THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘The Aristocats’

The one that started a new era.

The death of Walt Disney in 1966 left an indelible void at Walt Disney Productions. After Walt kept his lung cancer diagnosis a secret from those outside his immediate family, there were few in the studio who were fully prepared for life without their visionary leader. Many of Disney’s animators had worked side-by-side with Walt for several decades, leaning heavily on his guidance and direction to inspire their work. Without Walt, many were genuinely questioning if Disney could even continue to craft animation feature films at all.

It’s not hard to see why the animation department once again came achingly close to shutting down. When Walt stepped back from closely overseeing Disney’s animated productions in the early 1960s, those resulting films ultimately lacked the true Disney magic, particularly The Sword in the Stone. Many attributed the roaring success of The Jungle Book to Walt’s decision to take total control of the production. How could they possibly continue without the man who started it all?

After Walt’s death, his brother Roy took the reins as chairman, CEO, and president of Walt Disney Productions, promising to keep Walt’s dream alive, particularly the construction of the newly-named Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Roy was keenly aware of animation being Walt’s first true love and couldn’t fathom the idea of Disney ceasing production on future animated features. The choice for the studio’s first animated film without Walt at the helm went to the last project he personally approved before his death.

Way back in December 1961, Walt had commissioned his story team to craft animal stories to feature in a two-part live-action episode of his hugely popular NBC television program, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. After the success of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Harry Tytle and Tom McGowan were inspired to write a similar story featuring a family of cats in Paris as opposed to a pack of dogs in London. Now known as The Aristocats, the project went through several years of development hell before eventually being shelved in 1963.

In a pitch to save The Aristocats, Tytle had suggested to Walt the project may work best as an animated feature. However, the animation department were currently occupied with production on The Jungle Book and Walt was now only greenlighting one animated project at a time. As such, Tytle moved on to focus on other live-action projects at the Disney studio. Walt revisited the project in 1966 by assigning animator Ken Anderson to ascertain if The Aristocats would be a suitable animated feature to follow The Jungle Book.

Working with guidance from perennial Disney director Wolfgang Reitherman, Anderson carved out a simplified story and created preliminary sketches to present to Walt, who was struggling through the last months of his life. Shortly before his passing in December, Walt viewed Anderson’s draft script and artwork and gave the project his seal of approval. It was to be one of his final acts at the Disney studio.

In an effort to see his brother’s wish come to fruition, Roy approved production on The Aristocats to commence once work on The Jungle Book was completed, eyeing a Christmas 1970 release for the feline-focused project. Roy saw the potential value in another Disney animated feature starring a menagerie of adorable animal characters, hoping to mirror the success of earlier Disney films like Lady and the Tramp and One Hundred and One Dalmatians. At the time, European audiences strongly embraced Disney animated titles, so the idea of a Paris-based adventure seemed like a sure hit, particularly in France.

After seeing the results of The Jungle Book patterning character designs on the personalities of its voice actors, Roy instructed the animation team of The Aristocats to follow a similar path. Before his death, Walt had already earmarked Phil Harris, the man who brought Baloo to life, to play the role of lead male cat Thomas O’Malley. While the animation again echoed Harris’ persona, he based his performance on the suave nature of Clark Cable to help differentiate Thomas from Baloo.

Popular television actress and gossip column favourite Eva Gabor was cast as the lead female cat Duchess, with the glamourous feline perfectly matching Gabor’s famous sultry voice. Influential trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong was initially cast to voice Scat Cat, a trumpet-playing alley cat who was Thomas’ best friend and the leader of a gang of jazz-playing street felines. However, Armstrong fell ill and backed out of the project. Reitherman cast musician Scatman Crothers to voice the role, and, in an act of genuine desperation, instructed Crothers to imitate Armstrong. To this day, many still are fooled into the belief Armstrong did indeed voice the character, with Crothers’ startling accurate impersonation.

Anderson spent almost two years perfecting the character designs of the film with the assistance of several members of Walt’s “Nine Old Men.” Once again, the animation team utilised the Xerox photocopying technology to reproduce the animators’ sketches and keep production costs low. And, yet again, there are noticeable pencil marks evident in several scenes to create a final visual aesthetic without the sophistication of Disney’s earlier work. We again see the repetition of several pieces of animation to save on production time, with occasional moments copied entirely from 101 Dalmatians.

For the film’s jazz-heavy musical moments, Roy enlisted the talents of Oscar-winning songwriting brothers, Robert and Richard Sherman. However, the brothers were extremely close with Walt and began growing frustrated with the management of the studio following his death. As such, The Aristocats would stand as the final animated feature the brothers would work on until The Tigger Movie in 2000. The brothers composed numerous songs for The Aristocats, but only the title track and “Scales and Arpeggios” would make it into the final film.

In an effort to capture the true essence of France, Anderson was desperate for famed French cabaret singer Maurice Chevalier to perform the title track. There was just one slight problem; Chevalier had retired from performing in 1968. To persuade the singer to participate in the film, Richard Sherman recorded a demo of the song imitating Chevalier’s voice to highlight how he was the only choice to perform the song. To everyone’s amazement, Chevalier agreed and came out of retirement to sing the track. It would be the final song he would ever record.

For the film’s show-stopping number, performed by Scat Cat’s jazz band and featuring a colourful animated sequence where the entire feline cast dance together, the Sherman Brothers composed a track entitled “Le Jazz Hot.” To their disappointment (and partly why they soon left the studio), Reitherman instead chose “Ev’rybody Wants to Be A Cat,” a track composed by Floyd Huddleston and Al Rinker. The film’s instrumental score was composed by George Bruns, who was heavily influenced by the jazz music of the 1940s and featured the use of the accordion-sounding musette de cour to add a dash of French flavour.

As with most of Disney’s animated films of the 1960s and 70s, The Aristocats suffers from its lack of a genuinely menacing villain. The main antagonist is Edgar, a bumbling, jealous English butler, who, upon learning the cats of his madam stand to inherit her entire vast fortune, plots to eliminate the felines and keep the estate for himself. His scheme is rather foolish, given he simply sedates the cats and abandons them just outside of Paris, allowing them to easily return the very next day. Still, as far as jealous plots go, it’s up there with Maleficent and her lack of a party invitation.

Once again, there’s an uncomfortably outdated moment in a Disney film that needs to be addressed. Thankfully, this is the last one for some time. The performance of “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat” features a Siamese cat named Shun Gon, the “Chinese” member of Scat Cat’s band who plays the piano using a pair of chopsticks. Yep. That happens. The film’s poster refers to this character as “Oriental Cat,” with his character design featuring exaggerated teeth and squinted eyes. The role was voiced by white actor Paul Winchell, who performs the character with a painfully stereotypical and borderline racist Asian accent.

The performance is the film’s highlight, offering the most energetic and lively moment in the entire film, as well as the most imaginative and psychedelic animation work. It’s a shame it’s damaged by another unfathomable artistic choice that even seems outdated for 1970. In recent years, the segment has been rightfully denounced, with The Aristocats now featuring a disclaimer regarding its “outdated cultural depictions” on Disney+. However, the song has since become the most popular track from The Aristocats, leaving Disney with no choice but to eliminate the verse altogether for use in its theme parks and soundtrack compilations. Yes, Disney desperately attempts to pretend this moment never happened.

The Aristocats was released on December 24, 1970, to generally positive reviews from critics. The New York Times called it “grand fun all the way,” while Variety praised the film’s “outstanding animation, songs, sentiment, some excellent dialogue and even a touch of psychedelia.” The film was a surprise smash hit, grossing over $20 million in the U.S. to end the year as the 10th highest-grossing film of 1970. Unsurprisingly, it was the highest-grossing film of 1971 in France and still ranks as their 18th highest-grossing film of all time. It was also the year’s most popular film in both Britain and Germany, proving Roy’s theory European audiences would take to such a film.

While The Aristocats has waned in popularity over the decades (although adorable white kitten Marie has recently become a merchandising goldmine), it offered Disney a glimmer of hope they could continue producing successful animated feature films without their faithful leader. It set the formula for the decades ahead, with Disney now almost exclusively focusing on animated animal films for the next two decades. Walt may have been gone, but The Aristocats stood as the first example they weren’t quite cooked yet.

Is The Aristocats a Disney Classic? The Aristocats is not a groundbreaking film in any way, shape, or form, but it’s breezily entertaining enough to still provide an enjoyable viewing experience. But to call it a Disney Classic is perhaps a stretch too far.

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