The Aristocats is the first movie that was made entirely without Walt’s oversight. And it shows.
Without Walt, five of the famed “Nine Old Men” helped shape the film, which took four years and $4-million to make. On its release, it was both a critical and box office success, though time has treated it less well than others in the Disney canon.
The storytelling is slow, the language haughty and the characterizations exaggerated. It has not aged well and today it remains one of the more easily forgotten titles.
But, in 1970 film critics hailed it as evidence that the Disney company had not only survived Walt’s death, it had learned to thrive.
The New York Times called it “amusing, smoothly machined and beautifully coloured,” while noting “the animal characters with their human nuances are the main dish and delight, ranging from cute to hilarious, thanks to animation wizardry and flavoursome voice-matching.”
The plot’s most gaping hole is easily looked over in favour of the characters, it’s true. The plot focuses on a jealous butler who, upon learning that the household cats will inherit his boss’s vast fortune before him, sets out to dispatch them before the old woman dies, thus putting himself first in line for the money. Had he any sense, though, he would have simply waited for the old woman to die, the cats to inherit the fortune and then dispatch them without consequence.
Instead, the film follows very similar themes and story lines as One Hundred and One Dalmatians, with the kittens being stolen away from their home, meeting friends along the way and finding their way back again. It also contains strong elements from Lady and the Tramp, with a street-wise romper teaching a posh girl the ways of the world and falling in love at the same time.
This film marks a shift in Disney history as the company, now without its visionary, sputters toward the end of era. The trend lasted more than a decade, as the company lost some of the artistry that pushed the envelope of filmmaking it had come to be known for. But we’ll cover that in greater detail in future posts.
The Aristocats took many lessons from Walt, though, including hiring celebrity voices for key characters. The goose sisters, Abigail and Amelia, are voiced by Carole Shelley and Monica Evans, who played the sisters Cecily and Gwendolyn in the movie, TV and Broadway production of The Odd Couple. They also provide the voices of Maid Marian and Lady Cluck in Disney’s Robin Hood. Disney standby Bill Thomson plays their sauced uncle, his last of many roles for the company. He had previously lent his voice to Prince Hubert in Sleeping Beauty, The White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, and the long-standing voice of my personal favourite character: Droopy the dog. He died of a heart attack in July, 1971 at the age of 58.
Despite Walt’s passing, Disney continued to be a family and its artists still dedicated to producing art. But without Walt at the helm, the clear vision he had was lost. The quality of the animation in The Aristocats still excelled at the time, but it failed to pair well with dialogue and characterization, which in turn failed to pair well with plot points the studio had already clearly explored in previous projects.
The Aristocats was re-released in theatres in 1980 and 1987, then on VHS in 1996 on the Masterpiece Collection label. But “masterpiece” was never the best way to describe this film.