The AristoCats

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I recently watched Disney’s twentieth animated feature film “The AristoCats” (1970) and, strangely, I had a lot of thoughts and feelings about it. I hadn’t seen it in at least twenty years and a couple things stuck out to me right away: 1) the unpolished, I daresay sloppy, animation style, and 2) the way it wasted all of the dramatic and comedic possibilities of its premise.

For those who aren’t familiar, “The AristoCats” is about an elegant Parisian house cat (Duchess) and her three pampered kittens who get catnapped by an evil butler and deposited in the French countryside where they meet an alley cat (Thomas) who helps them find their way back to Paris. You can imagine the conflict already between a snobbish Duchess and a streetwise Thomas. Unfortunately for the story, Duchess is not a snob. She’s not bothered by meeting an alley cat. She not even really bothered by their predicament. It’s as if the writers were more interested in making Duchess likable, and making the story seem safe and happy, than in creating memorable characters with dramatic conflict.

The story could have played out like “It Happened One Night” with cats. In that movie, the rich, spoiled brat has to make her way to New York City without being caught by the agents of her wealthy father. She lacks all common sense and would either be captured or starved to death if not for the aid of the street-savvy newspaperman, whom she, of course, initially detests. Imagine the relationship between Duchess and Thomas starting out like this:

  • When they meet, Duchess is disgusted by Thomas’s smelly fur and coarse behavior. She insults him and he leaves after getting in a few insults of his own.
  • The kittens get in some kind of danger, Duchess calls for help, and Thomas returns, saving the kittens. Duchess realizes she needs help if they’re going to get home safe.
  • She tries to hire him as a guide, promising him, say, a lifetime supply of milk when they reach their home in Paris. Thomas is re-offended, tells her she could have just asked for help (this is straight out of “It Happened One Night”), but he’s hungry enough to accept the terms.
  • Now you have a slob and a snob, forced by circumstances to be together. This establishes a conflict, a potential for character growth, and is a natural set-up for a comedic love story.
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Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, “It Happened One Night” (1934)

Giving the main characters some personality flaws also makes it easier to laugh at them. In the actual film, Duchess and Thomas are blandly likable and unfunny. If she were a snob, then it would be humorous to see how she would react to, say, falling into a muddy lake, having a flea jump on her, or having to sleep on the ground. And you can imagine a running joke about Thomas’s aroma, and how the kittens, especially the imperious Marie, might react to it. I’m imagining a remake with the youngest kitten, Berlioz, voiced by Anthony Quintal, giving Thomas tips on his appearance. But since the characters are lacking, the humor in the film has to come from other sources, like a dog biting a man on the butt.

The forgettable story and characters could have been mitigated by some beautiful animation that captured the elegance of Paris and the rustic beauty of the countryside. Sadly, the animation in “The AristoCats” is messy. It needs to be put in context though. We have to go back to 1959 when Disney released “Sleeping Beauty.” When you watch “Sleeping Beauty” you notice how crisp and sharp it looks. It resembles contemporary animation much more than the Disney features that followed it in the next two decades. This clean look is achieved by taking the animator’s rough sketches and painstakingly tracing them onto new sheets of paper, minus all of the animator’s stray marks. Those pages were then overlaid with animation cels and another artist would trace the cleaned-up drawings onto the cel using ink.

That attention to detail was tremendously expensive though. In the 1960s and 70s, Disney learned it could save time and money by using some technical trickery (xerography) to transfer the animators’ rough sketches directly onto animation cels. While this innovation saved the Disney animation studio (it likely would have been shut down otherwise), the resulting animation is riddled with stray marks and fuzzy edges. It looks unfinished. And cheap.

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Some say this is intentional, that it reflects the flazéda attitude of the 60s and 70s, as well as the thematic material in Disney’s films of that era. This is not a bad argument. Consider “The Sword in the Stone” (1963). It shares the Medieval setting of “Sleeping Beauty,” but their worlds are seen from starkly different perspectives. “Sleeping Beauty” tells the story of a beautiful princess and a handsome prince whose perfect lives are upheaved by an evil fairy. The crisp and clean look of the film emphasizes the perfection of the characters and their kingdom. “The Sword in the Stone” is about an awkward orphan boy, nicknamed Wart, who thinks his only talent is for screwing things up until he meets a wizard who teaches him to see his own value. Wart’s world isn’t perfect, and neither is he, and the rougher animation style seems to fit his hardscrabble existence.

I’d also agree that the xerographed animation could be appropriate in films like “The Jungle Book” (1967) and “Robin Hood” (1973), which are both essentially about a bunch of hippies who live in the wilderness. A rough and scrappy visual style is appropriate for their stories too.

Now consider “The AristoCats.” Here, the rough, and at times downright sloppy, xerographed animation doesn’t fit so well. The whole point is that these characters are aristocrats who live a perfect, glamorous life. For Pete’s sake, Maurice Chevalier was hauled out of retirement to sing their theme song. Their home in Paris and all the characters there should look every bit as crisp and clean as Sleeping Beauty’s castle, establishing a contrast between the beautiful world they come from and the harsh reality they’re exiled to.

Instead, the unfinished animation, with its errant marks and scribbled lines, makes all the characters look dirty and scruffy. If the film were called “The AlleyCats” and focused on Thomas and his gang, instead of Duchess and her kittens, then the animation style might work. But as it is, it makes you question not only the level of care put into this film, but whether the xerography in past films was truly intentional or just a lazy shortcut.

So, here is a film with a great premise that was never realized to its full potential, dramatically or artistically. Since everything in the world is getting remade and rebooted, I suggest upgrading “The AristoCats” since it’s one that could actually benefit from a retelling.

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