Our second pet movie in a row, we’ve now arrived at The Aristocats. I didn’t have this one growing up, so I was able to go into this one fresh. I’ll be honest: based on my antipathy for Robin Hood, I thought I wouldn’t like this one at all. While The Aristocats certainly isn’t one of my favorites, I think I can understand all of the (nostalgia-based) fuss it receives.
The Aristocats begins much the same way Robin Hood does, with a leathery-looking title card, a short song, and some animation footage that we’ll see later on in the movie (fortunately, it’s all pencil work, so it at least looks more interesting). We then transition to “Paris 1910,” where a fabulously wealthy woman (simply known as “Madame”) is making out her will. She decides to bequeath all of her possessions to her four cats: Duchess (Eva Gabor) and her three children, Berlioz (Dean Clark), Toulouse (Gary Dubin), and Marie (Liz English).
This, of course, does not sit well with her eavesdropping butler, Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby), who was expecting to be the main recipient. Fortunately for Edgar, Madame’s possessions will go to him in the event the cats pass away. Getting a clever idea, Edgar decides to dispose of the cats, rather than wait for them to expire naturally.
This won't end well.
Edgar slips the felines a mickey and cat-naps them, stealing them away on his motorcycle. His plan goes well, until he runs into two dogs down a country road, Napoleon and Lafayette (Pat Buttram and George Lindsay, who have the same exact relationship they both had in Robin Hood, where they played the Sheriff and Nutsy, respectively). Our two named-for-a-general canines give Edgar a good chase, and during the ensuing chaos, Edgar loses the basket containing the cats. Duchess and co. wake up to find themselves in the middle of the provincial Paris countryside, and spend a frightened and rainy night together.
The next morning, they are found by Thomas O’Malley (Phil Harris), who, after a brief and surprisingly sexual attempt to hit on Duchess, volunteers to take them back to Paris. Along the way, they meet a colorful cast of geese, mice, and swingin’, jazz-playin’ cats. Will Duchess, O’Malley, and the gang make it back home? Will they somehow find a way to deal with Edgar? Will there be musical numbers and pratfalls aplenty? Ehhh, could be.
The story is hardly unpredictable, but is nonetheless pleasant.
The Aristocats is as toothless and inoffensive as you might expect for a movie from the Disney Dark Ages. It seems designed for children in almost every way, from the non-threatening villain, to the random musical numbers, to the general pleasant vibe throughout the entire film. That said, The Aristocats is also mildly entertaining; the characters, writing, and songs are just this side of mediocre, and make for a decent entertainment experience. It’s a movie whose greatest sin is that it’s, well, kinda boring throughout, but I’ll take “boring and pleasant” over most of the kiddie tripe that’s released nowadays.
Part of what fails to sell me on The Aristocats is the overall plot setup. Madame is, for all intents and purposes, a Crazy Cat Lady. A filthy rich one, to be sure, but a Crazy Cat Lady nonetheless—who besides a Crazy Cat Lady would decide to leave all of her earthly possessions to her cats, or take in all of the stray cats in Paris? I know, her will is the film’s MacGuffin, and isn’t the point of the story, but I’m still hung up on the legality of leaving umpteen thousand francs to one’s house pets. That said, all talk of the will goes out the window when Duchess meets O’Malley, and this is where the movie hits its, er, stride.
I made a big to-do about Xerography in my Robin Hood entry, about how the film looked sketchy and cheap. Imagine my surprise when I found The Aristocats even more sketchy-looking than Robin Hood. Several characters look like they’re in a bloody pencil test, and the effect is even more distracting compared to how clean some of the others look. Fortunately, The Aristocats looks much better in motion than Robin Hood, with all of the cats looking and behaving like cats.
For a xerography film, The Aristocats has some decent voicework in it. Phil Harris’s hepcat-isms are still pretty jarring for post-Victorian France, but they work better for the O’Malley than they did for Little John. Duchess has all of the delicacy and beauty you expect from a character voiced by Eva Gabor, and her performance makes me look forward to when I get to The Rescuers. Berliouz, Toulouse, and Marie are mercifully without extra cute-isms; granted, they still act like obnoxious snots from the late 60’s, but they also don’t have any “Mine yo mannows” moments either, and I almost wept with gratitude.
The other characters are pretty incidental, but they, like the rest of the film, are mildly entertaining enough to justify being there. My favorite is a mouse named Roquefort (see what they did there?), a friend of Duchess who demonstrates lots of pluck and charisma (I also happen to adore the sound of Sterling Holloway’s voice, but that’s neither here nor there).
He even looks like he's voiced by Sterling Holloway.
Musically, The Aristocats sounds almost identical to Robin Hood. Both films take their cues from the same school of Non-Entity Soundtracks, and they use the exact same xylophone and brass parts for suspenseful scenes. Again, it’s not exactly bad, per se, but alarmingly not there (there also doesn’t seem to be much underscoring either, which falls right in line with movie trends in the 1970’s).
Songwise, there doesn’t seem to be much going on (with one notable exception). The movie kicks off with “The Aristocats,” a jaunty, accordion-filled French tune that I can almost assure you is not on any Best of Disney compilation. From there, we get “Scales and Arpeggios,” a vocal warm-up song that is reasonably cute (the kids are obviously untrained, but they still sound worlds better than “Somewhere Out There”); it wasn’t quite my bag, but several of my friends really like it for some reason. “Thomas O’Malley Cat” is superfluous, but still fun. Which brings us to the film’s most well-known song: “Ev’rybody Wants to be a Cat.” Where the other three songs were fairly pedestrian, “Ev’rybody” is a full-on catchy riot; I’m a bit biased towards jazzy-sounding numbers, but it’s got a great tune and loads of energy, which push it right over the top for me.
Taste the rainbow.
One thing that surprised me about this movie was the writing. Though not Oscar quality by any means, I was surprised at the how cultured the movie is. Early on, two of the main characters dance to the aria from “Carmen” (which you may have already heard in another animated feature), and later on there’s a cooking joke, which is unsurprising, considering the movie takes place in France. There are also a few well-timed gags that worked well for me (I’m always a sucker for parallel structure jokes).
The Aristocats is, really, a movie aimed primarily at children, but is pleasant enough to recommend if you need something for the kids to watch. Honestly, it’d be a great movie for when you’re sick and need something undemanding; the movie ambles by at a slow rate, and the lack of anything properly terrible gives a nice feeling for being comfortably numb. There’s not much for adults on a non-nostalgic level, but the movie is fun enough, and it respects its audience, even if said audience is ages about 6-12.
Top 3 Songs:
- “Ev’rybody Wants to be a Cat”
- “Thomas O’Malley Cat”
- “Scales and Arpeggios”
- The “Ev’rybody Wants to be a Cat” number (I digs me some psychedelic colors)
The Jar Jar:
- Roquefort (yes, my favorite character, but let’s be honest: it's this guy)
How I Watched It
Procuring The Aristocats was far less painful than Lady and the Tramp, which is to be expected from a movie that’s still in-print. The Aristocats is shown in 1.78:1 widescreen, advertised on the back of the box as the “Original Theatrical Ratio;” there’s some controversy as to whether or not this is true, but it fills up my widescreen TV, so I’m not terribly unsatisfied. Colors are a bit muted (this is a Xerography movie, after all), but are about as good as can be expected, and the sound also gets the job done for its modest soundtrack.
The Aristocats has slightly more extras than Robin Hood’s DVD, which helps support my theory that a Disney movie's belovedness is directly proportional to the amount of bonus features it comes with. Included is a small piece about the Sherman Brothers’ work on the movie, an image gallery, and a deleted song. There’s also a short, quasi-educational subject titled “The Great Cat Family” on the history of the domesticated cat; I love these kinds of shorts to an extent that I can’t adequately explain, and this one amused me greatly. Lastly is a Figaro short called “Bath Day,” which will satisfy fans of Pinocchio’s favorite kitty cat.