Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. The Aristocats

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Aristocats

Year: 1970

Source materials : original story by Tom Rowe

Budget: $4 million

Box office: $55.7 millio

Plot: In Paris 1910, mother cat Duchess and her three kittens, Marie, Berlioz, and Toulouse, live with retired opera diva Madame Adelaide Bonfamille, and her English butler, Edgar. One day while preparing her will with lawyer Georges Hautecourt, Madame declares her fortune to be left to her cats until their deaths, and thereafter to Edgar. Edgar hears this through a speaking tube, and plots to eliminate the cats.

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Therefore, he sedates the cats by putting sleeping pills in a milk mixture intended for them, and enters the countryside to abandon them. There, he is ambushed by two hounds, named Napoleon and Lafayette, and the cats are stranded in the countryside, while Madame Adelaide, Roquefort the mouse, and Frou-Frou the horse discover their absence.

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In the morning, Duchess meets an alley cat named Thomas O’Malley, who offers to guide her and the kittens to Paris. The group briefly hitchhikes in a milk truck before being chased off by the driver. Later, while crossing a railroad trestle, the cats narrowly avoid an oncoming train, but Marie falls into a river and is saved by O’Malley, who in turn has to be rescued himself by two English geese, Amelia and Abigail Gabble, who accompany the cats to Paris.

 

Edgar returns to the country to retrieve his possessions from Napoleon and Lafayette, as the only evidence that could incriminate him. Travelling across the rooftops of the city, the cats meet O’Malley’s friend Scat Cat and his musicians, who perform the song Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat.

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After the band has departed, O’Malley and Duchess converse on a nearby rooftop while the kittens listen at a windowsill. Here, Duchess’s loyalty to Madame prompts her to decline O’Malley’s proposal of marriage.

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Duchess and the kittens return to Madame’s mansion, but Edgar places them in a sack and prepares to ship them to Timbuktu; whereupon they direct Roquefort to retrieve O’Malley. He does so, and O’Malley returns to the mansion, instructing Roquefort to locate Scat Cat and his gang. This done, the alley cats and Frou-Frou fight Edgar, while Roquefort frees Duchess and the kittens. At the end of the fight, Edgar is locked in his own packing-case and sent to Timbuktu himself.

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Madame Adelaide’s will is rewritten to exclude Edgar, with Madame remaining ignorant of the reason for Edgar’s departure. After adopting O’Malley into the family, Madame establishes a charity foundation housing Paris’s stray cats (represented by Scat Cat and his band, who reprise their song).

Background: In 1962, The Aristocats began as an original script for a two-part live-action episode for Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, developed by writers Tom McGowan and Tom Rowe and producer Harry Tytle. Following two years of re-writes, Walt Disney suggested the project would be more suitable for an animated film, and placed the project in turnaround as The Jungle Book advanced into production. When The Jungle Book was nearly complete, Disney appointed Ken Anderson to develop preliminary work on The Aristocats, which would mark the last film project to be approved by Disney before his death in December 1966.

Animation: This is the last film in which Eric Larson worked as a supervising animator. From then on he concentrated on training the younger animators that came to the studio during the 1970s and ’80s. Scat Cat was designed to be voiced by Louis Armstrong. The character’s look was modeled after Armstrong – the way he played his trumpet, his roly-poly physique, right down to the prominent gap between his teeth. However, Armstrong was unable to record a single line due to illness. His replacement, Scatman Crothers, was directed to “Pretend you’re Satchmo.”

Songs: The opening number was sung by French singer Maurice Chevalier.

Voice Cast: Phil Harris returns as J. Thomas O’Malley. Eva Gabor is Duchess. She is probably best known from Green Acres and will appear in The Rescuers and its sequel. Sterling Holloway returns as Roquefort.

Scatman Crothers as Scat Cat. In addition to being a singer, musician and songwriter, he was an actor appearing in The Shining and Once Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He lent his voice to several animated shows including Hong Kong Phooney and Transformers. Vito Scotti played many Italian American characters and appeared in The Godfather. Paul Winchell was a ventriloquist best known as the voice of Tigger. Thurl Ravenscroft returns as the voice of Billy Bass.

Pat Buttran as Napoleon is best known as Mr. Hainey from Green Acres. He’ll show up in Robin Hood, The Fox and the Hound, and The Rescuers. George Lindsey as Lafayette is familiar as Goober on The Andy Griffith Show. We’ll see him again in The Rescuers, and Robin Hood.

Monica Evans and Carole Shelley as the geese. They’re best known as the Pigeon sisters in The Odd Couple and will both appear in Robin Hood.

Nancy Kulp is the horse Frou-Frou. She is best known as Miss Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies

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Critical Reception: The Aristocats was released in December 1970 where it grossed $10.1 million in domestic rentals. The film, which was very popular in France, grossed $16 million in foreign markets. The film was the most popular “general release” movie at the British box office in 1971. The New York Times praised the film as “grand fun all the way, nicely flavored with tunes, and topped with one of the funniest jam sessions ever by a bunch of scraggly Bohemians headed by one Scat Cat.” Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, awarded the film three stars out of four summarizing The Aristocats as “light and pleasant and funny, the characterization is strong, and the voices of Phil Harris and Eva Gabor are charming in their absolute rightness.”

Legacy: Marie routine meets in the France Pavillion at Epcot. Occasionally her brothers would also appear.

My take: I have to say that hearing American country accents in a story set in Paris, is a bit unusual. The only thing French about this movie is Chevalier.

Shun Gon, the Chinese cat… that is just unforgivable. Disney films have been racially insensitive before, but this character is hard to watch and just can’t be justified. I mean look at him…

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Next Week: Robin Hood