Saturday, March 25, 2023

The Aristocats (1970)

Although I have seen a number of animated Disney films when I was younger, there are some gaps in my knowledge of the Animated Canon that I have sought to gradually fill in based on personal interest and word of mouth. One such film is The Aristocats, an original production that is noted for being the final animated film Walt Disney personally approved of in his lifetime. Though I was aware of it at the time, I eventually gained more interest in giving it a fair look after noticing how much shelf presence the character Marie had on a trip to Disneyland, as well as having read a manga featuring the character. While it’s not quite as good as some other Disney movies from the time period in my opinion, I still liked it and was able to see the appeal.

In 1910 Paris, Madame Adelaide Bonfamille (Hermione Baddeley) lives with and dotes on her cat Duchess (Eva Gabor) and her kittens Toulouse (Gary Dubin), Marie (Liz English) and Berlioz (Dean Clark), and is aided by her butler Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby). While Madame Adelaide is negotiating her will with her lawyer Georges (Charles Lane), Edgar overhears that she intends to pass on her fortune to her cats, which will then pass on to the butler once they pass. Not happy with the arrangement, Edgar hatches a scheme to get rid of the cats by putting them to sleep and dumping them in the countryside, to which he barely succeeds. Once the cats come to and realize what happened to them, they try and find their way back home with the aid of an alley cat, Thomas O’Malley (Phil Harris).

Thomas O'Malley (Phil Harris, right) helps Duchess (Eva Gabor. left) and her kittens Marie (Liz English, center left), Toulouse (Gary Dubin, center middle) and Berlioz (Dean Clark, center right) return home.

Due to the general proximity of viewing, one thing I noticed is that this movie shares some structural similarities with 101 Dalmatians (1961), though the execution is a little different. One major difference is that this movie is a lot more comedic, with a lot of it being physical comedy involving Edgar getting outdone by animals. That said, there are still some heartfelt moments, mainly the relationship between Duchess and O’Malley and how the kittens grow to like him. Though O’Malley’s alley cat friends are important to the story, some of the cultural depictions within them, chiefly the Shun Gon (Paul Winchell), credited as “Chinese Cat”, did not age well. While Edgar has the makings of an entertaining villain, time has shown that he hasn’t made as much of a splash as Disney’s other villains, especially when compared to one from the time such as Cruella De Vil. I wouldn’t exactly expect to see Edgar represented in a Disney Villainous tabletop expansion anytime soon, but you never know with Disney sometimes.

As with other animated Disney films from this time, The Aristocats was animated using the xerography technique, which is evident from the presence of visible sketch lines in several frames and the general roughness of the visuals in a similar fashion to 101 Dalmatians. Much like the latter film, this arguably gives the animation a nice hand-drawn touch since you get to occasionally see how some characters were constructed, if only a little bit. This technique also leads to some very on-model animation, all while having very fluid and realistic movements, particularly the cats. Much like how xerography was a money-saver, there are some more noticeable instances of recycled animation, especially towards the end, however said animation was recycled appropriately. I will also admit that a couple visuals also reminded me of similar visuals from the works of Beatrix Potter, though only briefly.

The goose sisters Abigail (Monica Evans, right) and Amelia Gabble's
(Carole Shelley, left) designs bring Jemima Puddleduck to mind for me.

While the approach to the animation has some understandable cost-cutting measures, the voice cast is very well-cast. Eva Gabor is great as Duchess and pulls off a convincing French accent, while Phil Harris has the right charisma for Thomas O’Malley. Sterling Holloway, known for other famous Disney roles such as the Cheshire Cat (Alice in Wonderland), Winnie the Pooh (The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh) and Kaa (The Jungle Book), plays the friendly mouse Roquefort, using what sounds closer to his Pooh voice to capture his demeanor. Another notable voice is Scatman Crothers, best known by Transformers fans as the Autobot Jazz in the 1984 cartoon and 1986 film, who brings his vocal talents to the role of Scat Cat and, along with the rest of his character’s gang of alley cats, delivers on one of the film’s scant songs, "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat", whose chorus is far catchier than it has any right to be.

While The Aristocats has managed to stay in the public consciousness, it’s not unfair to say that a lot of it has to do with the popularity of the character Marie, if her presence at the Disney parks and various merchandise is to be believed. So popular is Marie that she became the star of her own spin-off manga, Miriya & Marie, in which she magically brings a modern Japanese girl named MIriya to 1910 France to teach her magic. For those that are interested, the manga has been released in English by Tokyopop and consists of only a single volume. Perhaps owing to her popularity, an Aristocats II was in the planning stages as a DTV film that would have focused on an older Maire, which was cancelled along with all of Disney’s future DTV sequels.

Something for manga readers to enjoy.

While I wouldn’t personally call The Aristocats one of the greatest Disney films, there is still a certain appeal to it that has given it lasting popularity, particularly the animation of the cats and the natural development of Duchess and O’Malley’s relationship. If you want to see an arguable Disney classic or are curious where the character Marie comes from, this movie is still a good watch after all these years.

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