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Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Sunday, November 14, 2010

“No. I Thought You Were Swans”

          By the time 1970 rolled around, Disney had seen its share of animal films in which the cast of main characters is comprised of at least ninety percent of non-humans: Dumbo, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and The Jungle Book.  The two of these films that dealt with animals in the domestic sphere were mainly about dogs, with their animal polar opposite appearing in small supporting roles, and once as beings with villainous intent.  I’m going to guess that Disney felt that the cats’ time to shine was long overdue.  So in 1970, those who called themselves “a cat person” finally got some love with the release of The AristoCats.
            This seems to be another one of those Disney movies that people tend to forget about.  I imagine that quite a few people would be quick to write it off as Lady and the Tramp with cats, and likewise with One Hundred and One Dalmatians.  Truthfully, it does share some elements with both films.  There’s a streetwise male who falls in love with a pampered beauty and there are young, innocent kids in trouble.  But after watching it this time around, I realized that The AristoCats is unique from these films because it has more in common with the screwball films of the thirties, like It Happened One Night.
            One of the key traits of a screwball film is a streetwise figure (Thomas O’Malley) guiding a naïve rich person (Duchess) to a destination and in the meantime teaching them valuable lessons about life.  There are plenty of slapstick elements thrown in, mostly by the secondary characters (Lafayette and Napoleon). By the time the film ends, the hero and the heroine have fallen in love and somehow make their two different worlds work together.  Instead of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, though, we have Duchess and Abraham De Lacey Giuseppe Casey Thomas O'Malley. 
            This film is the second film of the Phil Harris trilogy, but is unique among the three because it is the only film in which Harris voices the leading male as opposed to a supporting character.  The AristoCats also features the familiar voice talents of Eva Gabor, Paul Winchell (whose Asian voice sounds curiously similar to his future character, Tigger), Sterling Holloway, Monica Evans, Carole Shelley, Bill Thompson, Pat Buttram, and George Lindsey.  For Buttram and Lindsey, this would be their first pairing together; they appear in the next film, Robin Hood, as well.  But for Buttram, this film served as the first Disney film of many that he would appear in over the years; in fact, the final role he took on before his passing was a small part in A Goofy Movie.  All performed admirably for the roles they were given, but I do have to say that Roddy Maude-Roxby was perfect as the fumbling, bumbling butler, Edgar.
            We badly need to talk about Edgar.  Think of the Disney films of the 1960’s, specifically the villains in each of them: Cruella DeVil, Madam Mim, Kaa, and Shere Kahn.  All of these characters are iconically villainous in different ways.  All of them made UltimateDisney.com’s list of the greatest Disney villains of all time.  Then 1970 rolls around, and the criminal mastermind that kicks off the new decade is a butler who gets his pot bellied, coat tailed derriere handed to him by various assortments of small animals.
            Can you imagine Edgar at the Disney Villains United meetings?  Maleficent’s at the podium trying to call the meeting to order by incinerating Honest John with some green dragon fire.  Man is unknowingly about to be mauled by Shere Kahn, while Cruella looks at his tiger striped coat with plotting admiration.  And sitting quietly in the third row, sandwiched tightly between Lady Tremaine and Captain Hook, is Edgar.  He looks nervously at Lady Tremaine, says, “Pardon me, madam,” and begins shaking when she doesn’t answer but only narrows her eyes.  Tempting fate, he stands up to sit two further rows back.  Unfortunately, now he’s stuck next to the Queen of Hearts, who appreciates his proper manners but asks that he open his mouth wider, while Chernabog looms in a threatening manner from the row behind him.  Just before soiling himself, Edgar passes out in the aisle and never attends another meeting again.      
            My point is that Edgar doesn’t really fit in within the great rogue’s gallery of Disney villainy.  Granted, I think that stealing a sweet, family-less, old woman’s cats is an incredibly cruel, despicable, and unforgivable act, but Edgar is not really the criminal mastermind that the papers claim him to be.  He’s downright nervous when he commits the actual crime, and he bungles things up more often than not.  The guy accidentally rides his motorcycle down into a train station, for crying out loud. 
            That isn’t to say that I don’t like Edgar.  I think he’s an interesting departure for Disney.  He doesn’t start off the film as a mustache twirling evil menace to society; he actually seems like a hard working, loyal butler who tries to do his best by his mistress.  He never quite gets to that level of evil.  After all, he never tried to kill the cats himself.
            Edgar is interesting in that he was a boring, dutiful employee who got blinded by greed.  In fact, placing myself in his shoes, I can understand why he felt the way he did.  He devoted his whole life to his madam: took care of her, took care of her cats, dealt with her crazy friend, George.  Just below the cats, he was the closest that she had to family, so of course he would be expecting to inherit her fortune.  So when he found out that she valued her cats more than him, this hardworking, dull, befuddled butler let his greed get the better of him and he went a little mad.  To quote Norman Bates, we all go a little mad sometimes. 
            So while I hesitate to rank Edgar alongside the likes of Cruella DeVil, he does provide some of the best comedic scenes in The AristoCats.  I really loved the scene where he tries to help George up the stairs.  The bit where his cane gets caught on Edgar’s suspenders like a pair of bungee chords is a really funny gag, and works towards making the audience somewhat sympathetic to Edgar.  George is actually a delightful character to watch.  I liked how active he was, and yet his movements just screamed “old guy.”  His lines were just delightfully written: “Oh, so who do you want me to sue, eh?”  His interactions with Adelaide were very telling, almost leaving the audience wondering if they had been an item at one point.  Charles Lane definitely made the role what it was, even if he wasn’t exactly a Frenchman. 
            For a film set in France, it sports a very international cast:  Eva Gabor was from Hungary, George, Lafayette, Napoleon, Roquefort, Scat Cat, Thomas, Berlioz, and Toulouse all speak with variations of the American accent, Madame, Edward, Marie, and Frou-Frou sounded English, Uncle Waldo, Abigail, and Amelia were British, and Scat Cat’s gang consisted of a Russian cat, an Italian cat, a Chinese cat, and a mod British cat.  Aside from the occasional speaking extra, the only French person in this whole film is the ultimate Frenchmen, Maurice Chevalier, who came out of retirement to sing the title song.          This happens more than once when a Disney film is set during a recent time period in another country (just wait until we get to The Rescuers Down Under – that one’s a doozy!); it seems that none of the main characters are natives to the country in question.  Maybe Disney was trying to have a diverse, politically correct cast; maybe the voice actors wanted to attempt different accents. 
            Either way, we have quite the assortment of cats.  Considering that the last animal film Disney did featured primarily black and white spotted dogs, The AristoCats definitely plays with the looks of their characters.  The kittens all have adult counterparts (Toulouse – Thomas, Marie – Duchess, Berlioz – Scat Cat), but there are longhaired, shorthaired, tabby, Siamese, calico, and the like to choose from.  If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it six times, but Disney invented how to successfully impart human emotions on animal characters.  Some of Thomas’ expressions are so perfectly male, especially the scene where he explains to Abigail and Amelia that he’s not Duchess’ husband; each time I hear the way that he nonchalantly says, “All right.  I’m not,” I can so clearly see a real male saying it the exact same way.  The fact that he’s rolling around on the ground to dry off from his dip in the river to save Marie (which is so accurately cat-like) adds another level to this scene.
            I have to apologize but my inner feminist’s eyebrow is arching up again on the subject of Marie.  Besides Duchess, she’s the only other female cat character in the story, but unlike Duchess - who manages to take care of her family, proves to be elegant and talented and open to adventure, and is able to banter with Thomas – Marie is a little girl stereotype, and I don’t mean that in a good way.  She gets into life threatening danger not once but twice, while her brothers manage to remain unscathed and must be saved both times by Mr. O’Malley.  When they are walking to Mr. O’Malley’s “pad,” Marie is the only kitten being carried on Mr. O’Malley’s back.  At more than one point, she embodies the hopeless romantic stereotype and flutters her eyelashes with a sigh of, “how romantic.”  Now before anyone gets on to me for bringing this up, let me point that this film came out in 1970, after the women’s lib movement so it’s completely appropriate for discussion. 
            At least Marie gets in that really great line: “Ladies don’t start fights, but they can finish them!”  In fact, Marie is probably the only character of The AristoCats to have a life outside of the film.  For a while, merchandise that featured Marie was really popular.  She was the star of her own picture book and everything.  (http://www.amazon.com/Disneys-Marie-Kitty-Richards/dp/1423100581/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1289794768&sr=1-1).  There was even a planned animated series for The AristoCats that was supposed to be in the vein of 101 Dalmatians: The Series, but it never came to fruition (you can read the whole story here on JimHillMedia.com http://jimhillmedia.com/editor_in_chief1/b/jim_hill/archive/2008/02/05/toon-tuesday-disney-s-the-aristocats-the-animated-series.aspx).    
            While not as memorable as their canine themed predecessors, The AristoCats does prove to entertain with plenty of funny moments and one show stopping, toe tapping song and dance number.  I don’t even say which one I’m talking about, do I?
          But one of my favorite gags of the whole movie was the fact that a character named Roquefort entered with a cracker... you know, cheese and crackers?  Oh forget it.  I know some of you right now are thinking, “Hey Breanna, that sounds like the end.”  Well I’m the writer and I’ll say when it’s the end.
            It’s the end.


  1. I remember in the mid-'90s when this movie finally came to video. I had never seen it and really looked forward to it. I had the storybook as a kid, and I knew "Everybody Wants to be a Cat", but that was it. But when I finally saw the movie I was disappointed. There are a few clever lines or moments here or there, but I never REALLY feel like the kittens are their own personalities. They seem just lightly and broadly sketched. That works when you have 16 puppies to deal with but not here. The movie is very episodic, and sort of bland for me. There are a few nice humorous bits, particularly the dogs and Uncle Waldo. But there never seems to be any real sense of any drama here. It doesn't even reach the level of screwball comedy for me. Why are there jazz musicians there? Does jazz go back that far, and if it does, why are there American jazz musicians in 1910 Paris? I find Paul Winchell's cat here also disturbing on the level of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the voice really doesn't even fit the character.

    But the real trouble with this movie is that it makes no sense. The whole plot is that Edgar gets rid of the cats so that he will inherit her fortune instead of them. Now, leaving behind the absurdity of a fortune going to a cat, there are too many holes here. Edgar is to be caretaker until the cats die. So he basically still gets everything. Then he gets it all after that. Seem's a decent deal. But even if he wanted to get the cats out of the way, THERE WAS NO NEED TO DO IT IMMEDIATELY. Madame was still alive. Did he think she was gonna just suddenly rewrite her will? Why not wait for her to die, then kill the cats right away? Why not kill her first? And he doesn't EVEN kill them! There's no urgency to this plot at all. Plus, Edgar now loses everything because he made his move while she was still around.

    The Aristocats begins the dark times for Disney animation. For me, it ranks probably the third worst film in the canon, just above Saludos Amigos which is barely a movie, and Home on the Range which is even more nonsensical. I wanted to enjoy it and couldn't. And every time I put it in, I'm let down by it.

  2. I might be a little biased towards this movie. Especially since I'm not a cat person. Not that I dislike it, it's just not way high up on my list. Out of all the Disney movies I've seen I can't think of one I dislike. (However, there are a couple *cough* Home on the Range *cough* that I haven't seen yet.)

    Anyways, I'm so glad you brought up that George and Madam seem super close. When I was watching it, I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at their relationship. Seemed like more than friends to me.

    Poor Edgar. I put myself in his shoes and I gotta say I can't really blame him for what he did. I mean, if someone who I worked hard for gave their freaking entire fortune to their cats, I'd be pretty upset, too.

    I think one of the reasons this is not a big hit with me is because it contains what might be my least liked Disney character of all time. I can't help it, I just can't stand Marie. She seems very spoiled and whiny to me.

    However, there are some things that I do love about this movie. Most of it has to deal with Napoleon and Lafayette. I love them. "I'm the leader I'll say when it's the end...It's the end." That line always makes me laugh. I also love the British geese and their uncle.

    So while not one of the best, it still is an enjoyable enough movie. Plus, I always want to see if a dog can figure out what type of shoes I wear when I'm walking because of it.

  3. Put me down for another one who thought George and Madame had a little something going on. He's such a quintessential 'nutty old man' that watching him is a pure joy; he reminds me a little of the elder Mr. Dawes, the bank president in Mary Poppins, who needs six or seven good tries to step down off a step that's maybe four inches high.

    My favorite thing about this film was Napoleon and Lafayette. Every line out of their mouths is pure gold, and even their animation (Napoleon in that little bowler hat; Lafayette sleeping peacefully in the baby basket as it starts to rise into the air) is funny. "You're not going to believe this, but it's a one-wheeled haystack, headed this way!" It would be seriously cool if dogs really could figure out what kind of shoes you're wearing just from hearing you walk.

    Your depiction of Edgar at the Villains Meeting is priceless. It seems like Disney casts their villains into one of two types--those that can exist in our world, and those that can't. The most famous inevitably occupy the latter category--here you have your witches and sorcerers, taking animals and mythical creatures. Straddling the line between fact and fiction are those without supernatural powers of their own but so over-the-top that you're unlikely to run into them on the street (hello, Cruella DeVil!). And then there are those villains who are scary simply because they represent all that's wrong in our world (cruel parental/authority figures like Lady Tremaine or Aunt Sarah, poachers like Man and McLeach, ruthless loansharks like Sykes, bigots like Gov. Ratcliffe, etc.) And then you have Edgar. You'd want to stick him in this last category, but what seperates him from all the others is that while all of the others are legitimate threats, Edgar is a frustrated man who lives his work and reaches the end of his rope, culminating in a less-than-brilliant plan (not one of Disney's criminal masterminds at work here)that ultimately fails. Poor Edgar is just an epic fail on all levels of his life. An interesting departure for Disney.