Thursday, April 30, 2020

Walt Disney, part XXV: Catnap


Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman

Spoiler alert: moderate

Ever since we arrived at the Xerography Era of Disney, I've called it ugly and gross, and I've wondered, a little, if I'm being too hyperbolic, and if I'm really just taking out my frustrations with the Disney films of the 60s and 70s—which, after all, have much deeper and more fundamental problems than just their scratchy, wobbly animation—on a convenient target.  I mean, I know I am: they're not like looking Medusa square in the face or anything.  But then there's The Aristocats, a film I hadn't seen in maybe three full decades, and I know exactly where my animosity's been coming from, namely a buried, foundational memory that equated xerography with one of the most contemptuously aggressive shrugs in Disney's history.  It also reminds me that I should stop calling movies "the worst thing Disney's ever done", cf. The Sword In the Stone, till I've seen all of them more recently than age seven, though it's indicative of the era we're dealing with that in a run of just three films, 1963-1970, it's The Jungle Book alone that's any good at all, while two of them could plausibly claim the title "Disney's worst."

But, comparisons aside, The Aristocats sucks quite well on its own.  It's not only that it's often unpleasant to look at, or that it continues the newer Disney tradition of leaning on "charming" animated animals and offensively unfunny comedy, or that it rather repulsively regurgitates Disney formula, or that it has mediocre music, or even that the one thing that did impress itself on me back when I was a kid, the musical sequence "Ev'rybody Wants To Be a Cat," is nowhere near as fun as I remembered it being (and winds up getting jarringly racist for a few seconds in a scenario that had to go entirely out of its way to even get to a place where it could be racist), yet is somehow still the best part of the film.  No, it's not just all that; it's that, even on the low, low terms it establishes for itself, it never justifies its existence, and you're pretty sure that the people who made it didn't think it justified its existence.  It shows in virtually every aspect of its construction, from its story to its songs to the joyless mania of its animation.  It smacks of not trying in any way, shape, or form—even the things that kind of look like trying, like "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat," feel desperate and forced and cheap—and it's tempting to say this was because, by the time The Aristocats was starting production, Walt was dead, and nobody knew what they were doing anymore.

On the other hand, it's not like it isn't a very clearly-cut continuation of all the trends that had defined Disney animation since the beginning of the 1960s (some of them had even started in the 1950s), and which would not really be fully repudiated till the late 80s.  Besides, The Aristocats may not have bowed till four years after Walt's passing, but it had the imprimatur of Walt's approval, and in this instance he'd even been the instigator, if in a fairly attenuated way—in 1961, he'd commissioned Harry Tytle and Tom McGowan with coming up with a talking animal story for a two-part episode of The Wonderful World of Disney, and they scoured children's books until they found one about a mother cat and her kittens, which they proceeded to modify sufficiently until Disney didn't have to pay for it.  Along with Tom Rowe, they developed this story, and eventually wound up with enough material that Tytle decided to lobby Walt for a feature instead, and Walt put Ken Anderson on the case to see if it had what it took.  It obviously took very little, and as The Jungle Book neared completion, Walt accepted The Aristocrats as his studio's next film.  The last animated feature to bear Walt's name as something like an author, rather than merely an immortal brand, it plainly never occurred to anyone not to do it; and so the now-headless organization mindlessly plugged along.

We find our aristocratic cats back in the Belle Epoque in Paris, a setting it exploits in not the slightest way beyond the appearance of the Eiffel Tower in some backgrounds and the occasional sound of a musette in George Bruns' score.  So: there is Duchess (Eva Gabor), the spoiled and na├»ve pet of a fabulously wealthy old maid, Madame Bonfamille (Hermione Baddeley), and mother to a litter of kittens, in whom she has nurtured each one's specific artistic talent in lieu any particular personality: Marie (Liz English), who sings; Berlioz (Dean Clark), who plays piano; and Toulouse (Gary Dubin), who paints, and I suppose must possesses the closest thing to a character amongst the three of them, in that he is also very invested in appropriating the signifiers of a tough old street cat.  Fun fact: Wikipedia states that Toulouse is the oldest, Marie the middle child, and Berlioz the youngest.  I don't think this is canonically-verified within the movie itself—to be perfectly frank, The Aristocats is extremely difficult to pay attention to—but, you know, it wouldn't surprise me, given that this movie seems to have been written by people who don't really know what cats are, and treat them basically as small, quadrupedal people.  And only selectively quadrupedal at that: in some of The Aristocats' animation's more annoying violations of reality, they sometimes have opposable thumbs.  Not always!  But sometimes.

Well, in contemplation of her mortality, Madame has chosen to draft her will—perhaps she has cancer, which is why marks and blemishes keep showing up on her face; perhaps she has a degenerative neurological disease, which is why she's so unsteady and shaking; or perhaps it's just Disney xerography at its lowest ebb, and she's dying of incomplete erasures, construction marks, and overarticulated character animation—and of course her prime concern is her beloved cats, whom she names as her sole beneficiaries, with her loyal servant Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby) consigned to inherit only after the cats also pass on.  Infuriated, Edgar hatches a scheme to get his hands on the money he considers rightfully his, and to this end drugs Duchess and the kittens, throws them in a basket, and dumps them in the countryside, where they awake to find themselves alone and helpless, but for one Thomas O'Malley (Phil Harris), a feral cat whose interest is piqued mainly by Duchess's potential as a sexual partner, but is affably willing to help the whole family get back to Paris and their home.  On the way, they meet a few animal friends, like Thomas's pals, a pack of swinging jazz cats led by Scat Cat (Scatman Crothers), and I'd say they "have adventures," but this would be a lie

It's at a much lower level of implementation, of course, but you probably don't need me to spell it out: it's almost exactly One Hundred and One Dalmatians, with changes so cosmetic they're barely changes at all—they switch which European capital it's set in, they use cats instead of dogs, the villain who seeks to get rid of the animal protagonists is a male butler instead of a fashionable female schoolchum, the countryside is, well, a countryside (but it's in a different country).  Indeed, The Aristocats is rightfully infamous as something of a shameless retread of the most successful Disney film of the previous ten years.  But while this reputation is certainly accurate, it's not even complete!  For it also rips off one of the most successful Disney films of the previous twenty years, Lady and the Tramp: you know, pampered daughter of privilege meets boy from the wrong side of the tracks, domesticates him beyond recognition—except, again, now they're cats.  Meanwhile, while it doesn't quite "rip off" The Jungle Book, as such, it still feels like it does: the anachronistic imposition of jazzy tunes would probably be sufficient all by itself, but having another carefree, fun-loving, lazy co-lead voiced by Phil Harris—who doesn't even slightly modify his performance as Baloo the Bear, except to the extent that the script tends to void any of the appeal of that character—really tends to seal that particular deal.  (In a contemporary interview, director Wolfgang Reitherman contests this characterization, and says Harris' performance here was modeled on Clark Gable, I suppose in It Happened One Night.  Man, that's not my favorite film, either, but it is surely light years away from this, and it makes me wonder if Reitherman simply hadn't seen It Happened One Night in thirty-six years.)

It is thus the exact historical moment that Disney animation became, without regard for much else, mere product to be assembled and sold to parents as something to entertain their children, which I suppose was only a culmination of Walt's own, more limited aspirations for the artform throughout the 1950s and 60s.  Not that it necessarily worked at the level Walt would have preferred: how much Aristocats crap has there ever been at the theme parks?  But it worked sufficiently to generate profit, which of course was enough.  The Aristocats is absolutely emblematic of "kid's cartoons" as a mode within the medium of feature animation, in the same way that The Sword and the Stone and The Jungle Book were prototypes for its dominance.  You get it all right here: the low-impact storyline cannibalized from other, previously-successful storylines; the long digressions into disconnected gag/filler sequences; noodly songs done in a stale imitation of hipness; the kind of bland cuteness that kids respond to, but mainly because it sedates them; lazily-cast celebrity "voice actors" who help bring adults' attention to the things, in lieu of actual, inherent quality.  Add some bawdy jokes for grown-ups into the mix, and you've got just about everything, albeit in this case they're jokes no grown-up would be likely to laugh at, even with an eyeroll.  For example: on the way home, the cats meet a pair of annoying-English-stereotype geese, who gasp at the idea that this mother of three kittens and this feral cat are unmarried.  I... don't know quite what to make of this, but it does at least sum up the utter absence of thought and coherence that went into this story about (remember) cats.

But one needn't pick at loose threads to demonstrate this, as one could just gesture angrily at the whole plot, which doesn't make any sense, and not just because animals can't inherit property, because I'm grudgingly willing to accept that this is an oversimplification for a childish audience who can't be expected to understand the concept of "trusts."  No, it's mostly that Edgar's plan does nothing to advance his inheritance, but, if we're being overly fair, maybe it's just because Edgar lacks the killer instinct to snuff out Madame, too, because he certainly lacks it in the case of four cats he doesn't even like.  This is where Aristocats can't live up to being a 101 Dalmatians rip-off, which at least has the decency to make its antagonist a psychotic monster.  I don't even think Cruella De Vil is that effective an antagonist in her own right, but Edgar would like to be considered as the single lowest expression of the toothless comic villainy that, with rare and precious exceptions like Maleficent, was the only way that the Walt Disney Studio could conceive of evil for nearly four decades straight.  I almost wonder if Aristocats might have been worthwhile if they'd just leaned into Edgar's unvillainous villainy even more, and if the movie was only a genial comedy about put-upon Edgar continually trying to get rid of the cats in the most humane way possible, but they kept coming back to plague him.  Certainly, its funniest moment is its tacit acceptance of possessing no dramatic stakes whatsoever: when Rocquefort the Mouse (Sterling Holloway) yells "QUIET!" in the middle of a battle royale with Edgar, and everybody actually stands still in obedience.

It was something very different in the early going, anyway: the original treatments were an episodic narrative revolving around Duchess and her kittens going from home to home in Paris, in an effort to find the owners best-suited to care for her artistically-inclined offspring—which is, incidentally, why they have those traits in the final film, even though they have no function here, one more example of Anderson's legion of writers garbling up the plot and characters until they arrived at something technically "filmable" but which you'd only reluctantly call "a story."  There's tons of others, like that aforementioned mouse, friend to the cats, whom the film makes a tremendously big deal out of as he investigates his feline compatriots' disappearance, before being forgotten about for almost the whole rest of the movie.  But the worst thing about it is how utterly dispiriting it is as an adventure.  They almost get run over by a train, which is kind of exciting; a truck driver yells at them.  And, other than the geese who imply that Duchess is a whore, that's, like, it.  Honestly, the biggest obstacle our heroes face is that it's a few miles and cats have small legs.  It's the most credible journey you'll ever see.

In the absence of danger (or even noticeable hardship), we get stuff like a notionally-comic subplot about Edgar having to return to the scene of his crime to retrieve evidence—it feels like 100 minutes of this 79 minute film involve Edgar's sub-Looney Tunes antics with a couple of hunting dogs who have taken a shine to his lost hat and umbrella—and a coma-inducing romance between Duchess and Thomas, which suggests that while Disney might've stumbled its way into the business of making movies purely for kids, they didn't know what kids liked, unless kids in the early 1970s really were interested in conflict-free renditions of the dating travails of single mothers.

The animation, then, is far from the worst thing about it, though it's almost as slapdash as the story it tells, riddled with continuity errors (in a storyboarded cartoon!) and other quality control problems.  It's so cavalier about xerographed debris that you wonder if Disney, having fired its inkers in a fit of cheapness back in 1960, decided now to start firing the assistant animators whose job it would've been to get rid of all that crap, not to mention smooth out the motion between key frames.  Madame isn't even the most egregious example—her lawyer in particular is a grotesque mockery of old age, his face a hash of scratchy, ugly, constantly-wavering lines, and the vibrating lines of his body constantly jerking into new positions—and, really, every human here looks like Pigpen from Peanuts.  It's such a mess that it almost rises to the level of an aesthetic.  In some other context that used it for some purpose you'd even be apt to call it "experimental animation" rather than "bad animation," if, obviously, that context would be lacking here.

The animals are less affected, but any given shot will bear, for example, the circles that the artists used to construct Duchess, and I'm particularly struck by a very long moment—twenty frames, no less—where the painters forgot to paint her golden collar, and the background they were lazily using to keep her eyeballs blue shows through.  The bones of the animation remain okay, depending: when they feel like drawing anatomically-accurate animal movement, they still can, though obviously nothing about this story was bound to inspire rigor.  (It doesn't help that the design work is powerfully lame: other than Duchess, whom I think they get right mainly because the mandate was "draw the Eva Gabor cat sexy," the other animals here are either utterly basic, or otherwise such blatant caricatures of humans in animal form that it just becomes goofy and unappealing.)  I can say one nice thing: the backgrounds are great and mesh well with the sketchy figures, though the graphic abstraction of them is, I suppose, just one more way this film wants to rip off Dalmatians.  Truly, if Aristocats is good for anything, it's helping me understand why Dalmatians worked, even if I found that film a little underwhelming: that first ten romantic-comedy minutes of Dalmatians are so Goddamn enchanting, and the aesthetic unity of it so admirable (even if I don't like what it foreshadowed), that I wind up invested in the adventure plot to come, somewhat despite myself.

It's not good for much else; it's certainly never enchanting.  There's still the colorful freakout of "Ev'rybody Wants To Be a Cat," I suppose, a song which is less actually good than it simply happens to close well, with its (apparently) unforgettable chant.  But before that happens it bears a meandering, dull structure, and some seriously questionable lyrics, like "a cat's the only cat who knows where it's at" (presumably they are also of moderate size).  This is where this film peaks, and that's still not very high: it's ultimately just some dancing cats with color filters and a general loudness applied to the scene.  It amounts to what everything else in the story does—you know, nothing.  I know this has become my refrain for the Disney movies of this era, but The Aristocats is so gallingly empty: empty of drama, empty of laughs, empty of beauty, empty of feeling.  It's boring and tedious and when it's not that, it's obnoxious and stupid.  I hate it, yet I resent it for drawing even that much emotion out of me, because so little effort was put into it that it doesn't even come by my hatred honestly.  The good news is that this was rock bottom, and there was nowhere to go but up: Disney would remain lost in the wilderness for many, many years to come, but by the time their next film rolled around, they'd have at least figured out how to be entertaining again.

Score: 2/10

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