The Aristocats (1970) dir. Wolfgang Reitherman
Voices by: Phil Harris, Eva Gabor, Sterling Holloway, Scatman Crothers
Guest reviewed by Greg Klymkiw
With my first child, I had a strict rule regarding what Disney product she was allowed to see – especially when it came to the animated product. Nothing that was made after Uncle Walt’s death would be allowed in our home. Everything in the post-Walt world was risible at worst and mediocre at best. For me, this especially includes that wretched period which barfed out the overblown and overrated and overwrought “Aladdin”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “The Little Mermaid” and (gag me with a very big spoon), “The Lion King” and everything else of that unfortunate ilk. These dreadful pictures with their annoying use of actors like Robin Williams and syrupy scores would not only remain verboten in my home, but were, no doubt, sending Walt’s corpse into major grave-spinning mode. There was, however, one exception to this strict rule and that exception was this: films that Walt personally developed and had already given a thumbs-up to for production PRIOR to his death were perfectly acceptable.
An especially wise exception to that rule was “The Aristocats”, the Disney Company’s twentieth animated feature film. It was finished after Walt’s death, but developed personally by him.
Some criticize the movie for being super-derivative of so many Uncle Walt classics, which, of course, is utter nonsense and true all at once. While there is no denying that “The Aristocats” is basically “Lady and the Tramp” with cats, crossed with “101 Dalmatians” and dollops - here and there - from a handful of others, all that basically proves is that good stories are always worth telling and re-telling and re-telling again – just so long as the details are not only different, but that they are, for lack of a better description, cool.
And “The Aristocats” is nothing if not cool.
With a late 50s jazz mentality set against the ultra-romantic and super-cool backdrop of Gay Par-ee, or, if you must, Paris, “The Aristocats” is up there with the best of them because it takes something from a previous (“old”) generation that already WAS cool and makes it cool again. Keep in mind that “The Aristocats” was released in 1970, long after rock n’ roll had become king, but rather than resorting to what was hip in terms of “now”, the picture steadfastly held onto what was cool in the past and not only cool, but frankly, the kind of thing that COULD withstand the test of time and appeal to generations well beyond the here and now. Disney was always ahead of his time, but he also knew that the ephemeral could make some quick bucks, but wouldn’t ensure several lifetimes of profits. And it was that knack for creating work that could keep making money for generation upon generation, work that had staying power, work that could, in fact live forever, is the very reason that Disney was a genius and a visionary and the ultimate filmmaker – an artist of the highest order in addition to being a captain – no, a General of Industry.
In a nutshell, the picture tells the story of a crazy old rich lady (Hermione Baddeley) who has a gorgeous, pampered cat called The Duchess (Eva Gabor) who, in turn, has three cute and precocious kittens. When the old rich lady decides to bequeath her whole fortune to her manservant Edgar, he decides to kill all the cats since he won’t get a single penny until all four cats live out all their nine lives due to a clause in the will that puts the kitties before Edgar. He cat-naps the felines, takes them to the middle of nowhere, tries to drown them, but is foiled in his nefarious intentions by a couple of mangy, but heroic old hound dogs. The kitties, stranded in the middle of nowhere are assisted in their plight by O’Malley (Phil Harris) and his other alley cats, a bunch of American expat-cats, who play mean jazz as only Americans in France could.
The humour, the characters, the voice-work are all first-rate. The animation, especially in terms of detail with respect to feline behaviour, is exceptional. But what really rocks (so to speak) in this picture is the fantastic musical score – especially the “Ev’rbody Wants To Be A Cat” number that is the soaring definition of the expression: “jazz hot”.
I personally saw The Aristocats in 1970 as a kid and subsequently on a couple of occasions when it was officially re-released theatrically. I saw it when it was first released on DVD, and most recently watched it in the magnificent new 2-disc DVD special edition released by Buena Vista. Each time the movie held up magnificently. It’s one great picture.
That said, my daughter eventually demanded to see all those banned Disney titles. I grudgingly bought all of them. Imagine, if you will, my shame and remorse at bringing “Aladdin”, “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast” and, God help me, “The [Goddamn] Lion King” into my home. Interestingly enough, my daughter watched all of those dreadful titles once and once only. She has never wanted to watch any of them again. The true Disney films, that she’d be indoctrinated with, however, are always on – again and again and again. She never tires of the real thing. “The Aristocats” is a movie she’s seen at least twenty times – probably more.
This, of course, not only proves how great Walt Disney was, but how important it is to expose children to only the best in their early years. That way, they learn how to discriminate between what’s good and bad. Most pointedly, they develop an excellent shit detector when it comes to much of the garbage that has been made in the RECENT past. When their yardstick is the very best, everything else becomes so much landfill.