intro song, or the woeful Scatman Crothers track for Scat Cat and his band, these are resolutely one-note, minor-key affairs, that do nothing to add some charm to proceedings. Thankfully the always reliable voice work of Phil Harris and Sterling Holloway (as the mouse Roquefort) do help to lend a little magic to the proceedings. Whilst Eva Gabor’s purring delivery certainly makes Duchess one of Disney’s more affectionately rendered characters. Yet the voice work alone cannot detract entirely from the generally low caliber, shoddy workmanship, elsewhere.
The AristoCats was the first of the Disney films I saw as a child that left me feeling a little bemused. Even the musical abstractions of Fantasia had managed to ignite something of wonder in my young imagination. Yet this flâner through a rather unregally realised upper-class Paris left little, to no, impression, save for the lightly amusing and impossibly English geese and their sot of an uncle. Normally revisiting a Disney film from this period is like experiencing a time-capsule reconnection with my younger, less cynical, sensibilities, but The AristoCats lends itself to little other than my full critical arsenal. As disappointed now as I was then, this is a cartoon that may only appeal to the feline fetishist amongst you. Even then, it may be a bit of a yawn to sit through.