Friday, February 24, 2012

The AristoCats (1970)

          Walt Disney Productions’ first animated feature of the ’70s, The AristoCats is an old-fashioned charmer in the company’s classic tradition. Filled with amusing characterizations, bouncy songs, meticulous illustration, and unvarnished sweetness, this was the last animated feature authorized by Walt Disney himself, although he died before production began.
          Offering a feline twist on the studio’s canine classic 101 Dalmatians (1961), the picture takes place in 1910 Paris, where retired opera singer Madame Bonfamille lives with her cats and her seemingly loyal butler, Edgar. When Edgar discovers that “Madame” plans to leave her estate to her pets, he kidnaps the animals and dumps them in a remote field, starting the felines on a long journey home. Along the way, the cats bond with assorted critters who help the heroes foil Edgar’s scheme.
          As the title suggests, the main contrivance is that the cats inherited refinement from their owner. Thus, when feline matriarch Duchess (voiced by Eva Gabor) and her three kittens end up in adrift the world outside their stately home, they charm everyone they meet and discover the plebian pleasures enjoyed by vagabonds like Thomas O’Malley (voiced by Phil Harris), an alley cat who falls for Duchess.
          Although the vocal styles are a bit of a mishmash, with some performers speaking in European accents and others using American intonations, The AristoCats feels unified in the most important respects. The animals can only be heard speaking by other animals, and the choice of wildlife is germane to the story’s milieu.
          Moreover, the soundtrack entertainingly juxtaposes the faux-classical music of Madame’s world with the low-rent jump-and-jive of O’Malley’s environment. The movie’s centerpiece song, “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat,” is presented in an extended concert/party scene featuring O’Malley’s streetwise pal, Scat Cat (voiced by Scatman Crothers), and the sequence is an explosion of musical and visual energy with bright colors and dynamic graphics flashing in time with the music.
          Although that number was written by Floyd Huddleston and Al Riker, the best tunes in The AristoCats are those penned by songwriting siblings Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, of Mary Poppins fame. Their title song, performed over the opening credits by a droll Maurice Chevalier in the last recording of his life, and the Shermans’ character-defining song for Duchess and her kittens, “Scales and Arpeggios,” feature the brothers’ deft wordplay at its best.
          Gabor and Harris provide endearing vocal portrayals, as do the various character actors and children voicing the supporting roles, so even though the picture gets a bit carried away with peripheral comedy bits (like the frivolous scenes of Edgar battling a pair of pesky bloodhounds), The AristoCats is a winning exhibition of the beloved Disney style.

The AristoCats: GROOVY

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