By 1970, the golden age of Disney animation had been dead for years.

No one told The Aristocats.

Crafted in a vain effort to channel a combination of magical properties in the Disney Vault, specifically including Jungle Book (1967), 101 Dalmatians (1961), and Lady and the Tramp (1955), the film has the look and feel of nostalgia. Indeed, Aristocats is the final film Walt Disney actually signed off on prior to his death in 1966, reuniting a few reliable animators, writers, and voice actors for one last charge. As a result, the effort combines familiar boisterous characters, toe-tapping songs, and exotic settings, but to uneven effect, like an end-of-night toast among drunken retirees, celebrating their long-past glory days, around the piano.

The story – apparently the first at Disney, other than Fantasia, not to come from some earlier folkloric or literary antecedent – is not especially compelling. Some high-rent cats, including the mother cat Duchess (Eva Gabor) and her three kittens, are kidnapped by a jealous butler Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby), who refuses to wait for the cats to die to inherit the estate of his retired opera singing dowager employer. They are dumped in the countryside to perish, and are discovered by a dashing American-in-Paris ruffian O’Malley (Phil Harris, effectively reprising his charmingly effective Baloo from The Jungle Book), who returns them across the countryside to Paris and introduces them to his down-scale bohemian ragamuffin band (who seem to squat in Montmartre if I get my loose cartoon geography right). A climactic sequence sees the rescue of the cats from the villain, with the help of the quasi-narrator, the mouse Roquefort (Sterling Holloway), and romance wins the day.

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Figure 1: Eva Gabor’s Duchess the Cat is no fool and plays Phil Harris’ Thomas O’Malley purrrrfectly

Song over Pictures: Disney’s Last Great Musical Push

The look and feel of the film are coherent and compelling, if not memorable. The weighty costs of hand-crafted animation were now fully recognized by Disney business front office. Frame-by-frame art, which put the studio on the map starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), had been supplanted at this point by “limited animation”. Here static backdrops and repeated background stock would provide a kind of projected scrim, against which more lovingly-drawn characters move and interact. In The Aristocats this works pretty well (making the best of this would become the hallmark of the era – see review of Watership Down). The backgrounds here are sketches, but take creative forms of homage to Impressionism, painter’s early drafts, and quasi-realist, water color images of Paris.

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Figure 2: Paris is rendered abstractly but lovingly in The Artistocats’ “limited animation”

In front of these, frolic some well-realized and iconic figures, often drawn in the abstract likeness of their voice actors (a tradition that lives on at Disney and Pixar to this day). Perhaps the only real joyful fun in the film in this regard comes from a couple of country dogs, who harass the villain as he flees on his motorcycle, and are strangely voiced as… American hillbillies.

Specifically, the butler has his ass bitten by none other than Pat Buttram (the voice of Napoleon) and George Lindsey (the voice of Lafayette). Readers among my generational contemporaries will remember Buttram as Mr. Haney (a crossover character from both Petticoat Junction and Green Acres) and Lindsey as “Goober” Pyle (from The Andy Griffith Show, Mayberry RFD, and Gomer Pyle USMC). These two took a few days off from Hee Haw, apparently, to inject a lively American pratfall or two into this otherwise turgid affair, and their banter benefits the cartoon enormously.

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Figure 3: Pat Buttram’s Napoleon and George Lindsey’s Lafayette might have been pulled straight from Saturday morning cartoons, but they do their job admirably

And that such side-shows are memorable at all is because the strength of the film is not in its script, but instead, its songs. Disney would not make another memorable musical for two decades, but Aristocats sends the tradition off into its quiet senescence with a rousing book and score.

The music is really catchy. I have been humming these tunes, as it turns out, for over 40 years, without having seen this film in as long. The “Thomas O’Malley Cat” song is the kind of swinging theme we all wish someone had written for our own names. “Scales and Arpeggios” takes full advantage of competent child actors and sets the scene terrifically well. And “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” (with words and Music by Floyd Huddleston and Al Rinker) is among Disney’s most recognizable songs.

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Figure 4: Scatcat’s band owes more to 1969 London than 1910 Paris, but they swing all the same

1970s Animation and the Twilight of Racist Caricature

Efforts to render the animated characters on the other hand, especially the minor players, as likeness of the actors or stereotypes of their origin, is a dangerous game, no matter how well-meaning.

Disney learned this, of course, in the brilliant but troubled representation of apes in The Jungle Book, only a few years before, which carried a troubled racial signature. In a sense, they got away with that disturbing effort because of the perfect and charming power of the music itself; “I Wan’na Be like You”, written by Robert and Richard Sherman (best known for Mary Poppins), is jazz romp, among Disney’s finest. Still, Jungle Book is marred all these years later, as seen through contemporary eyes.

Here, the effort seems more nervous, less self-assured, like something was nagging at the animators in their efforts to revive what was basically a dying tradition. Specifically, O’Malley’s scraggly bohemians include an Italian, a Russian, a black American… and an Asian pianist.

For the most part, the voice acting is a little forced in this regard. Vito Scotti’s “Peppo” (the Italian Cat) maybe gets one line, but he’s no sillier than any other in the career of Scotti’s characters, including his “mama mia!” role as the mayor of New Caledonia on McHale’s Navy and his truly odd Italian mad scientist, who reprises his appearance twice on Gilligan’s Island.

Perhaps learning their lesson from Jungle Book, moreover, the band leader Scatcat (wonderfully voiced by Scatman Crothers) who leads the “Everybody Wants to be a Cat” number, is rendered in largely non-racialized imagery, at least to my eyes. With his stocky build, the cat almost seems to eschew Crothers lean frame.

But the old playbook can’t be entirely transcended. Shun Gon, the “Chinese” Cat, is truly cringe-worthy. Playing the piano with chopsticks and singing through buckteeth, he reminds us that even after the step-and-fetch-it black characters had been quietly removed from Hollywood screens, the grossest Asian caricatures remained in the  1960s. Mickey Rooney eventually apologized for his Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), but that was a work from a decade prior. Shun Gon has only a brief moment on screen, but I certainly would feel obligated to discuss it should I ever show the film to my son.

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Figure 5 : Shun Gon, the cringe-worthy and racist caricature of a “Chinese Cat”, voiced by ventriloquist Paul Winchell, stopped me dead cold, more than 40 years after seeing him as a child

In a sense, this brief moment reminds us that 1970 was the ebb tide for the worst of racist animation in America, but not its end. Bear in mind that The Aristocats was actually re-released in 1972, when I saw it in the theaters, in a double bill with nothing other than the notorious Song of the South (1946), a film worthy of a grim review here… perhaps later.

This, with all its other elements, makes the film an interesting transitional artifact, between old Disney and new Disney, between traditional craft animation and its pre-digital decline, dimly illuminated by the twilight of musicals, in the the early dawn of the 1970s. That makes The Aristocats of far more interest to me, I’d guess, than to my son.

My enjoyment of this feature: Good.

Chances that Alexander will enjoy this film: Fair.

Note: A first publication of this essay definitely misread the racial signature of Jungle Book’s King Louis, but the key song, with its monkeys, their jive, and the untroubled exposition of the sequence, still mar that film’s remarkable achievements. Thanks to my good friend Lucretia.