A Study in Disney: ‘The Aristocats’ (1970)

| December 21, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

The Aristocats

The AristoCats is proof that Disney is much better at telling stories with dogs.  In fact, that’s true with the animated form in general; cats just aren’t as interesting when their homebred habits are leased to the form.  What are their particular habits?  They sleep all day, play with yarn, lay claim to cardboard boxes and joyfully terrorize the household aquarium.  Dogs, on the other hand, are prone to the comical shenanigans that cartoons are heir to.  For cats to be interesting within the framework of animation, there has to be a bold shift toward more human qualities, a tricky balancing act between humanism and their particular habits seen and observed with razor-sharp wit.  That’s why Tom and Jerry worked so well.

Maybe that’s why The AristoCats just isn’t that interesting.  The characters are cats who talk like human beings but mostly have the lackadaisical manners and characteristics of felines.  There is a low-key quality to their personalities and that’s not always a bad thing but in a musical comedy, it tends to slow things down.

The elements of the film feel familiar from other movies, even some by Disney.  There is a romance between an upper-class heiress and a cool-cat from the streets (Lady and the Tramp).  There’s a nefarious villain who wants to get rid of the heiress and her kittens to gain something for himself (One Hundred and One Dalmatians).  And there’s a host of various animal-types in supporting roles that want to help the heiress along the way (The Jungle Book) – the male lead, Thomas O’Malley is even voiced by Phil Harris who previously voiced Baloo the Bear.  If you want to stretch even further, there’s the story of someone who stands to gain a fortune (The Sword in the Stone).

If you’ve seen the films that immediately precede The AristoCats in the Disney canon then it is hard not to compare.  If you haven’t, then you just find yourself bored by it all.  The story is cut from cloth: a good-hearted feline living in Paris (and voiced by Eva Gabor) is raising her three kittens Toulouse, Berlioz and Marie to love the arts.  Her owner is a wealthy dowager who’s last will and testament stipulates that the cats will inherit her fortune someday – but if anything should happen to them, the fortune goes to her long-suffering butler Edgar who has allergies and hates cats.  Not to be outdone by a succession of cats, Edgar (voiced by Roddy Maude-Roxby) schemes to get rid of the cats so that he will inherit the fortune by driving them out to the country and tossing them into the river.  But the cats survive and are befriended by Thomas O’Malley, an alley cat who helps them get back home.  Yadda Yadda, you’ve seen it all before and you already know where this story is going.

The problem is that none of this is interesting or memorable.  It is third-rate Disney, far from the artistic heights of Fantasia, Cinderella, Pinocchio and Bambi.  The animation here is crude often ungainly, particularly when the artists try to render realistic humans – their faces are heavily lined in black as if they are first-draft sketches.  The animals are much softer and the lines are much simpler, but it still employs the worst of the sketchy style that was employed during production of One Hundred and One Dalmatians when Walt commissioned the technique of Xeroxing the cells rather than having them drawn one cell at a time.  It was cost-effective, but since the Xerox machine could only color lines in black, some of the watercolor nuances in the animation were lost.  Some of the old style came back a bit with The Jungle Book when the animators returned to painting some of the lines to give them a softer and more fluid look.  That’s absent here and what we get looks like animation suited for television, which is fitting because the small screen was originally to be home of this movie. 

Walt commissioned the project as a live action two-parter back in the 1950s to fill content for his TV show, “Walt Disney’s Disneyland.”  The movie had been conceived as a live-action production for The Wonderful World of Color before Walt put the project in turnaround when he decided that it could be much more pliable as an animated feature.

Perhaps because Disney didn’t have a personal hand in the final production (the idea had been kicking around since the mid-50s) the final product just comes off as uninspired and forgettable, a symbolic representation of what was to come.  Starting with this film, Disney animation would enter its dark period – the era just after Walt’s death when the studio’s output lost its creative edge.  It may have been jocular and inspired in other areas, but for the next two decades, Disney’s crop of animated features fell into a slump that nearly destroyed the studio’s beloved animation division.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.