Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The AristoCats
When Walt Disney died in December 1966, he left behind a handful of animated and live-action projects in varying stages of production. Four years later, that stockpile was almost gone. The AristoCats, Disney’s twentieth animated feature and first since The Jungle Book in 1967, would be the studio’s first feature-length cartoon produced entirely without Walt’s guiding hand. So perhaps it isn’t too surprising that it feels a lot like some of their earlier work.
Walt was involved in the project’s earliest development. In 1961, he had tasked producer Harry Tytle and director Tom McGowan with finding animal stories for the Wonderful World Of Color TV series. McGowan had made the popular short The Hound That Thought He Was A Raccoon and Walt wanted more stuff like that. Here’s where things get a little tricky. According to some sources, McGowan found a kid’s book about a mother cat and her three kittens set in New York City. Tytle thought New York was boring and suggested transplanting the story to Paris, since One Hundred And One Dalmatians had benefited from its London setting. Others claim that the film is inspired by a true story about a group of cats who really did inherit a fortune left them by their eccentric owner in 1910 Paris.
Now, I don’t know if either one of those stories is true. If it was a book, I don’t know who wrote it, what it was called or when it was published. And presumably Walt would have had to buy the rights to this thing if it existed. As for it being a true story, the internet has tons of stories about rich weirdos bequeathing their money to their pets. But sources that make the claim for The AristoCats are noticeably light on specifics. Could it have happened? Sure, why not. But I wouldn’t swear to it under oath.
Regardless of where the story originated, Tytle, McGowan and cowriter Tom Rowe envisioned it as a live-action production. Boris Karloff was in mind to play the devious butler, which is wild to think about. As usual, the script went through numerous revisions, none of which pleased Rowe. One by one, the original production trio of Tytle, McGowan and Rowe would either quit or be reassigned.
Sometime in 1963, Walt decided the story was better suited to animation. With the animation department fully committed to The Jungle Book, Walt put the project on hold. Shortly before his death, he handed it to longtime employee Ken Anderson. Anderson and Wolfgang Reitherman tossed out most of the old work and came up with a more cat-centric story. Walt approved the new direction and signed off on some early sketches before his death.
Once The Jungle Book was completed, the animation department turned their attention to The AristoCats (the studio has never been entirely consistent with the title stylization but since the official on-screen title has a capital “C”, that’s what I’m going with). A team of seven Disney veterans cracked the story, including Anderson, Larry Clemmons, Vance Gerry, Frank Thomas, Eric Cleworth, Julius Svendsen, and Ralph Wright. Winston Hibler was originally going to produce the picture but it had been a while since he’d worked on the animation side. Most of his 60s work had been in live-action, mostly animal and nature movies like the recent King Of The Grizzlies. When Hibler ran into trouble, Reitherman took over the production.
The version of The AristoCats that hit screens on Christmas Eve, 1970, was markedly different from the one Tytle, McGowan and Rowe had come up with. A secondary human character, a maid named Elvira, was dropped entirely. New animal characters like Roquefort the mouse (voiced by Disney Legend Sterling Holloway) were either added or had their roles expanded. The Parisian atmosphere Tytle felt was so important gradually fell by the wayside. Harry Tytle walked away from animation and returned to live-action. Tom Rowe tried suing the studio but since this had always been a work-for-hire gig, he didn’t get far. It’s a surprisingly bumpy origin for what ended up being a pleasant but innocuous movie.
I don’t necessarily want to say The AristoCats straight-up borrows elements that worked in earlier Disney movies but it’s impossible not to see the similarities. The family of cats trying to make their way home across the French countryside recalls One Hundred And One Dalmatians. The dynamic between Duchess and O’Malley gives off some serious Lady And The Tramp vibes. And while The AristoCats team reportedly tried to differentiate Phil Harris’s O’Malley from his performance in The Jungle Book, they didn’t try very hard. O’Malley is basically Baloo in cat form.
The story of The AristoCats is one of the simplest in the Disney library. Madame Bonfamille (voiced by Disney regular Hermione Baddeley, last seen in The Happiest Millionaire) is a retired opera star living alone in Paris with her beloved cat, Duchess (Eva Gabor), and her three kittens, Berlioz (Dean Clark), Toulouse (Gary Dubin), and Marie (Liz English). She sends for her ancient lawyer, Georges (Charles Lane, last seen in The Gnome-Mobile), to dictate her will. She wants to leave her entire estate to her cats. Once their nine lives are up, the rest will go to her devoted butler, Edgar (British comedian and performance artist Roddy Maude-Roxby).
Being paid to live in a Parisian mansion with a bunch of cats sounds like a pretty sweet gig to me but it’s not enough for Edgar. He wants to inherit the whole thing right away, so he douses the cats’ cream with sleeping tablets and abandons them far out in the country. He may have had a more insidious plan in mind but his motorcycle ride is interrupted by a couple of farm dogs, Napoleon and Lafayette (voiced by Gabor’s Green Acres costar Pat Buttram and George “Goober” Lindsey from The Andy Griffith Show…don’t bother asking why two French dogs sound like hicks from the American South).
The cats aren’t on their own for long before they meet Abraham de Lacey Giuseppe Casey Thomas O’Malley, an easygoing alley cat. O’Malley finagles a ride back to Paris on a milk truck, then ends up going along when Marie falls off and needs rescuing. And in a lot of ways, that’s kind of the whole story. Oh sure, other stuff happens. The cats meet up with a couple of vacationing British geese (Monica Evans and Carole Shelley) and their drunk Uncle Waldo (Bill Thompson in his final role). Edgar has to go back and retrieve some incriminating evidence from Napoleon and Lafayette. And, of course, we meet O’Malley’s jazz-loving friends, led by Scat Cat (the great Scatman Crothers, stepping in to voice a role originally intended for Louis Armstrong). But none of it really advances the story.
Things wrap up when Duchess and the kittens get back home and O’Malley reluctantly says goodbye. But they’re quickly intercepted by Edgar, who locks them in a trunk bound for Timbuktu. Roquefort runs after O’Malley, who sends him off for the other alley cats. The animals all team up to defeat Edgar and O’Malley ends up becoming a stepfather to the kittens. The movie’s practically over before you even realize it got started.
Now, there are a lot of problems with The AristoCats and many of them revolve around Edgar. He is by far the least interesting villain Disney ever came up with. His plan doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially considering Madame Bonfamille seems a long way from kicking the bucket. Even if he had succeeded in getting rid of the cats, what’s to stop her from just going out and adopting more? If your bad guy’s evil plan is essentially to wait patiently, your central conflict might not be as dramatic as you think.
The AristoCats also manages to feel both needlessly padded out and like it’s missing pieces at the same time. Napoleon and Lafayette are fun characters, so I understand the desire to bring them back. But why do they never once interact with the cats themselves? They really feel like they’re in their own movie that has nothing to do with Duchess and O’Malley.
There’s a similar problem with the geese. Practically their entire journey to Paris takes place off-screen. One minute they’re in the middle of nowhere, the next they’re walking up to the café. They’re pretty important characters for a hot second, then they wander off, never to be seen again. Unlike the dogs, the geese aren’t really funny enough to make much impression. They’re just kind of there until they’re not and you forget all about them.
At this point, you’re probably thinking I don’t like The AristoCats all that much. That’s not actually true. It’s a testament to the Disney animation crew that this is still an enjoyable movie despite its familiarity and story problems. In a way, it feels like Walt Disney’s Greatest Hits. There’s nothing remotely new here but the band can still play all your old favorites and that’s just fine.
A big part of what makes The AristoCats work is the music. This isn’t really a musical, in the sense that you could remove every single song and not effect the story one iota. The Sherman Brothers wrote quite a few songs but most of them ended up not being used. Of the few that made the cut, “Scales & Arpeggios” walks a fine line between endearing and annoying. I think it’s cute but I’d understand if someone hated it.
The Shermans also contributed the title song, which is probably the most French thing about the movie. Maurice Chevalier had retired after his appearance in Monkeys, Go Home! back in 1967 but the Shermans were able to coax him back for one last recording session. It ended up being his final work before his death in 1972.
Terry Gilkyson’s Jungle Book song, “The Bare Necessities”, had been nominated for an Oscar, so it makes sense that Disney would want him to come up with another signature song for Phil Harris. “Thomas O’Malley Cat” does not stray far from the “Bare Necessities” formula. It’s an okay song but nowhere near as memorable as Baloo’s big number.
Of course, the song everyone remembers is “Ev’rybody Wants To Be A Cat” by Floyd Huddleston and Al Rinker. Huddleston and Rinker first teamed up in the late 40s, writing hundreds of songs at Decca Records. This would be Rinker’s only work at Disney but we’ll see Huddleston in this column again. Their AristoCats song doesn’t sound much like anything you’d have heard in 1910 but it’s pretty terrific, changing direction repeatedly and building to a show-stopping finale.
The whole sequence is lively and beautifully animated, which makes the lazy ethnic stereotyping of the cats even more unfortunate. Supposedly these cats have names but in the credits, they’re just referred to as Russian Cat (the incomparable Thurl Ravenscroft), Italian Cat (Vito Scotti, who we just saw in The Boatniks), English Cat (Lord Tim Hudson, one of the Beatle Vultures in The Jungle Book) and (sigh) Chinese Cat (Paul Winchell, immediately recognizable as the voice of Tigger). And sure, all four of them are broad, over-the-top exaggerations, so it’s not like anyone was going out of their way to specifically insult Asians. But Chinese Cat is the one everyone singles out because he is objectively terrible.
We’ve already seen plenty of examples of Disney’s…shall we say…checkered history of depicting people (and animals) of color and no doubt we’ll see even more. And yes, it is important to view these films within the context of their times and Disney was by no means alone in perpetuating Asian stereotypes. But it is worth noting that these kinds of Asian characters held on a lot longer than stereotypes of other cultures and ethnicities and movies like The AristoCats are partially to blame.
Obviously, the studio thought whatever Paul Winchell was doing was funny and this was going to be a breakout character. He’s the only member of the band singled out with a character box on the original poster above. That poster actually makes it worse by referring to him as “Oriental Cat”. It also says he’s the leader of the band, which isn’t true. Scat Cat is clearly in charge. The character’s bad enough as it is without calling attention to him and trying to build him up. So while we should be able to look back at The AristoCats and forgive it as a product of less enlightened attitudes, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t cringe a little (or a lot) when Chinese Cat pops up.
Despite its flaws, The AristoCats was a big hit, winning over audiences and most critics. It did even better overseas, becoming the highest grossing film of 1971 in the UK, Germany and even France. The painted Parisian backgrounds are genuinely lovely. Maybe the movie plays more authentically when it’s dubbed in French.
It’s a little surprising that Disney has yet to return to The AristoCats well, although it’s not for lack of trying. Back in 2000, the studio began developing an animated TV series based on the film that would have followed teenage versions of Toulouse, Marie and Berlioz. Then in 2005, Disneytoon Studios, the direct-to-video branch of the company, announced they’d be making The Aristocats 2. This was going to be a computer-animated feature following the older Marie as she falls in love. Those plans were dropped after John Lasseter took the reins of the studio, realized almost all the Disneytoon movies were garbage that cheapened the brand, and shut the whole thing down. Now the studio is working on a live-action remake because of course they are.
Whether or not the public realized it at the time, the legendary Disney animation studio was in trouble. Without Walt to steer the ship, the department was beginning to cut corners and recycle proven formulas. We’ve already been seeing fewer and fewer animated features in this column. Sad to say, that trend is only going to continue. It’s a shame because The AristoCats proves that even an uninspired Disney cartoon is still pretty darn good.
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