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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Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Special Edition)

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Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) is possibly the “Spielbergiest” of all the titles in the exalted director’s filmography. It tells the story of several people who experience strange encounters and then set out on a quest to discover the truth about them. But what is it exactly that makes one film Spielbergier than another? Let’s consider this…

1. Fantasy/Sci-Fi Element
While Spielberg has always had a love for historical dramas (“The Color Purple,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Lincoln”), the name Spielberg still conjures images of giant sharks, alien visitors, dinosaurs, and mystical artifacts. I submit that a film with a fantasy or science fiction story is Spielbergier than one without, and “Close Encounters,” with its alien spaceship mystery, clearly qualifies.

2. Strong, Believable Characters
A Spielbergy story is propelled by, and elevated by, the characters. They feel real and relatable, and we don’t find ourselves waiting around for the next special effects sequence. The performances in “Close Encounters,” particularly by Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon, feel believable and naturalistic, and their characters are every bit as compelling as the effects.

3. Children in Danger
Spielberg regularly puts children directly in the path of whatever malevolent force is at work in his movies, be it the shark in “Jaws,” the creepy government agents in “E.T.,” or the dinosaurs of the “Jurassic Park” films. “Close Encounters” is no exception, featuring a toddler who is ripped from his mother’s desperate grasp and whisked away in a UFO.

4. Oohs and Ahhs
The quintessential Spielberg shot is “People Looking.” You know the one. The characters are frozen in awe. They stare at something amazing. The camera is low and either pulls in closer or pans from one person to the next. And there’s always an underlying tension; Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) summed this up perfectly in Spielberg’s “The Lost World” (1997): “Yeah, ‘Ooh, ahh!’ That’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and screaming.”

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People Looking

By the end of “Close Encounters,” the aliens’ motivations are still unclear. The Encounter is filled with both awe and tension. Would the aliens extend a hand in friendship or the business end of a death ray?

5. A Personal Connection
Perhaps the main reason “Close Encounters” feels so Spielbergy is the director’s long personal connection to the subject matter. Spielberg traces the origins of the story to his childhood when he viewed a meteor shower with his dad. Later, at age 17, he made a full length film about alien encounters, from which he recreated several sequences, and even specific shots, for “Close Encounters.”

The result is an incredibly rich film that connected with audiences despite being released in the wake of the first “Star Wars” craze. It is essential viewing for fans of science fiction, Spielberg, or generally any human who enjoys motion pictures.

Surprisingly, Spielberg was never quite satisfied with “Close Encounters.” His editing process had been cut short by Columbia Pictures when, on the brink of financial ruin and in desperate need of a hit, the studio insisted on rushing his alien movie to theaters in time for Christmas ’77. The move saved the studio, but Spielberg was left unhappy.

Enter the 1980 Special Edition. This redo was the result of a compromise between the studio and the director. Spielberg would get to tinker with the edit, adding a scene here and trimming a scene there, producing a cut that he was satisfied with. In return, he would create an all-new sequence for the ending, depicting the inside of the alien mothership, which the studio could tease in the marketing campaign for the film’s reissue (see the Special Edition trailer below). Spielberg later admitted this was a mistake, that it ruined some of the mystique of the aliens, and he removed the offending sequence from the third and final official version in 1998.

Thus, the 1980 Special Edition is widely regarded as the lousiest of the three extant versions, but aside from the superfluous ending, the other changes actually improved the pacing and character development, and in a film packed with memorable images, the Special Edition included a new one: the discovery of the cargo vessel in the middle of the Gobi Desert.

Whether you prefer the Theatrical Version, the Special Edition, or the Collector’s Edition is a matter of taste, but they are really only minor variations. The core of the “Close Encounters” story remains the same in all of them. You identify with the characters, you marvel at the aliens. As you watch, you become frozen. Your eyes are wide and your mouth is slightly agape. Perhaps more than with any of his other films, you feel the full impact of the Spielberg touch, which transforms his audience into his favorite shot.

Star Wars

Star-Wars-Movie-Poster-1977-originalSomehow I managed to not see “Star Wars” (1977) until I was in high school, sometime in the mid-90s. Even at that late date it, watching it for the first time was like receiving a blow to the head.

Here is a film that grabs you by the shirt collar and hurls you on an interplanetary adventure that is, above all, fun. And somehow it was plunked into the middle of the 1970s. Its closest cinematic relatives, the “Flash Gordon” serials, existed forty years prior, and by 1977, fun and adventure had all but disappeared from the movies. “Star Wars” can be credited for reviving them.

That begins to explain its importance in cinematic history. But why does it continue to connect with audiences? I grew up in the wake of its release, and my childhood was packed with fantasy adventure films that were inspired by it. If anything, it should have appeared dated, even slow-paced, by the time I got around to seeing it. Instead, it became one of my favorite films.

I think the reason has something to do with the film’s “used future” aesthetic. That is, it places us in a fully realized alien galaxy. Technology is worn and battered. Locations are dirty. Each alien has a unique culture. In the “Star Wars” universe, each object, each location, each character, and the galaxy as a whole, has a history. At each moment it teases the imagination with glimpses of these stories left untold.

“Star Wars” tells of how young Luke Skywalker left his family farm to pursue the legacy of his starship pilot father. This unfolds within the context of a galactic civil war, of which we only learn about obliquely. For all its expansiveness, “Star Wars” is indeed only a small “episode,” if you will, of a larger saga. It raises tantalizing questions. Who is the man behind Darth Vader’s mask? Who is the Emperor, and how did he come to power? What exactly happened to Luke’s father? What is Hyperspace? What was Alderaan like? Who is Jabba? And on and on.

Of course, the success of “Star Wars” resulted in sequels, comic books, novels, video games, TV series, encyclopedias, and databases that provide officially licensed answers to any question about any minor character, ship, or location. But what a magical time it must have been when all you had was your memory of this two-hourlong movie, your handful of action figures, and your imagination.

It’s no wonder so many fans felt personally betrayed by the prequel trilogy. They spent two decades dreaming up stories about Anakin Skywalker and the twisted Senator who rose to power and became Emperor. Even if it had been a competent motion picture it would have disappointed many fans, but its spectacular failure on the most basic levels sent a shockwave of despair through the nerd-space continuum.

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One small example: C-3PO, my favorite character from “Star Wars.” A sensible backstory for him would have included: 1) his manufacture, or at least the mention of his manufacture, by a galactic robotics corporation, 2) his original owner, who would have been a wealthy individual or business, i.e. someone who could afford cutting edge technology and who would have need for a protocol droid, and 3) the development of his persnickety personality as a result of this privileged lifestyle.

If we accept the existing plot of “The Phantom Menace” for the time being, it would have been much more satisfying for C-3PO to have been the property of Queen Amidala, or even the Trade Federation. In fact, one of the first characters we meet in Episode 1 was a protocol droid in the employ of the Neimoidians. What a perfect role that would have been for C-3PO, especially since he was the first character we meet in the opening scene of “Star Wars.”

Imagine that he somehow gets caught up in the Jedis’ escape from the Trade Federation and is dragged from his comfortable, climate-controlled ship on this adventure into space and onto the wild, dangerous, muddy swamps of Naboo. He would hate it, and complain endlessly, as he should. Then he would meet R2-D2 on the Naboo cruiser and learn something about bravery from him. Over the course of the film, 3PO would develop a repressed admiration for the little droid and we would see the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

As a bonus, C-3PO’s presence in the sidekick role would have completely eliminated the need for Jar Jar Binks.

But instead of this, C-3PO was built by a slave boy on a poor, remote desert planet. For some reason, the boy wanted to build an exact replica of a protocol droid. It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t capitalize on the character’s established traits. That’s the prequel trilogy in a nutshell.

We can hope that J.J. Abrams makes better use of his opportunity. Here again, the fans have been imagining the future of these characters for three decades now, and in very few months we will finally see the official story of what happened after the fall of the Empire.

So what will happen to 3PO? Well, he’ll be a 70-ish-year-old droid at this point. His hardware is probably obsolete. Newer protocol droids can probably translate 6 billion forms of communication and have sleeker designs with more fluid limbs that allow them to perform more tasks. Perhaps they’d be programmed to be more friendly and easy-going. This would infuriate 3PO even more. The antagonism between 3PO and his newer model could make a great comedic subplot.

I imagine the offspring of Han and Leia having varied reactions to him. One would be baffled, another would gush over his retro design. When the time came for their adventure, they might even consider leaving him behind. Their grandparents’ quaint robots are fine to keep around for nostalgic value, but on a dangerous mission they would be an encumbrance. But somehow or other, he’d get involved with the story and would eventually get a chance to triumph over his replacement.

We will see. One thing is certain: the endless stories thought up in the imaginations of countless moviegoers will continue for decades to come. All thanks to George Lucas and his silly space adventure film.