Friday, January 6, 2012

DATE Night: The Aristocats

Start the car. I know a whoopee spot.
Now that we've left the jungles of India (hopefully sans any exotic diseases) of two hundred years ago with The Jungle Book, we're going to spend our DATE Night a century later in France seen through the filter of swingin' sixties jazz. So pack away the mosquito netting and pull out your shades and upright bass, cuz we're about to get down. Solidly outside of the second golden age of Disney animation at this point, we see a lot of the trends that will come to define this awkward period in the canon having really entrenched themselves. If the first golden age was "Aw, look at what a beautiful and smart baby you are!" and the second golden age is "Aw, look at what a beautiful and smart young child you've become!" (with the package films of the forties being that short, weird, chubby phase in-between that is quickly outgrown), then this is now the awkward teenage-like period where the films are trying to make sense of who they once were and who they are going to be while concurrently trying desperately to exist on their own terms. It's not always pretty. The third golden age will be the "Aw, look at what a beautiful and smart adult you've grown into!" But that's almost twenty years away. For now, we get to watch the adolescent growing pains of the Disney animated feature continue with number twenty. The Aristocats.

The Background:

En Francais, bien sur.
So The Jungle Book was a rousing success and as the first animated feature released after Walt's death / final one that he worked on directly, it set quite a high bar for the studio to match after the loss of their leader. Collaborators who had worked on the last few films, including director Wolfgang Reitherman, composer George Bruns and songwriters the Sherman Brothers helped shape this next film, The Aristocats. The film was an original story that was intended to be made as a two-part live-action Wonderful World of Disney TV movie. Walt felt that it would be better suited to be an animated feature and so approved work to start on it after The Jungle Book had wrapped, not knowing at the time that he would not be around to oversee the project.

The studio moved ahead with The Aristocats, which was released three years later in 1970, as the first post-Walt animated film. (While we're at it, I wrote a guest blog post for the fully awesome This Happy Place Blog called "The Blessing and Curse of WWWD" that explores Disney's shift in creative philosophy after the loss of Walt. Please check it out!) While it did not set the world ablaze, it was not an abysmal failure either. Critics weren't terribly enthusiastic at the time of its release, but audiences still came and it was re-released into theaters twice during the eighties. It also did well overseas and was a big hit in France. (Duh.) History, however, has not been terribly kind to the movie, which has earned a reputation as rather derivative and mediocre if not downright forgettable film with a devoted group of supporters (Apparently Snoop Doggy Dogg, who proclaims, "Ya don't like this movie, stay outta my tilt" is among them. Tres eloquent, Snoop.) rather than one of the top-tier animated classics. A sequel was planned and then scrapped and the characters, mostly meaning Marie, show up here and there in the parks and merch. 

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 14: The Aristocats. Seems like a mashup of elements of "Lady and the Tramp", "101 Dalmatians", and "The Jungle Book". There are lovely little moments but on the whole it's the law of diminishing returns. It seems like the superior Disney artistry and storytelling are fading. I am a sucker for cute kittens and Eva Gabor, but once again, I liked this one and didn't love it.
February 12, 2010 at 1:18pm ·

The Art:

Lovely background work.
6/10. The Aristocats is much more artistically sound than I remember it being. Though I'm still not a huge fan of the rough and sketchy Xerox look that has become a staple of the Disney animated films (and sometimes becomes rather distracting in places like Madame Adelaide's white hair, which has so many stray markings it sometimes looks like an alien is trying to devour her head), I am accepting it and trying to look at the film on its own terms beyond that. There is much to admire here. I love the moment at the opening where Toulouse throws paint of a canvas and, as it drips, it becomes the landscape we enter. The backgrounds are lovely and reminiscent of 101 Dalmatians, but less abstract and with a watercolor flavor. The character animation and designs are all very strong, as is the effects animation in places such as the lightning and water. I love the moment where you see Madame in the window, waiting for her cats to come home to her, and it looks like the house is crying as well. The use of color, light and shadow are impressive in moments like the attic cum jazz club's Tiffany lamp psychedelic colors, the silhouettes of Duchess and O'Malley giving way to the Paris skyline, or the yellow light from the window illuminating the car near the end of the film. There are wonky bits, like the weird, flat feel of the moments when the cats are walking with the geese (where was the multiplane camera, guys?) or the very Looney Tunes dollar signs in Edgar's eyes, but overall, there is a pretty strong, creative aesthetic voice at work here.

The Story:

Yeah, yeah. That's cute and all, but...
5/10. The biggest flaw in the movie is the fact that it has no idea what it wants to be as an original animated feature. Instead of finding its own unique voice (it's fascinating to imagine a version that looks to the period and time of France in 1910 for inspiration), it borrows elements that had been successful elsewhere without considering that they worked because they sprang organically from the story and creative process in the first place. We borrow the story of a pair of romantic pet leads where she is fancy and he's more rough and tumble from Lady and the Tramp. We lift the jazzy elements, Phil Harris (Baloo), and his unique persona from The Jungle Book. Then we throw in a plot where the animals are stolen and must find their way home from 101 Dalmatians. It's a matter of these outside forces dictating the story rather than inform it. The movie even purloins itself in the end when it turns the final moments into an excuse to abruptly reprise of it's showiest number and bring characters back as if in a curtain call.

...this is what I call a super fan. Wowza!
To make up for the lack of a unique, strong narrative, the film was padded with lengthy chase scenes that have nothing to do with the central story arc involving the cats, musical production numbers that feel as out of place as they do fun, and story tangents that stop the plot cold rather than move it along. Why do we follow the geese for what feels like forever? Why do we need two motorcycle chases with the hounds and Edgar? Sometimes the side trips are pleasant, but they do absolutely nothing but distract from the reason why we're there. Walt had a good eye for fat that deserved to be trimmed. Remember that he cut a nearly completed soup-eating scene from Snow White that was charming as heck but slowed the story and it's that kind of editorial perspective that was sorely needed here. The movie certainly tests your ability to suspend disbelief. How can the authorities be so baffled over the missing felines when the very day that Madame Adelaide's will was written, leaving Edgar her fortune if anything happens to the cats, something happens to the cats? Edgar would be the first person you would confront. The whole premise doesn't hold up under even gentle scrutiny.

That being said, there are some strong moments to be found. The opening credits sequence with the bare bones animation and theme song is fun and the end title bopping one of the hounds in the head makes me chuckle. I love the moment when the man in the cafe dumps his wine out after seeing the cats hustle past him, as if he believed that they were an alcohol-induced hallucination. And the major triumph is that when they stick to the story of the cats, they really do a beautiful job of storytelling. Despite all of the distractions, you still really get invested in the story of these core characters that you have totally fallen for. You want them to get home, root for the love story, and are scared when they are almost hit by a train. The problem is that while the magpies on the creative team got taken with all of the shiny things they were inserting to add interest, they were really just making you wish they would get back to the part of the story that you actually give a rat's behind about.

The Characters:

They all kept their eyes closed so they could
submit this to Awkward Family Photos.
6/10. The characters in The Aristocats are frustratingly uneven, though they are all animated quite well with a lot of skill and emotion. Let's start with the good, shall we? The characters at the center of the story, the cats themselves, are dimensional and endearing. The studio continues wisely to use children to voice the little ones and each of the three kittens is so adorable that you just want to take it home and cuddle it. Eva Gabor's voice alone brings a regal yet kind quality to Duchess that contrasts well with the charming, lackadaisical O'Malley, even though it's essentially the same performance that Phil Harris gave as Baloo. It's a classic case of opposites attract. Many of the supporting characters are wonderful as well. Sterling Holloway brings his usual magic to the role of Roquefort. Watching him, there were a lot of collective squeals filling the apartment regarding how sweet, loyal and adorable he is. Madame is appropriately fancy but warm and her elderly but spritely lawyer Georges made me laugh out loud with some great physical humor. All of the O'Malley's stray cat buddies are good times, even if they end up dipping their toe into the realm of racially insensitive. Their leader, Scat Cat, was originally slated to be played by Louis Armstrong, who backed out before recording began and was replaced by Scatman Carothers, who does an admirable job in the role.

I'm on the other end telling him what a lame villain
I think he is. Sorry bout it.
Now we come to the not-so-good. The hounds and the geese may pull us too far from the story, but they have fun banter and are pleasant to watch. I just wish it had been in short subjects, out of the context of this movie. The fact that they are wasted here speaks more to the fact that the filmmakers were having a lot of story issues than a lack of mastery on the animators' and performers' parts. They are rendered well though they are absolutely unnecessary. The weakest character by far is our villain, Edgar. He's not enough of a bad guy. He feels so wishy-washy that you never really see a spark of danger in him and without that you undermine the stakes of the whole story. It doesn't help that a large chunk of his screen time is swallowed by the peripheral hound chase scenes. I may even go as far as to say that he may get my vote for the weakest villain in a Disney animated classic. Ho hum.

The Music:

Paint + Piano = Hijinks!
6/10. The songs in The Aristocats are a mixed bag. The Sherman Brothers provided a number of them for the film, most of which went unused, which is the flip side of The Jungle Book, where they were brought into replace all but one of Terry Gilkyson's original songs. (I guess turnabout is fair play, eh?) They coaxed Maurice Chevalier out of retirement to sing the title number for the opening credits and it proved to be his final recording before he passed in 1972. The song is also quite charming and sets the tone well, as does their charm number "Scales and Arpeggios", which serves to endear the characters to you (and which I have a soft spot for because it used to be a standard warm up at one of the youth theaters I performed with). If the entire score had been in this vein, it would have made for a more cohesive film, certainly, but it seems that they wanted to make room for chase scenes and, entertaining as they may be, out-of-place showcase numbers. Watching the DVD, there was a special feature highlighting the (mostly) cut number "She Never felt Alone", which gave emotional weight to the relationship between Madame Adelaide and the cats. It's a moving song that focuses on how special their relationship was, making the stakes of needing to return to her higher. It's exactly the kind of thing that the flimsy story could have used more of.

Those colors! Groovy, man!
There are two other big numbers in the movie. The first is "Thomas O'Malley Cat" by Terry Gilkyson, who also wrote "The Bare Necessities". Meant to provide a statement of character, it is obviously an attempt to capture the magic of The Jungle Book number by reuniting songwriter and performer, and ends up feeling like a throwaway retread in both construction and execution. The second is the showstopper "Ev'rybody Wants to be a Cat" by Floyd Huddleston and Al Rinker. The psychedelic, swinging, Dixieland jazz number is odd, from left field and over the top, but is also so much fun that you absolutely have to forgive its flaws. It also does a better job of establishing who O'Malley is than the song that's named after him, though it comes late in the game. It also shows that Duchess is not as high-toned as she sometimes seems when she contributes her own lovely b-section, which was sung by uncredited studio singer Robie Lester, who was one of the go to girls on the Disneyland storyteller records back in the day. It is made clear that the romantic leads and the three kittens fit together as a cohesive unit by letting them all participate in a song with one overriding musical voice. Duchess and the kittens can belong in his world.

I heart Roquefort. That is all.
The score is once again by George Bruns, who is pretty much brilliant. I have been playing the soundtrack to the movie over and over again and have been mostly impressed by how diverse and yet consistent his score is. The sounds go from Dixieland to French cafe to frug to classic film score, all completely in support of the story that's being told. The score signals flirtation, danger, sadness, joy and everything in between and it's all filtered through the sixties-ish George Bruns sound that I have come to adore from him over the course of the last few films and my recent obsession with the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair. His work here is almost better than the movie deserves and often makes sequences play better than they really should (cough***chase sequences***cough).

The Gay Scale:

I wish I know how to quit you, Lafayette.
5/10. For a film that takes place in France, there is precious little in this film that is terribly gay. Huge missed opportunity if you ask me. There is that odd Brokeback moment between Napoleon and Lafayette, but that's really stretching it. The majority of this rating is thanks solely to the presence of a Gabor in the film. Eva Gabor is no doubt a minor gay icon (even if we still get her confused with Zsa Zsa now and then) and her performance as Duchess is in the Auntie Mame tradition here. The Hungarian actress' delicious accent and distinctly musical voice are like (teehee) catnip to a queer audience who has loved her since she played a diva gone country in the Green Acres TV show. She is the kind of sweet, kind, gorgeous, refined, eccentric, caring, artsy, with-it mother figure that gays long for. I can't say I would be shocked if either Berlioz or Toulouse turns out to be light in the loafers.

The Bottom Line:

Get down witcha bad self, gurl.
6/10. The law of diminishing returns has really taken effect and this film feels like a rehash of several past movies, cherry-picking elements from 101 DalmatiansThe Jungle Book, and Lady and the Tramp, throwing them into a blender and hoping that the concoction they end up with is palatable. Luckily for them, there is enough charm and fun to keep this movie from being a disaster. Sadly, it never really rises much above mid-level Disney animated fare, despite its sense of innocuous joy. This movie really hammers home the fact that the studio was not reaching for what is new, different and untried, but rather reaching backwards and reusing elements from before. It is a dangerous trend for a company built on the foundation of innovation. Despite this lack of freshness, especially in the story department, the fun characters and performances, breezy music and jazzy score that overcome being (for the most part) out of place in early-1900's France, and charmingly sketchy and colorful artistic look make this fun to watch and keep its head above the waters of glaring failure. I certainly enjoyed this more than I did watching it a year ago, but I can't say I count myself as a member of the Aristocatic party.

The Miscellanea:

I have been rather surprised of late to see so much of Marie in the parks. She is all over France in Epcot especially, which strikes me as odd since there is a bonafide French princess, who I would expect to dominate the area, in Belle. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I think Marie is adorbs and like seeing less obvious characters in the parks and merch. I have come to find out that her resurgence is thanks to the Japanese, who have a predilection for all things cute. (They are also the ones to thank for the rebound of the Orange Bird, who has become somewhat of a hero to me. So thanks, Japan!) As I mention all the time, I love a good character encounter and this video of Marie in France at Epcot just makes me giggle. It helps to answer the burning question, "What exactly do the characters do when the park is slow and there's no one to greet?" The surprising answer may well be that they bust a move, which in this case is completely appropriate based on the "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat" number from the film. Meow, gurl. Me-ow.

In this video, Phil Harris and Scatman Crothers reminisce about The Aristocats for 1978 TV special in honor of the 25th anniversary of The Wonderful World of Color/Disney. They were and will always be two of the coolest cats who ever lived and it's really lovely to see the easy way that their repartee fires back and forth. And I'm not gonna lie. Phil Harris reminds me a lot of a jazzy version of my country music loving dad, who I have come to really appreciate of late. This whole clip warms my soul.

This is a remix somewhat in the vein of the ones done by Pogo, which I shared in an Odd Disney World entry a while back. It's called "Feline Good" and is quite good. It doesn't have the same haunting, creepy quality that really sets Pogo's arrangements apart. It's more like a really fun dance remix of "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat". Well done, sister suffragette.

Of course "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat" is the song from the movie that is most often covered. This is a fascinating take on the song by the Tiffany Ensemble. It's got a more classical bent to it and is quite impressive.

This version is very interesting. It is by a group called Psapp, who you may know as the band who does the theme music from Grey's Anatomy. It's quite good, with a trippy arrangement, sultry female vocal, and more chilled out vibe.

This cover is by a group called The Boop Sisters. I can't find much about the group online, but this is like the Andrews Sisters singing "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat" in Italian at a supper club during the forties accompanied by a big band. I believe there's also either a child or a member of the group that imitates one well thrown into the mix. It's pretty much fully awesomesauce.

This weird cover of "The Aristocats" is from a non-Disney children's album on the Happy Times label called The Aristocats and Purr-ty Pussycat Songs. It's performed by a nameless pair of singers accompanied by keys, drums, and a random wah-wah guitar. It's very odd, but upbeat and strangely compelling.

So do you think that The Aristocats is a descent further into the murky waters of mediocrity or buoyant like a pair of those orange water wings they used to make you wear when you hadn't learned to swim yet and made farty noises as you squeezed them up your arms? Did you find it charming or derivative? Do you want to be a cat like ev'rybody or are you more of a dog lover? Next up on our DATE Night, we'll head into the forest of Nottingham for Robin Hood. Please wear comfortable shoes so that if we have to run away from flying arrows I'm not stuck fashioning a tourniquet out my shirt to stop your blood loss. I would probably do it wrong anyhow. What? You thought you were out with a boy scout? Sorry, love.

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