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.
Chances are, if someone was to sing that to you, you would join in and sing along. That’s because The Jungle Book has one of Disney’s best and most iconic soundtracks, earning it a place as one of the best loved films from the studio. Although this song is the most famous – and rightly so, it’s infectiously joyous and carefree – the rest of the soundtrack is pretty great, too; ‘That’s What Friends Are For’ is a nice barbershop piece sung by some accentually confused vultures and ‘Trust In Me’ is dream-hauntingly sinister. Making a case for a place in the Top 5 Disney songs, however, is ‘I Wanna Be Like You,’ a toe-tapping scat fest that may just be as fun as the studio gets. It’s no wonder Baloo gets caught up in the rhythm. This soundtrack has made The Jungle Book enduring and gives it a jazzy tone that is irrepressible. It’s adventurous, funny and atmospheric.
Yet the appeal of the film is also down to one man who is worth examining when looking at this film, which comes right in the middle of his heyday. This man is, of course, Wolfgang ‘Wolfie’ Reitherman, one of Disney’s finest directors who was responsible for some of the studio’s most carefree, joyous films. His films in the Disney 52 canon are: 101 Dalmatians; The Sword in the Stone; The Jungle Book; The Aristocats; Robin Hood; The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh; and The Rescuers, although he was also on the animation team from almost all of the earlier films. He’s one of the most important people on the early Disney team, and as he was directing after Walt’s death (The Jungle Book is the first post-Walt film), there’s a sense of passing the baton to him as the main creative force behind the studio’s animated output. In The Jungle Book we see many of the hallmarks that made him such a brilliant director and gifted storyteller (even if I think 101 Dalmatians is his best).
Firstly, Reitherman had a distinctive visual style that separated his era of films from anything either side of it. Disney’s animation style went through different stages that can be loosely put into groups with a few anomalies along the way. The First Golden Age was lush and astonishingly detailed, with each frame filled with colourful art. The package films of the Forgotten Forties were a mixed bag of cheaper, simpler designs that have a more childish, comic-book look. Then there is the 1950s, a which doesn’t really have a distinctive look to it as each film tried something a bit different – Cinderella returned to Golden Age fantasy, Alice in Wonderland went for colourful absurdity, whilst Lady and the Tramp explored the possibilities of widescreen. Then in 1961 Reitherman took over as director with 101 Dalmatians and brought in a sketchy, jazzy aesthetic with rough lines, undetailed backgrounds and characters that made the most of the squash-and-stretch technique. He directed up until 1977 then in 1981 Disney entered a rather fallow period that left behind Reitherman’s style but lost some of his vibrancy along the way. The 90s saw what is known as The Second Golden Age, but I think Reitherman’s films can legitimately hold that title making this the third. These were characterised by beautiful colouring, experimentation with CGI and an exploratory, globetrotting sensibility that took in underwater worlds, provincial France and the plains of the Serengheti amongst others. Finally there is the CG period of the 00s that saw the phasing out of traditional animation for the lacklustre likes of Chicken Little.
In spite of all these periods having quite distinctive aesthetics, it is only the 60s and 70s that has the unifying factor of the same director across all the films. That’s how important and unique Reitherman is to the Disney 52 – for two decades he brought his style to the House of Mouse and left an indelible mark on the studio’s legacy. That’s not to say there isn’t variation within his films; The Jungle Book has a notably colonial visual style, rendering Kipling’s India with a kind of dreamy Orientalism that the author would have been proud of. The humid, hazy landscapes of Madhya Pradesh are straight out of late 19th, early 20th century colonial artwork, making the film visually alluring, but almost deceptively so. It drags you into its world but you know that none of it quite feels real. This is a far cry from the homely world of 101 Dalmatians or the mediaeval Britain of Reitherman’s Robin Hood and The Sword in the Stone, yet each of the films still undeniably carry his authorial stamp.
The Jungle Book also displays Reitherman’s knack for using his voice cast to great effect. The same old voice actors keep cropping up in each new Disney film, but under Reitherman’s direction they really feel married to their characters in a way that they hadn’t previously. Take the villain of the film, Shere Khan the tiger, as voiced by George Sanders: his deep bass drawl gives the character a terrifying nonchalance that was surely an influence on the choice of Jeremy Irons as Scar in The Lion King. Then, of course, there is the great Phil Harris as Baloo. That cheery, carefree voice was responsible for the enduring appeal of three of Disney’s great characters: Baloo; Thomas O’Malley; and Little John. It’s impossible to imagine any of the films without him. Each vocal performance feels perfectly matched to their parts, whereas previously they were a little more perfunctory.
Finally we come back to the music, such an essential part of The Jungle Book but also most of Reitherman’s other films. There are hints of it in 101 Dalmatians with ‘Cruella De Vil’ but it’s in this, his third film, that he truly unleashes his jazzy side. To then follow it up with brilliance of The Aristocats, which features the unforgettable ‘Everybody Wants To Be A Cat,’ shows the director’s knack for injecting massive doses of fun into his films through vibrant, catchy soundtracks. This approach had a lasting impact on Disney, and the beloved soundtracks of Disney’s ’90s output owes a huge debt to Reitherman’s films. The Jungle Book is one of his best, and captures everything that makes him such a talented director, namely that it looks great and sounds amazing.