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Forgotten Disney #1: 'The Aristocats' (Blu-ray)

(I)t's the supporting players that turn everything from tolerable to borderline terrible.

The Aristocats

Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Cast: Phil Harris, Eva Gabor, Liz English, Gary Dubin, Dean Clark, Sterling Holloway, Roddy Maude-Roxby
Distributor: Walt Disney
Rated: G
Release date: 2012-08-21

Growing up, there was an ongoing schoolyard debate regarding the best cats in Paris movie ever made. On the one side was Warners weird Gay Purr-ee, a whimsical little piffle about a country cat who longs for the luxury of the big city. Once she arrives, however, she is immediately victimized by con artists and the cruelties of metropolitan life. Starring Judy Garland and Robert Goulet, it was a merry, if maudlin, little musical. On the other end of the spectrum was Disney's airy The Aristocats. Centering around a spoiled feline and her equally pampered children, its narrative focused on a rich owner, her unusual will, and the butler who will stop at nothing to get what he believes is rightfully his. Add in the typical House of Mouse concentration on song and ancillary character development, and you've got a ridiculous, half-baked romp.

In fact, it's interesting watching this film again as part of the company's continuing switch over to Blu-ray. The Aristocats has not aged well, but it's clear that it didn't have to suffer such a fate. There are moments of pure Disney magic here. There are also elements so hamfisted and hokey that they make little narrative sense. The main plot has prized cat Duchess (voiced by Eva Gabor) and her three precocious kittens - Berlioz, Toulouse, and Marie - living with the former diva Madame Adelaide Bonfamille (Hermione Baddeley). Fearing she is close to death, the owner drafts a new will, leaving her entire estate, worth millions, to her cats. Upon their death, it all reverts to the faithful butler Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby). This does not sit well with the weary valet. After kidnapping them all and dropping them off in the countryside, Edgar thinks he's won. Our frightened felines, on the other hand, are befriended by an alley cat named Thomas O'Malley (Phil Harris). He vows to see them safely back to Paris.

So far, so good. Standard Uncle Walt set-up and moviemaking. But it's the supporting players that turn everything from tolerable to borderline terrible. They almost suffocate the film. Take the pair of hound dogs Edgar must confront during his crime. Voiced by Green Acre's Pat Buttram and Hee Haw's George "Goober" Lindsey, it's like the entire production was hijacked and replanted in Jeff Foxworthy's back yard. How two redneck pooches ended up mere miles from the City of Light remains a mystery. A little of their cornpone shtick goes a long, long, way. Or what of aging attorney Georges Hautecourt. The film spends endless minutes enamored of his various oldster dance moves, going so far as to give him an overlong tango just to prove its point. Add in the last act arrival of a jazz loving cat collective, each speaking in stereotypical jive style, and you've got too many participants on a playing field that can barely contain them all.

Simultaneously, such padding argues for the frivolous nature of the main cast. Unlike other Disney "classics," Edgar is a horrible villain. He is not funny or frightening, just oafish and boring. Even at the end, when he is supposed to be desperate to do anything, he is constantly outwitted by a bunch of animals. Then there is Duchess, a mother without much meaning. She's concerned for her kittens, but has her head quickly turned by the roguish O'Malley. Gabor gives it a good try, but she is much better as Miss Bianca in the Rescuers films. Speaking of our mangy lead, Harris seems slightly disconnected here. He's not doing the broad, bravura Baloo ala The Jungle Book. Instead, he is supposed to be street smart, savvy and just a wee bit scared. Instead, he's going through the voice actor motions, maintaining a level of disengagement that's impossible to shake.

The result becomes a combination of classicism and claptrap, moments of pleasure peppered by equally long moments of nothing. The music claims even more valuable fun time. The songs suffer from being ballad bland, except for the hipster tunes, which take some of the schmaltz away. Harris does get a solo, but it's a weird name game track that gets more confusing as it goes along. And yet, there is something warm and winning about it all, a true belief that nothing here is purely preordained or crassly commercial. The Aristocats was one of the last films to be greenlit by Walt Disney himself (before his death in 1966). There is a wholesomeness present that would eventually sink the studio - at least until a certain Mermaid came along - and the animation is rough but relatively smooth.

Which brings us to the biggest problem facing this film - it's surrounding legacy. No, there are no behind the scenes gossip mongering, no controversy or scandal. Instead, The Aristocats has the dumb luck to be associated with the downfall of Disney animation, a late '60s/ early '70s lament that lists anything made during this time as inconsequential and subpar. Of course, this claims such true delights as The Rescuers and The Great Mouse Detective, as well as noble failures like The Black Cauldron. It's all just studio shorthand, a way to explain the company's mangled management style post-Walt while never taking full responsibility for the dumb decisions they made.

Unfortunately, The Aristocats does bear some of the responsibility. It's not on the level of the company's classics, but at the same time, it's not Oliver and Company. It has elements that work and work well. It also has time wasters and placeholders that test your patience and trite tolerances. Over the years, Gay Purr-ee has been pushed, by home video and revisionists, into a place of prominence, as the better cat in Paris product. The Aristocats puts up a good fight, but can't help but defeat itself in the end.


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