The Aristocats (1970) Review
What do I know about the film?
‘The Aristocats’ began life with a man named Harry Tytle who was both a producer and a friend of Walt’s who worked at the Disney Company for about 40 years. There was also a dude named Tom McGowan, who was gaining a name for himself directing live action films about animals. In late 1961, Walt suggested the two of them stop mooching off the Disney name and start riffing on some ideas for films: Namely a live action animal flick along the same line as the newly created Mr Ed. Of course, of course. Walt liked the idea of a talking animal movie although he was insistent that the animals talk amongst themselves and not in front of humans.
Mickey says that is too unrealistic
Writer and painter Tom Rowe knocked up a script with Tytle and McGowan about some posh cats trying to survive on the streets of Paris. However the studio rejected it. As Tytle had an in with Walt he contacted him to find out what gives, only to discover The Boss (Walt not Springsteen) hadn’t been given the script by his underlings. It turned out Walt liked it but literally nobody else did so it was back to the drawing board, with Walt handing out ideas for changes to Tytle and Tytle reporting them back to Rowe.
This process created tension between Tytle and Rowe, culminating in Rowe writing to Walt to rant about how Tytle was just a ‘minion’ rather than a creative force who had been sent to ‘corrupt the work’. Walt’s response? He told Tytle what Rowe said and suggested he respond to the letter himself instead of Walt. Reports that Walt stood between them cackling: ‘Fight, Fight, Fight!’ cannot be confirmed. Or refuted.
The film was finally ready to shoot in 1963 only for it to be shelved, much to the dismay of the men who had been working on the story for nearly 2 years. McGowan tried to buy the rights of the film back so he could shop it around but was blocked by the studio. Cause Disney.
That could have been the end of it, only Disney was struggling to come up with new ideas for animated films. Tytle suggested bringing back ‘The Aristocats’ only abandoning the original concept and making it a cartoon. This seemed like a grand idea, especially for McGowan whose contract stipulated that he could have a cut of the merchandise royalties.
Hello Summer house!
So, of course, the work didn’t start until that was changed because dreams are for sharing, money is not.
It is hard to believe that the resurrection of the long abandoned ‘Aristocats’ wasn’t at least partially inspired by the development and subsequent release of an animated musical comedy about cats in Paris that was Judy Garland’s only animated voice role-Wait what? Yes. That’s right. This was a thing. The superiorly titled, ‘Gay Purr-ee’
Where has this been all my life?
Suddenly, French cats were all the rage again. Apparently. Well, McGowan, Rowe and Tytle had a solid idea and a script that had been rewritten countless times to satisfy the demands of the Studio and Walter had always liked it. And so they were finally off…
However something happened that all the people who had watched him chain smoke two packets a day for many years could never have anticipated. Walt died. And what happens to a crew when the Captain dies? They turn on each other. So after Walt’s death, The whole story got changed around again. Tytle was booted from the project and never received credit for his contribution, McGowan was screwed out of his contract, and an unhappy Rowe ended up suing the studio for rights to the characters. While he admitted he didn’t come up with the idea, he believed the cats were his. He cited French Law. Y’know. Cause the films is French.
Just ask this American cat how well that went
By the time ‘The Aristocats’ reached the screen it was pretty unrecognisable to the men who had worked on it. Tytle expressed regret at where the film ended up, feeling that the most interesting part of the story was removed: That being that due to their lives being at risk the cats each try and get adopted by a family that will appropriately support their individual artistic talents. He also felt the film lacked any kind of French charm and really hated the addition of a mouse:
‘I honestly think the original story that Walt bought was much better. We didn’t have a mouse in the original story; I, for one, felt it was a cliché and not vital to a cat story. For once, I wanted to do a cat story without a mouse.’
Tytle stayed away from cartoon production from then on out.
So none of the people who originally developed the idea were left delighted with the result, for various reasons. While it was a financial success, critics weren’t exactly blown away either, feeling the production house were playing it a bit safe. It would seem Disney’s earthly departure had left the Walt Disney Studios with a lack of direction. So was Tytle right?
Is The Aristocats a wasted idea?
Did I see it as a child?
Yes and I was very fond of this one. It was one of those films that always seemed to get wheeled out on the last day of school and I was always delighted. I especially liked scene near the start where the three kittens took part in recreational hobbies and the bits with the geese. The former because the idea of cats singing and painting just slayed me and the latter because the geese spoke in an amusing way. You could never call me a sophisticated child but I knew what I liked.
This. This is what I liked.
I also had a little mini Aristocats house so I could recreate the film. In miniature. At home. And I did.
Despite watching it a lot as a kid, I put it on now without being able to recal much about what happens. A telling quality. Apart from the songs, my strongest memory of this film only really comes courtesy of a bonding moment with someone I used to work with. We found it endlessly amusing to bellow: ‘Abigail! AMELIA!’ at each other, and I know that comes from a scene in ‘Aristocats’ involving a drunk goose. For some reason…
A very rich woman lives in a massive house with her beloved pets: A Mother Cat named Duchess and her three kittens Marie, Berlioz and Toulouse. The kittens are presumably bastards, but their paternity is never addressed directly:
It’s not that your Dad didn’t want you…None of us did.
There is also a Butler named Edgar who is horrified to learn that Madame, aka the Old Rich Lady, plans to leave her fortune and estate to the aforementioned bastard cats. Only when they die will he inherit their monetary sloppy seconds. Edgar’s devastated as by his calculations he will die before they do. Huh. Really? You expect to die before some cats? What, does he begin each meal with a palate cleansing stick of lard?
So Edgar decides the cats have to go. Thus begins the least well thought out and executed plan in the history of plans and I am including the Aurora/Briar Rose débâcle from ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in this. But we will get to that…Edgar ends up abandoning the cats in the middle of nowhere and the privileged pussys don’t know what to do when a ginger Tom named Thomas O’Malley stumbles across their paths…
I am going to be straight with you: There is not much to this story. Some cats get lost, then they go home and the film ends with a senile old lady explaining to her clearly very worried lawyer that she plans to open her doors to all the stray cats in Paris.
They will play music for me!
They like JAZZ!
With a plot this paper thin, you better give your audience a reason to give an Eiffel Tower about all this silliness and so it is lucky I enjoyed many of the characters in ‘Aristocats’ and found it easy to will them on their way to a happy ending.
Duchess is a pretty smooth operator. Not only is she patient, pleasant and polite she is a good Mother, committed to her owner and a sweet mover. But my favourite scene of hers, the one that subtly indicates that she was clearly a play-ah before she settled down, is in Thomas O’Malley’s introduction. As he tries to get her attention by singing a song about how awesome he is, Duchess settles into cleaning her paws and whiskers, totally chill, playing it cool. She is sexy and she knows it:
He is pulling out his best lines about her eyes being like sapphires and the two of them journeying to Paris on a magic carpet. But you don’t end up with three mongrel kits and fail to get a bullshit detector out of that deal. So when the kids excitedly appear, clamouring for the magic carpet (awkward…) Duchess has a few barbed comments for him and refuses to let him off the hook, innocently asking if what he had envisioned was: ‘Perhaps a magic carpet built for two? I understand perfectly Monsieur O’Malley.’ Damn. It would have gone over my head as a little kid but the meaning is clear: She comes with baggage and she is not willing to play silly games. She’s a woman.
Don’t believe me? Let’s skip ahead to the big musical moment of the film, which is a jazzy little number. Duchess gets down with the alley cats with ease, with shapes so sharp it would go on to inspire one of the most famous pas de deux’s in movie history:
And then Duchess breaks it down, demonstrating her skill on harp, enchanting the gang…Then she utters breathily: ‘If you want to turn me on…’
Sorry? What now?
I’m not going to lie, I choked on my apple juice.
Girl’s got game…
Duchess could have been written and played as a prim and proper type out of her comfort zone but they don’t go for the cliché fish out of water plot. She can let her hair down but still be a responsible parent. It is a successful balancing act, much of which I credit to the voice work of the great Eva Gabor who really sells lines like ‘Your music is so different… but so exciting’ Managing to make Duchess one of the most sexual Disney characters so far. She clearly has a past behind that shimmery collar and she comes across pretty damn cool as a result.
So I like Duchess, how about her bastard children? And no, I am not going to stop calling them that and no, I wouldn’t be so focused on it if it weren’t for ‘Game of Thrones.’ Well, they have moments of being quite annoying, especially Marie who is the Rolly of the film in that whenever there is a delay in the journey you can bet your whiny kitten she is behind it. But they appeal to kids and for every moment that Marie is messing up Toulouse is making adorable train noises or doing an awesome dance:
I still enjoyed them as an adult because I think the film makers do a good job of capturing an authentic sibling like quality between them. By that I mean, they all pretty much hate each other. There is a moment when Marie falls from a great height into the river below and has to be rescued. Her two brothers rush to her side after she has been placed on the riverbank. If you expected them to express concern or relief you clearly never grew up with brothers:
‘Gee Marie, why you’d have to fall off the bridge?’
Yep. That is pretty much how it would go down.
I especially enjoy the dynamic during their ‘self improvement’ classes at the beginning of the film. Watching animated kittens singing about their ‘Scales and Arpeggios,’ while playing piano, and doing a bit of abstract painting is just effortlessly charming and I could do it all day. Although: Why are they not famous? Madame has a cat that can play excellent piano and another with a firm grasp of impressionist art! That’s rare right? Ok, so Marie’s vocal ability is pretty poor (Blow your nose and breathe from the diaphragm you amateur!) but she could help sell tickets or something. Perhaps we are supposed to believe rich pets just learn that kind of thing regularly. Maybe it is just something that poor peeps don’t get let in on. I imagine when you make your first million someone comes round to your new mansion and hands you your bassoon playing Short Haired Persian.
Although that doesn’t explain Scat Cat…
In a film overloaded with supporting characters (I am getting bored of saying it about Disney films at this point but it is particularly true in this one) Scat Cat and his gang are still a welcome sight. Well nearly all of them…It wouldn’t be Disney without some silly accents and while multiculturalism should be applauded the Chinese stereotype cat was deemed offensive enough that his vocal has been removed from all the official soundtrack material as of 1996. Although not the film itself. Leaving Shun Gon out of it, the ‘Everybody Wants to be a Cat’ scene is really just an excuse for a big musical number so it is a good thing that I really, really love it.
As with ‘I Wanna be Like You’ this is a swinging jazz track that successfully captures the fun of riffing it up with some friends. Phil Harris (in his second of three consecutive lead roles) as O’Malley is his usual charming self, and Robie Lester does a lovely job as the singing voice of Duchess. But the real star is Scatman Crothers, who my pop culture Bible suggests you may know best as the dude who got an axe to the chest in ‘The Shining’
This is what happens when you listen to Jazz kids!
The part of Scat Cat was actually written for Louis Armstrong and the design of the character is based off his appearance but due to illness he wasn’t able to record the song. So they got Scatman and directed him to ‘pretend you’re Satchmo’ which is a tad insulting, when you think about it. It is not like he wasn’t a talented actor and musician in his own right. So it is all the more impressive that he makes such a fleeting caricature so memorable both by doing a fairly spot on Armstrong impression and loading him with casual charm.
I would also like to give a shout out to the Russian cat Billy Boss who is voiced by the phenomenal Thurl ‘Paddy’ Ravenscroft. Ravenscroft was the voice of Tony the Tiger (They’re grrrrreat) and sang the brilliant ‘You’re a Mean One Mr Grinch’ and I am sure you know that wonderful rolling deep voice of his. So with a lineup like that, the song better be good.
Well I really like it. My only nitpick is it is not quite up to the standard of ‘I Wanna be Like You’ but it is a lot of fun. I especially love the lyric ‘A square with a horn, makes you wish you weren’t born, every time he plays…’ How can you not dig that? Plus I can’t get enough of the bit where the piano starts crashing through the house as the song reaches its crescendo, accompanied by the cry of ‘Hallelujah!’ Hallelujah indeed.
In fact, all the music is pleasantly spot on and nicely varied. The opening song is classic Sherman Brothers, performed to toe wiggling perfection by Maurice Chevalier, who was coaxed out of retirement to perform ‘The Aristocats’ and does a great job. ‘Thomas O’Malley’ is a fantastic bragging song performed well by the peerless Harris and I have already made my feelings about ‘Scales and Arpeggios’ and ‘Everybody Wants to be a Cat’ clear. So 10/10 soundtrack! Good work!
There are some funny lines and moments like when Roquefort the mouse says without irony: ‘The butler did it!’ the demented Georges (ta ra ra boom de ay!) and then the posh geese show up. Ah yes the geese. They are not as funny as when I was a kid but the score gives them a lovely sting as they waddle about and it is pretty hard not to like them. Plus watching Abigail and Amelia attempt to teach a furious O’Malley to swim and the idea of a restaurant giving up on killing the wasted Uncle Waldo who decided to drink the wine instead of cook in it is pretty funny. Right? I don’t know. To be honest these moments made me laugh a lot as a kid and therefore nostalgia may well have been clouding my judgement. My companions did not seem terribly amused. Or entranced. This provoked some anxiety during the viewing and subsequently forced me to face up to the terrible truth about The Aristocats…
What Doesn’t Work:
It hurts me to say this: ‘The Aristocats’ is pretty vapid. The plot is a watered down version (a copy cat if you will) of ‘101 Dalmatians’ only with added fat. There is more filler than any of the films so far (and that is really saying something) and despite the efforts of the filmmakers the stakes never feel that high. In ‘101 Dalmatians’ the peril at least felt consistent but here…The return journey home for the cats is largely straightforward, quick and alarmingly easy. And rather than Cruella De Vil they have Edgar the Butler.
Fuck me, Edgar is a useless villain. Just useless. I feel bad now for going after Shere Khan in my Jungle Book review because compared to Edgar, Shere Khan is a compulsive perfectionist who not only killed Mowgli, Baloo and the rest but filed a tax return afterwards. Let me take you on the journey of Edgar, Disney’s worst villain to date:
So he eavesdrops on Madame to hear if he is in the money and is gutted to learn that he will be expected to care for the felines who will inherit her fortune and immediately starts planning their demise…
Ok, OK. STOP.
Part of this agreement is that Edgar will care for the cats until their death. Right? Madame does not believe he can’t be trusted, on the contrary, she appreciates his commitment to his gig and wants to reward him. Eventually. But…Am I the only one seeing the massive, gaping plot hole here? Allow me to paint you a word picture:
Edgar: Hey Cats! I want to buy a new house, solely for my top hat collection! Any objections to me spending your money?
Edgar: Thought not…
I can’t believe I nearly went to all the trouble of having a wacky adventure…
If Edgar is expected to care for the cats as they grow old and jaded, who exactly is going to enforce that he only spends the money on what the cats want? I know there is a Luxury Cat Food section at the supermarket now, but even considering that I suspect he is going to have a lot of leeway to piss away the cash.
Also, why the hurry? Why did he want to kill the cats then and there? There is no hint that Madame is dying or anything. What if he killed the cats and then she had lived another, say, 9 years and in that time purchased 4 more cats and grown equally fond of them? Or was he counting on Madame passing away instantly of a broken heart? Why not wait till she is dead before bopping them off? When this is the premise for your film you better give me a reason why this is necessary or else I am going to go ahead and declare shenanigans.
And then he farts about drugging them with enough sleeping tablets that they ought to have been instantly killed, takes them out and…gets accosted by two dogs determined to murder him leading to him bailing, leaving the cats alive in a basket under a random bridge. And yet in the next Edgar scene the disappearance of the cats has made front page news in Le Journal de Paris and he is bragging to his horse (feel the room mate, the horse is scandalised) that the Police are saying it is the work of a genius before realising there is a really, really easy trail back to him. Front page news? One can only assume he publishes the paper himself. The man needs help.
So let’s recap: He steals some cats that he doesn’t need to steal, fails to kill them, celebrates his success at his failure to kill them, realises he has left rather a lot of evidence at the scene of the non crime, including his own clothes and part of his vehicle, i.e. everything he left the house with except the cats who he has no reason to believe are dead and it is well known that cats are pretty good at finding their way home especially when you have ditched them 10 minutes up the road…Oh Jesus Edgar, tell me you are at least a good butler?
When the cats come home, Edgar is astonished. I mean, he didn’t kill them or anything but still, how could this be? So he quickly bundles them into a box and makes plan for the box to be sent to Timbuktu…Son of a Bitch…Edgar….Just. Kill. Them. Seriously. Just do it. You have a weapon. I have seen it. You flail it about feebly in the big finale. Just murder the small helpless animals. Leave Timbuktu out of it and just KILL THEM!
Or don’t. It doesn’t really matter
In the end, Edgar is kicked by his angry horse, lands in the empty trunk and his unconscious body is carted off to Timbuktu. Wow. So he’s dead. And even Madame doesn’t give a fuck. All the animal characters watch without comment as his corpse is taken away to Africa never to be recovered. Until he is identified and suddenly the Crazy Cat Lady has a shit ton of explaining to do.
‘These are my CATS…They can paint and sing you knoooooow…’
So long Edgar. You were absolutely fucking futile from start to finish.
Oh but he is not the only one. I was wrong when I called Marie out as the Rolly of this film. Roquefort the mouse is even more Rolly like. His attempts at helping are pathetic. He tries to find the cats: Fails. He tries to follow Edgar: Fails. He tries to warn the cats Edgar is evil: Fails. He is then given ONE JOB which is to find Scat Cat and tell them O’Malley has sent him but instead instantly forgets the right name and sits sounding off vaguely Irish sounding names as the cats prepare to eat him. Just crap.
At this point in the review you might be feeling a bit irritated with my whining about the characters but there are SO many that don’t serve any kind of purpose except to fill out the running time. The two dogs, who love causing road accident and take trophies from all of their casualties, are supposed to be funny but have nothing whatsoever to do with the story. Nothing at all. The scenes with them and Edgar have no other purpose except to make the film go on longer. The aforementioned geese are similarly irrelevant. They depart the story having effected nothing at all. I would actually like to see what happens when you cut out all the scenes that add nothing to the plot: The film would be about 13 minutes long. This is what happens when you fail to put any real obstacles between our characters and their goal. They want to go home. They do. So what is the point?
Well I suppose what they gain is some life experience and the kids get a new Dad and Duchess gets a new squeeze in the form of O’Malley. But even this arc has been done to death by Disney: The bachelor settling down. We have seen it with the Tramp. Note for note. Next.
Are you keeping count with how many superfluous characters there are? Answer: a lot. Comedy lawyer, comedy dogs x 2, comedy geese x 3, useless mouse, massive gang of cats that don’t do much, creepy horse (She tells Roquefort that ‘Madame didn’t sleep a wink last night’ How the hell does she know? She is a horse! She lives in the stable! I love the idea of Madame sitting by the fire crying as the melancholy horse appears at the window: ‘I miss them too.’) This all in addition to the 5 main animal characters and the two main human characters. Even Roland Emmerich would look at that cast list and say: ‘In 75 minutes? Scheiße!’
If you wish to refer back to my ‘What Works’ section you can see that not all of them annoy me equally (I like scatting, what can I say?) but the biggest problem with this film is the choice to ignore any attempt at depth and just flounder in the shallow end. Talk about throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks.
And finally, the backdrop is wasted. The fact that the film is set in France is inconsequential and easily forgotten. I found it quite sad after learning that the location was more important in the original story and the resolution to the threat of Edgar was a lot more interesting. Tytle was right to be worried about what happened to his idea. ‘The Aristocats’ may never have had what it took to be a great film but it could have been a better one.
Apart from a thoroughly enjoyable soundtrack, some good performances and the warm glow of nostalgia, there isn’t really anything that stands out about ‘The Aristocats’ and it smacks of the Disney Studios trying to regain confidence after the death of big man Walt by playing it super safe. There is plenty for children to enjoy and while it is not a disagreeable way to spend 75 minutes it is a largely pointless endeavour. Which, given some of the original ideas and the hints of a better film struggling to emerge SCAT-tered throughout, is a crying shame.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: Now this is a first…0. Although I would like to hear from any readers who had sleepless nights from this movie but, at the moment, I am drawing a blank. First time ever. This might give me nightmares now…It is so disappointing that I am going to crank up the horror by posting another picture of Scatman Crothers in The Shining:
I feel warm and fuzzy about ‘Scales and Arpeggios’ and it will be in my head forever but it doesn’t quite top ‘Everybody Wants to be a Cat’ for pure enjoyability:
Next Time: Oodelally oodelally golly what a day! Robin Hood (1973)