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1970: The Aristocats

Our year of the month is 1970. Here's Tim Brayton...

From the standpoint of 1970, we find ourselves at the dawn of what is almost certainly the least-interesting decade in the history of American animation. Television screens were then dominated by the flat, cheap nonsense of Hanna-Barbera while Warner Bros. and MGM had abandoned their short film programs. Just about the only person trying to do anything with the medium was Ralph Bakshi, whose vulgar cartoons for adults were very often "fascinating," but almost never "good." The problem, in all likelihood, is that for 40 years, American animation had been primarily a matter of people reacting to the things Walt Disney had done; and in 1970, Walt Disney had been dead for four years.

This left his namesake studio in a state of full panic and confusion, looking to find any sort of project that felt like it might be "what Walt would have done." The first of these, released for Christmas, was The Aristocats, based on the last story (by Tom McGowan & Tom Rowe) that Walt had briefly glanced at and given his vague blessing to before his death...

Beyond that, this was the studio's very first project produced entirely without Walt's guidance, and so deserves to be considered as the harbinger for all the things to follow for a decade and a half.

There is no such thing as a Disney animated feature that has absolutely no fanbase whatsoever, and The Aristocats has its share of partisans. It was a good-sized hit in 1970, and in years since, it has benefitted from how successfully Disney has marketed toys and clothes based on the three kittens at the heart of the story. Who doesn't love a kitten, especially an adorable animated kitten with a little pink hair bow and eyes the size of serving platters?

Granting that, I'll admit right up front that The Aristocats is a film that I've never once warmed to. It's a strange, immediately off-putting story of a jealous butler to a Parisian society matron who, upon learning that her beloved cats are to be the sole heirs to her estate, sets off to abandon them in the French countryside. There, pampered mama cat Duchess (voiced by Eva Gabor) and her three kittens make their way back to the city, with help from jazz-loving alley cat Thomas O'Malley (Phil Harris). And pay no mind to the presence of a jazz-loving creature of any species in late Belle Époque France; the filmmakers didn't.

This is annoying not just for the anachronism – real-world music trends have never been an overriding concern of Disney musicals – but what that phrase "jazz-loving" does for The Aristocats. It is desperately, sadly obvious how much of the film operates in the shadow of 1967's The Jungle Book, not least given Harris's repeat performance of a veritable clone of his Baloo the bear. That includes a shrill, strident desire to be jazzy and "hip," which mostly reveals how incredibly far from anything "hip" the Disney artists were in 1970.

Even if we charitably overlook that, the injections of '60s lounge culture in the form of Harris and the film's signature song "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat" don't fit at all well with the simple, kiddie-flick adventure-comedy that the film otherwise devotes its time to. The whole thing is tonally incoherent and narratively shallow. Furthermore the butler is the least-threatening villain in all of Disney. It's just a frivolous little family-friendly romance set against a tour of the indifferently-drawn French countryside.

That's maybe the most galling thing: this is a terribly unimpressive piece of animation. Starting in the 1960s, Disney abandoned its lush, lavish visuals for a xerography-based aesthetic that created a distinctively rough, penciled-in look, one that showcases the animators' drafting skills more than effective character performance. Sometimes, in fairness, it turned out pretty well:101 Dalmatians, from 1961, is beautiful, and The Aristocats openly borrows from that film's style. More often, and particularly in the 1970s, it left the films looking sketchy and half-formed, and this was an especially big problem for The Aristocats. The cats' human owner Madam is a dreadful tangle of thick, angular lines loosely assembling her face; nothing else in the film is that much of a problem, but it never looks very good.

There is no happy ending to this story: The Aristocats is indifferently plotted, ugly, not much fun to watch, and I forgot to mention, "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat" is also full to the brim with lazy stereotypes of Italians, Russians, Brits, and a particularly appalling Chinese cat, made all the more upsetting because he's voiced by the great voice actor Paul Winchell. And it set Disney in a track it would remain stuck in for years. It's inauspicious as the start to a particular era in American animation, and I am sorry to say that the era would not generally rise very high above this level.

more from the 1970s

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Reader Comments (12)

Wow. Can point at the place on the doll where the bad man touched you?

I just happened to watch this movie for the first time a short while ago and I'm having trouble understanding your anger at this film. It's not in the upper echelon at Disney (very few things are!), but I still found it thoroughly enjoyable.

And I think you may have forgotten about the other animals that assist in the rescue of the cats and who provide most of the comic relief, all voiced by incredibly talented actors.

So, yes, not the best, and definitely not a "must-see" but also not an unmitigated disaster.

April 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterFrank McCormick

Certainly not my favorite, but I did enjoy the chemistry between Gabor and Harris. And Sterling Holloway is always a welcome presence.

April 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

I have a huge soft spot for this film. It’s one my little sister’s favorite Disney films. She has always reminded me of Marie in the film. Is it a great film? No, but I do enjoy it. I can recognize it’s flaws, but it is definitely a product of its time period as well. I actually think the animation while not perfect has a lot of character and I really like it.

April 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Eva Gabor's voice work in this is great, although her performance in the Rescuers is even better. I never noticed this before, but that still of Madame makes her look like something out of a French impressionist sketchbook. Surely that was intentional?

April 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBiggs

I have never seen it but now I will check it out

April 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Lol this is my favourite movie.

April 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan

This is a weirdly negative piece on this film. That and the Hanna-Barbera dig made me feel like you hate flowery fields, snow leopards and corn on the cob. Find love in your life.

April 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan (the 1st)

I loved this movie as a kid and still do, still sing the song to myself sometimes.ive never seen a written piece for this movie before lol sad its a super negative one.

April 25, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjig

I actually grew up with Hanna-Barbera animation so even if aesthetic-wise, it wasn't rated as highly by cultural arbiters, my childhood memories were definitely enriched by Hanna-Barbera 'cartoons'. I saw The Aristocats at a young age too and that animation and the story were pretty formative for me. In fact now that I think of it, I always compare other animation to Hanna-Barbera because that's what I encountered first as a child.

April 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

lol I love this movie and was my childhood. It's plot is bizarre but actually based on some true events weirdly enough.

April 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

people don't like Hanna barbera? that's crazy... and I love the style of this film. I think about it sometimes. now I wanna read other opinions cause this was so harsh it shocked me!

April 25, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjig

I loved the movie growing up, but upon revisiting it a few years ago, I found the racist caricature of the Siamese cat to be stunningly awful, enough to put a pall over the entire film. And in 1970, the excuse of "that's how it was back then" can hardly be applied.

That being said, I think the drafty-aesthetic of the art is very appealing and the tunes sprightly and fun. Not top-tier Disney (and forever shut out of that because of that damn bucktoothed Siamese cat, playing the piano with chopsticks and speaking like Mr. Yunioshi) but certainly not worthy of this strident dismissal.

April 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAustin

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