One key flaw of Wolfgang Reitherman’s career as a director is his tendency towards repetition. Arguably his tendency towards repetition could sometimes be perceived as a flaw. Cheap jokes aside, Disney during the 60s and 70s had a tendency to reuse a lot of older material. An obvious example is the way that the character animation for Baloo in The Jungle Book was lifted wholesale into Robin Hood for Little John – they move in exactly the same way and are both voiced by Phil Harris. The backgrounds and colouration are different, but the keen observer can notice several other examples of reused movement and facial expressions throughout this era. However, The Aristocats is a kind of repetition (I won’t call it stealing as it’s the same studio and director) that should be unforgivable: it repackages the same old story that we’ve seen before (a combination of 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp) and changes very little to cover up the familiar plot. What’s worse is that it replaces dogs with cats, so it is immediately less sympathetic as we all know that cats are probably evil. It could be seen as laziness, and seeing yet another ‘animals returning home’ story could begin to feel a little dull.
Somehow, just somehow, The Aristocats matches its predecessors and manages to be as exuberant and as fun as them. It’s not quite perfect, but it is immensely charming nonetheless. The story is something you’ve seen before: a group of animals are kidnapped for the personal gain of a human (here it is a dimwitted butler standing to gain a large inheritance once the animals are out of the picture) and they have to make their way back to their human owners (here a lonely old lady with only her cats to love) with the help of a rascally street animal (Abraham de Lacey Giuseppe Casey Thomas O’Malley, O’Malley the Alley Cat). It’s almost as formulaic as the Princess story, but there’s just a lot less of these than Disney’s favourite genre. However, whilst there is a very specific structure that Reitherman reuses shamelessly, there is far more scope for interesting characters and events within the Homeward Bound style story than in the far more limiting Princess formula. So Pongo and Perdita from 101 Dalmatians are totally different to Duchess and her children, whilst Thomas O’Malley is much more musical than Tramp (although both are implied lotharios). So it’s not entirely a case of ‘seen it all before’ because Reitherman ensures a colourful cast of characters and a whole load of fun.
There’s a lot to love about The Aristocats, therefore, not least of which is the star character Thomas O’Malley, voiced by the ever excellent Phil Harris. He’s the kind of cat who haunts jazz attics and wanders the countryside befriending any animal he meets. Harris is such a recognisable, lovable voice that it’s always a pleasure to hear his mellow tones, particularly when put to a character as irascible as O’Malley. It’s also animated beautifully in the signature ’60s style of rough, sketchy lines and highly exaggerated character and vehicle animation. There’s not quite as much personality put into smaller details like their facial expressions as, say, Bambi or Dumbo but superior voicework ensures that they are all sympathetic, likeable protagonists. Also, the studio have finally rectified the troubling class politics of Lady and the Tramp. In that film, Tramp was forced to leave behind a life of freedom for one of luxurious, servile domesticity whilst his mongrel friends were left to die in what was supposed to be a happy ending. Here, however, although O’Malley stops being a street cat, all the fellow feral felines are welcomed into the mansion, too, and the film ends as one big party.
Yet the one sole reason that this film stands as classic, A-List Disney is simply down to one riotous, outrageous, curiously racist scene that makes you forgive the occasionally flabby pacing and overly familiar storyline. It is, of course, the showstopping musical number ‘Everybody Wants To Be A Cat,’ a stereotype-filled jazzy song about how great feline life is that is as bizarre as it is catchy. Thomas O’Malley leads Duchess and co. to a rather insalubrious pad inhabited by a multinational group of musical cats who show the kids how to party. We learn a lot during this sequence, such as realising that Duchess is a bit of a flirt and probably promiscuous. She flutters her eyelashes at all the mancats and seems excited by the concept of a group of ‘schvingers.’ Have you ever noticed that she has three kids from different fathers? Her contribution to the song is ‘if you vant to turn me on, play your horn…’ There’s also the joy of seeing cats from all over the world reduced to base national stereotypes. You’ll be agog at the Siamese cat’s broken english and references to egg foo yung.
Silliness aside, it’s a phenomenal piece of animation, a riot of colour and sound that’s definitely not Beethoven but it suuuure bounces. It starts off mellowly but with a springing beat, and when racist cat tells everyone to rock the joint, things seriously pick up as coloured lights change to the rhythm. The backgrounds become irrelevant, it’s all about colour and music and dancing and it is amazing. It ends with a piano crashing though the different levels of a tenement block before they take the song out onto the streets. This sequence is the culmination of the journey to the outside world, capturing the sense of exploration, of being taken into the unfamiliar. Gone is the gentility and predictability of Duchess’ home, where they learn arpeggios, play classical music and do painting. Instead, this is a far from gentle song that strips away all detail but is entirely about feeling and living. The physical journey of Duchess and the kittens is matched by an aesthetic and musical journey.
The Aristocats isn’t perfect, yet any complaints are nitpicking when you consider that really, deep down, everybody wants to be a cat because a cat’s the only cat who knows where it’s at. And that’s what matters, really.