“It Worked with Dogs, so Now Let’s Try Cats”
Originally Released: 1970
If someone were to briefly summarize the plot of The Aristocats, if you think at all like me, then you’d probably immediately see the similarities to Disney’s famous dog movies. It seems like they took a little bit of Lady and the Tramp, sprinkled in some elements of 101 Dalmations, replaced the dogs with a cat family, and Voilà! – a new Disney animated classic. For example, the Tramp is very similar to Thomas O’Malley, a stray, carefree independent type; Lady is like Duchess, a high-class neighborhood pet who falls in love with the stray; and there is a musical number involving Tramp/O’Malley’s stray friends (He’s a Tramp/ Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat). Similarly, both The Aristocats and 101 Dalmations involve villains trying to kidnap and eliminate the family of main characters, taking them away from the city to a rural farm setting. Both involve said family on a trek from the rural setting back to their home.
In reality, The Aristocats does just enough to separate itself and not be merely a copy of these other two classics. Duchess, appropriately voiced by the lovely Eva Gabor (of Green Acres fame), and her kittens are easy enough root for, and Thomas O’Malley (featuring voiceover work by Phil Harris for the second consecutive film) is quite a respectable alley cat. However, just because it manages to be its own story, that doesn’t mean it reaches the great heights of both of the aforementioned films. Perhaps it is because this was the first film have the bulk of its production occur after Walt Disney’s death, therefore lacking Walt’s keen eye for storytelling and knowing how to best make the plot move along in a satisfying way. Certainly, after watching in succession 19 films that had this personal touch, and then seeing The Aristocats, it is apparent that there is a difference. I still believe it is a pretty good film, but I wonder if it could have been so much more.
That being said, there are things that makes this movie worthwhile to me. The first is the rough animation style. Normally I prefer the clean look of the earlier Disney films, but the sketch lines that appear throughout this film are interesting in that they give a bit of insight into the animators’ work. As I watched the film, it actually grew on me more and more. These lines appear and disappear all the time, but if you take the time to pick out a scene and freeze the frames, you can find some of the lines used for creating symmetry and direction, and it can be quite an interesting thing for animation students/lovers to observe.
Also, I really enjoy the personality of the three kittens in this movie. They are just plain adorable. I love the way they interact with each other and act like a real family would act. They are playful and mischievous, but at the same time are obedient and loving. Each is fun in his or her own way. Toulouse wants to be a macho alley cat, Marie is a hopeless romantic and totally loves O’Malley’s smooth talk with her mother, and Berlioz just knows he’s a cool cat.
Sadly, I can’t say the same for most of the minor characters. The geese felt thrown in and unnecessary, and even though the motorbike chase scene is fun, the dogs Napoleon and Lafayette really felt out of place in the Paris setting with their southern American accents. The mouse, which was voiced by Disney veteran Sterling Holloway, tries his best to be relevant, but just doesn’t manage to make much of an impact throughout most of the film.
Perhaps the biggest offender is the main villain, the greedy butler Edgar. After watching 20 Disney films and praising the creativity and personality of the likes of Cruella, Maleficent, etc., Edgar is such a disappointment. He is by far the lamest Disney villain up to this point. I honestly can’t think of a worse villain right now in the whole Disney canon. He is a bumbling fool and is not remotely scary or threatening.
Going back to the positive side of things, the music in this film was once again primarily created by the Sherman Brothers, and they did an effective job. Strangely and sadly, the only worthwhile bonus features on the disc concerned the music from the Sherman Brothers, including the songs that were cut from the film. As I listened to a couple of the deleted songs, I wondered why they were cut. Usually it is understandable, because the song would detract from the story and prevent things from moving along. But in this film, particularly in the case of “She Never Felt Alone,” I believe it would have added to story and given it some much-needed emotion, helping the viewer care that the cats return to their owner. Again, it makes me wonder what might have been if Walt had been around to give more of his expert input. But in any case, most of the songs which made it to the final cut are fun and work well in the film.
I can’t wrap up this post without briefly talking about “Ev’rybody Wants to Be A Cat.” Why? Because I want everyone who reads this to get that song stuck in their head for the next few days, like it has been in mine. Now, repeat in your mind: “Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody wants to be a cat…Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody wants to be a cat…Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody, Ev’rybody wants to be a cat…