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Want to hear a joke?
A talent agent is sitting in his office. He looks up when a family of cartoon cats comes through the door.
“What’s your act?” he says, and the father cat (who sounds weirdly like renowned jazz singer Phil Harris) says “Well, it’s an utterly subpar Disney movie with animation that barely rises to the level of competent, characters that are largely nondescript when they’re not either unlikable or totally superfluous to the plot (which by the way makes little to no logical sense), possibly the worst villain in the entire Disney canon and some wasted songs by the Sherman Brothers.”
The talent agent turns white as a sheet, pukes into his wastebasket and stammers “What do you call this act?!”
And the cat smiles and says “The Aristocats!”
Yeah, there’s really no way around it. I don’t like this movie. At all. This may be least favorite one so far. Do I like it less than Peter Pan? Yeah, I think so. Less than Three Caballeros?
So yeah. If you’re a huge fan of this movie (and this is Disney so I know there are people out there who watched it over and 0ver and over again until they could recite it in their sleep and the CIA’s psychological triggers were firmly implanted), I’m sorry. I am going to be coming at this movie hard. My exhaustive research (I read both the Wikipedia and IMDB articles on this one!) didn’t really uncover that many interesting fact about this movie. It was released in 1970 and was the last movie greenlit by Walt before he died.
Watching this movie immediately after Jungle Book it’s pretty obvious that they were trying to bottle that lightning again. Phil Harris is back voicing O’Malley the Baloo-Cat, the Sherman Brothers are on song duty again (not that I’m complaining) and we have another cartoon version of a famous jazz singer, this time Scat Cat voiced by Scatman Crothers, doing his best Louis Armstrong impression (Armstrong was originally cast but dropped out at the last minute). The problem is, just throwing a lot of elements together that worked in a previous film and expecting them to work again is a terrible idea and it almost never works. This kind of creative laziness would become a big problem in the decade after Walt’s death and it has periodically returned to plague more recent Disney movies like some kind of malign family curse.
The movie begins with the theme song The Aristocats, sung by legendary French singer Maurice Chevalier who was coaxed out of retirement by the Shermans for this, his final film role. Our story begins in Paris in 1910, where wealthy dowager Madame Adelaide Bonfamille and her cats are returning home after a long day’s being French. The cats are named Duchess, (voiced by Eva Gabor, dahling) and her three kittens Toulouse, Marie and Berlioz.
I’d tell you which one is which but I don’t really care and the movie doesn’t either. They’re being driven home by Edgar, their kindly, loyal, long-suffering butler.
Edgar helps Madame Bonfamille out of the carriage and offers to take her parcel. What a nice man. But Madame Bonfamille tells him she’s fine and to keep an eye out for her attorney Georges Hautecourt. Georges arrives and
This animation, people. None of the screenshots really give the full effect but this is the scratchiest animation I’ve seen in the canon so far. For some reason it’s especially noticeable in the scenes with Georges Hautecourt, with pencil lines clearly visible around him like Pig-Pen’s stink lines. I suppose it’s possible that this is intentional, an attempt to mimic the style of French post-impressionist painters (one of the kittens is named after Toulouse Lautrec, after all) but even so I can’t say I like it. There’s a saying in theatre: “I can’t tell if it’s minimalist or just shit”. Well with this movie I can’t tell if it’s being ugly on purpose or just ugly. Anyway, Georges’ schtick is that he’s older than Moses and is constantly falling about the place.
Georges goes upstairs to see Adelaide, refusing to take the elevator and almost getting Edgar killed in the process. Poor Edgar, I’m really starting to feel sorry for that guy. Georges staggers into Adelaide’s room and they reminisce about the good old days and dance to Carmen.
Georges is here to help Adelaide draw up her will. Edgar listens in and the look of sheer joy on his face when he thinks that Adelaide is leaving him her entire fortune is just heartwarming. Then he hears that in fact, no, she’s leaving everything to her cats. To…her…fucking…cats. Not to charity. Not to her loyal, long serving butler who’s getting on in years himself and probably could use the money. No, no. To her cats, a species so dumb they consider a laser pointer the Greatest Prey of All.
I’m sorry. Maybe it’s just the fact that we’re still in the midst of one of the worst recessions in history, maybe I’m being overly sensitive but this really pisses me off. I don’t find this charmingly eccentric. I find this appalling. Edgar deserves better than this.
Adelaide goes on to say that once the cats pass on Edgar will inherit the money but really that’s beside the point. It’s horribly insulting to Edgar to put him in line after the cats. So this is the story of one butler’s righteous uprising against the pampered, elitist aristocracy of Paris, with Madame Bonfamille being chased through the streets with her cats at her heels while the mob bays for revolutionary justice?
No, believe it or not, Edgar is our villain. Edgar is the guy we’re supposed to be against.
You know what? Fuck that. I’m changing sides. Just this once I’m rooting for the bad guy to win.
You heard me. Let the word go forth. I am changing allegiance!
Okay Edgar! I’m on board! So, what’s the plan?
You’re going to kill the cats.
Alright, you’ve probably already guessed why Edgar’s plan is developmentally challenged but let me just remind everyone. Madame Bonfamille is leaving the money to her cats in her will. Madame Bonfamille is not yet dead. So if Edgar kills the cats, he does not get the money. Assuming Adelaide doesn’t find out and get him shipped off to Devil’s Island faster than you can say “l’affaire Dreyfus”, Adelaide will most likely do what any of us do when their cats die. Get more cats. Then, Edgar’s back where he started, waiting for the cats to live out their natural lifespan. And that’s the best case scenario.
Meanwhile, the kittens are having their self-improvement lessons. Toulouse is painting a picture which the other kittens decide looks like “Old Picklepuss Edgar”. Nice. That’s real nice. Man waits on you hand and foot and you draw demeaning caricatures of him. Oh, when the revolution comes, my furry friends.
Berlioz and Marie, however, are musical cats and Berlioz plays the piano while Marie sings Scales and Arpeggios. It’s a catchy little Sherman Brothers ditty but it’s pretty much dead on arrival because the kittens’ voice actors Liz English and Dean Clark are just…a very nice young lady and gentleman who do their best. And yeah. I just realised something. One of the kittens can paint a recognisable portrait and the other is a fairly competent pianist. Excuse me a moment.
Why, you ask? Because Edgar is a fool. He’s been left in sole custody of a cat that plays the piano. I repeat. This man has been given a cat that can play the piano. Look at this.
Thirty million fucking views on YouTube. And it’s not even really playing the keyboard (spoilers). Can you imagine how much money you would make if there was no internet and people had to pay to see your cat play the piano? You could buy Latin America and rename it Edgaropolis.
Anyway, Edgar arrives with four bowls of cream that he’s laced with Sleepy Dreamy Nighty Snoozey Snooze. The cats tuck in and are joined by Roquefort the Mouse, voiced by Sterling Holloway.
The drugs take hold and soon Edgar is smuggling the sleeping cats out of the house in a bassinet and driving out into the countryside on a rotoscoped motorbike. He passes a farm guarded by two dogs Napoleon and Lafayette. Napoleon is voiced by Pat Buttram, a voice actor who I love because he does the same damn voice in every Disney movie regardless of species or country of origin. French dog? Sounds like he’s from Alabama. Wolf from Nottignham? Alabamian Wolf from Nottingham. Possum in the Florida Everglades? Must have emigrated because he sure as shit don’t sound like he’s from Florida, no siree. That sheer, donotgiveafuckitude is why I love him. He won’t do any accent other than his own because he’s not your damn performing clown. He’s the Disney canon’s Shaun Connery.
The two dogs attack Edgar for…really no reason at all and that bugs me. I don’t want to see Disney villains be the victim of unprovoked attack. I don’t want to feel sorry for the Disney villain. I don’t want to have to consider their feelings or their point of view. I just want to hate them! That’s the point of a Disney villain, the freedom to experience sheer, undiluted, guilt-free hatred.
Okay, yes. Edgar has just drugged four cats and plans to kill them in an ill-thought out attempt to get his hands on an inheritance. But these dogs don’t know that. They’re just being dicks. In fact, they seem so intent on flat out murdering Edgar that they chase him into a river and up the underside of a bridge.
Why? Why all the hate? Edgar doesn’t deserve this. He’s not a bad guy, he’s just a desperate man dangling at the end of his rope! In fact…
So anyway, in the confusion, the basket with the cats is left by the side of the river. Duchess and the kittens are distressed to find themselves lost and alone in the countryside with only the Hypno-Toad for company.
Berlioz remembers Edgar taking them out of the houses but the others don’t believe that Edgar would be capable of such insolence. A storm breaks out, and the four cats huddle together for warmth.
Back at the mansion, Adelaide wakes up to realise that the cats have gone missing. Roquefort, no doubt waking from a dream of Pink Elephants on Parade, overhears her anguished wailing and realises that only one person can save the day!
And he runs off into the story-wracked night to find them, one mouse against the world. Meanwhile, Adelaide calls the police.
Back at the river, Duchess and the kittens have met up with Abraham Delacey Giuseppe Casey Thomas O’Malley the alley cat voiced by Phil Harris. Harris is fine, basically playing the same role he did in The Jungle Book but it’s not like I’m going to complain about that. He’s introduced singing his theme song, for my money the best song in the movie (it’s still stuck in my head three weeks after I last watched this movie) and one of only two songs in the movie not written by the Sherman Brothers. Thomas O’Malley Cat was written by Terry Gilkyson, who also wrote Bare Necessities. I was so surprised to learn that yet another one of my favorite songs in a Sherman Brothers movie was not written by the Shermans that I decided to do a little digging on Gilkyson and…hot damn. Let’s just say that he’s had a career that is significantly more impressive than “Guy who got kicked off The Jungle Book.” The man wrote Memories are Made of this This!
Anyway, O’Malley is instantly smitten with Duchess and offers to take her to Paris but backs off when he realises she’s got kids because O’Malley don’t want no Baby Daddy Drama. Duchess says that she understands perfectly (what she understands perfectly is left unsaid) and leaves with the kittens. O’Malley turns to the camera and says “Come to think of it O’Malley, you’re not a cat you’re a rat! Right? Right!”
Having consulted with the voices, O’Malley runs after Duchess and the kittens and promises to take them to Paris. He does this by leaping on to the bonnet at a passing truck and scaring the driver witless.
They climb into the truck and O’Malley offers to show them the sights when they get to Paris. Duchess says they can’t because Madame Bonfamille will be worried about them, but O’Malley says that humans don’t really care about their pets.
Back at the mansion, Roquefort’s returned after a fruitless night’s searching for the cats. Frou-Frou, Adelaide’s horse, commiserates with him but then Edgar enters the stable happily humming to himself and says “Hello to you Fro-Frou my pretty steed.”
No. No. You do not say that. Come on Edgar. Come on! You’re a Disney villain for god sake! Cackle! Hiss! You have all the edge of a Teletubby, this is embarrassing! Jafar is laughing at you!
Edgar shows Frou-Frou the headline of the morning newspaper, and proudly exclaims that he was the cat-napper.
Excuse me? That’s how…that’s how…THAT’S HOW!!!!
THAT’S HOW THE HEROES…..
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Let me try that again without screaming my lungs onto the screen.
THAT’S HOW THE HEROES…
Nope. Didn’t work that time. Okay, fuck it. This is no time for restraint.
THAT’S HOW THE HEROES FIGURE OUT THE VILLAIN’S PLAN!?!!! HE FUCKING TELLS THEM??!!
I just don’t…how. How do I deal with this kind of idiocy? Oh, that’s right.
And I’m back. So. After Roquefort and Frou-Frou brilliantly deduce the identity of the cat-napper because he was stupid enough to FUCKING TELL THEM…
…Edgar realises that he left his hat and coat near where he abandoned the cats and gibbers that he has to go back and pick up the incriminating evidence. He runs out of the stable and Roquefort sputters “Why that sneaky, crooked, no good butler!”
And then the scene ends. Just like that.
Back on the road, the cats get thrown off the van after they’re discovered by the driver and have to walk the rest of the way. They follow the railway line but almost get run over by a train because in a cartoon if you walk on a railway line a train will appear in less than a minute it is a cast iron law. The cats have to hang off the bridge as the train thunders overhead and wait just a damn minute here!
Well, I had to get around to this sooner or later. The Aristocats has quite a significant number of similarities with an earlier animated film, UPA’s Gay-Puree which was released in 1962. Some of the similarities are not really enough to make a fuss over, such as the fact that they both feature talking cats in Paris. But there are some scenes, like the train scene shown above and some of the character designs and kitten animation, that make me think there may have been some plagiarism involved. I got no proof, mind.
Gay-Puree seems to have been largely forgotten and those that do remember it don’t seem to rate it all that highly but I honestly love it. Is it a perfect film? Oh hell no. But it is visually very interesting with some truly gorgeous backgrounds aping the style of late nineteenth century French painters.
It has Judy Garland as the singing voice for the white Persian cat
Duchess Mewsette and some pretty awesome songs by Wizard of Oz songwriters Harold Arlen and EY Harburg. It also has something that The Aristocats sorely lacks, a properly boo-hissable villain in Meowrice.
In short, it’s a fairly low budget animated movie that tries its best to be visually and musically distinctive and unique, whereas Aristocats is a movie from the biggest and best funded animation studio in the world that can’t rise above the level of average. Guess which one I prefer.
Marie falls into the river (Marie needs to be rescued so often they should rename her Princess Peach) and O’Malley jumps in after her. He manages to save Marie before being swept downstream and almost drowns but is rescued by two geese, Abigail and Amelia. Abigail and Amelia are sisters, flighty, silly, frightfully English and prone to bursting into fits of giggles at the slightest provocation wait just a damn minute here!
Yes, not only are Abigail and Amelia dead ringers for Cecily and Gwendolyn from the 1968 classic The Odd Couple, they even got actresses Carole Shelley and Monica Evans to essentially reprise their roles.
What is this? Seriously, what the hell? Abigail and Amelia serve no purpose to the plot. They’re simply there as a pair of pointless celebrity cameos to remind viewers of a much better and more popular film. What kind of animation studio would just half assedly shove in a couple of celebrity voice actors and get them to re-do their most famous screen personas rather than actually take the time to write a worthwhile or interesting character…okay you know where I’m going with this.
The cats and geese walk to Paris together where they meet the Abigail and Amelia’s Uncle Waldo. He’s a goose who’s been basted in white wine and so now he’s drunk. It’s funny!
Abigail and Amelia carry the old sot off and the geese exit the movie having done nothing to advance the plot, contribute to the character development of our heroes or even be mildly interesting or entertaining.
Back at the mansion Roquefort stows away on Edgar’s bike as he returns to the countryside to pick up his hat and umbrella. But Roquefort gets shaken off the bike and left behind in the street, rendering the entire scene completely pointless.
We then get a loooooong ass scene of Edgar trying to get his hat and umbrella back off Napoleon and Lafayette. It’s not horrible, but it might as well have been replaced with five minutes of screentime showing this:
In Paris, the cats have arrived but the kittens are too tired to finish the journey. O’Malley offers to let them stay in his house. But a blast of hot jazz music from the house let’s O’Malley know that Scat-Cat and his crew have decided to crash. O’Malley tells Duchess that Scat-Cat’s a swinger, leading Duchess to give the deathless line “Schvinger? Vat’s a schvinger?”
Scat-Cat is played by Scatman Crothers and his band consists of cats from all over the world. He’s got an English cat, a Russian Cat, an Italian Cat and aw hell…
Okay, well maybe it’ll be okay. Just as long as he doesn’t speak…
They sing Ev’rybody Wants to be a Cat and, fair is fair, it’s a great jazz number. In fact, they jam so hard they crash through several floor and carry out into the street.
Later that night, Duchess puts the kittens to sleep and she and O’Malley talk on the rooftops. He wants Duchess and the kittens to stay with him, but she can’t bring herself to leave Madame Adelaide. It’s supposed to be touching, but to be honest it doesn’t work for two reasons. One, it was already done better in Lady and the Tramp, and two; while Eva Gabor, dahling, was a pretty talented comedienne she never gave the most authentic performances. There was always a sense of artifice, a glitzy, larger than life Hollywood quality to her screen roles that made her unsuited to romantic scenes like this one. Just my opinion. You may feel that Duchess and O’Malley are one of the great romances of the ages, and if you do more power to you.
The next day, the cats finally arrive back at the mansion and start mewing outside the door. Edgar hears them while drinking wine and does not take it well.
O’Malley and Duchess say their goodbyes and he leaves. Edgar lets the cats in and promptly puts them in a sack and sticks them in the oven.
And…okay. That’s actually pretty villainous. Alright, finally!
Adelaide runs downstairs because she thought she heard the cats at the door.
Roquefort, sensing an oppurtunity to finally do something useful, runs after O’Malley to gets his help rescuing Duchess and the kittens. O’Malley tells Roquefort to get Scat-Cat and his alley cats and Roquefort is understandably nervous but O’Malley tells them to mention his name and he won’t have any problems.
Meanwhile in the stable, Edgar is preparing to have the cats shipped to Timbuktu. O’Malley attacks him and closes the stable door so he can’t get out.
Edgar seems to get the upper hand but Scat-Cat and his band arrive and swarm over Edgar like a school of fuzzy piranhas.
Roquefort tries to crack the lock on the case containing Duchess and the kittens but the din from Edgar fighting the cats is so loud that he can’t hear the tumblers so he yells “QUIET!” and they all stop mid brawl.
Including Edgar. Which means that Edgar can understand Roquefort. He’s a man who can understand the speech of animals. He has the most amazing gift of any human being in history, and he’s killing cat’s for the chance to get an old woman’s money which he could make a thousand times over as the only living translator between humanity and the animal kingdom. Excuse me a moment.
Actually no. I hate them too. Let’s be honest here.
Alright, let’s wrap this up quickly. Roquefort busts Duchess and the kittens out of the case, the cats manage to knock out Edgar and put him into the case and he gets picked up for delivery to be shipped off to Timbuktu.
Not to distract from this happy ending, but he’ll be dead from dehydration in a matter of days.
So the cats are reunited with their mistress, O’Malley is welcomed into the family and Madame Bonfamille opens up a shelter for all the alley cats in Paris and her neighbours plot her death in darkened rooms. It looks like everyone is going to live happily ever after. But…
But I wonder…
Scratchy, ugly, and with a lot of recycling and fairly uninspired character design.
The Leads: 09/20
Phil Harris is always value for money and his O’Malley is probably the highpoint of the movie. But I’m not a huge fan of Eva Gabor (dahling) and the kittens are pretty insufferable.
The Villain: 01/20
I feel nothing for Edgar but sheer, crushing pity. An absolute failure as a villain.
Supporting Characters: 06/20
One of the movie’s biggest failing is that it just doesn’t know what to do with it’s characters. So many of them are just superfluous window dressing.
The Music: 16/20
Some very catch tunes and a nice jazzy ambience rescue the movie somewhat.
FINAL SCORE: 39%
NEXT TIME: We make another detour from the canon to and take a look at Bedknobs and Broomsticks, or as I like to call it Magic, She Wrote.
NEXT UPDATE: January 10th 2013