17 November 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: TO WHICH PETS DO THE OTHERS TIP THEIR HATS?

And so it was, that Walter Elias Disney was dead, but the company to bear his name continued on. The Florida project that had been the chief focus of the last years of his life was being built with a new intensity of purpose: now it was no longer an East Coast mirror of California's Disneyland, it was to be a massive physical monument to Disney's belief in the joy of imagination and fantasy. Renamed by his brother Roy, the place was to be called Walt Disney World, so that in all the years to come, as long as that park stood, it would be testament to the one man whose mind had created such a mighty empire out of a few animators and a puckish cartoon mouse.

But while the theme park division of Walt Disney Productions moved forward with such clarity, the filmmaking side of the company was quite adrift and aimless. The last two projects that Walt had personally overseen, The Jungle Book and The Happiest Millionaire, both met with success in 1967, but he had provided no road map for the filmmaking teams as he had with the Florida project, which provided for not just a Magic Kingdom on the Disneyland model, but also a hugely ambitious (and largely unrealised) Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, EPCOT. As far as Walt's intentions were concerned, the feature films division might well have ended its life at the start of 1968.

Of course, this wasn't the case. The live-action arm was largely able to fend for itself; 1968 saw the premiere of the tremendously successful The Love Bug, with many other genial family comedies produced at a ready clip of three or four per year (after the MPAA ratings system was established in that same year, it became company policy to avoid producing anything but G-rated fare). But what of the animation studio? Clearly, Disney wouldn't have wanted to see it die along with him. The problem remained, though that at no point in the company's 38-year history had anyone but Walt Disney overseen the production of an animated feature, and now, nobody else knew how to do it. There was nobody minding the shop, and without clear leadership, Walt Disney Productions entered a miserable interregnum that lasted from 1967 until 1984, when it took a bloodsucking Paramount executive of all people to get the company's artistic vision back on track.

That happy day was a long time in the future, though, from where we are now; it's 1967, and the studio is only just becoming aware that nobody is going to step up and take the reigns anytime soon. Fortunately, things hadn't reached the crisis stage just yet. Before his death, while work was continuing apace on The Jungle Book Walt had approved an adaptation of a story by Tom McGowan and Tom Rowe to be the next film to enter production once the Kipling film was completed. So, at the very least, the animators and story men had a specific project to work on; the next film would have to take care of itself, but the 20th Disney animated feature could at least claim the conceptual approval of the boss himself, the last film for which this would be the case.

Titled The Aristocats, the film that emerged at Christmastime, 1970, centered upon a family of cats living in fabulous luxury in Paris, 1910. The mother cat, Duchess (Eva Gabor) is an art lover, who encouraged her three children to pursue their talents as only the idle rich can: Marie (Liz English) studies singing, Berlioz (Dean Clark) plays piano, and Toulouse (Gary Dubin) is a painter. They are all four the dearest treasure in this world to their owner, Madame (Hermione Baddeley), who is prepared to draft a new will to ensure that they will be taken care of using all the wealth of her considerable estate; everything that the cats leave behind will pass to Madame's butler, Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby) when the last kitten has finally left this mortal coil.

Edgar overhears this will being composed, and finds it utterly intolerable that after years of being the faithful servant, putting up with the ludicrous indulgences that Madame pays out the animals, he has to wait even longer for so much as a whiff of money. And thus, he decides to accelerate his inheritance by faking a kidnapping (I couldn't bring myself to type "catnapping"), and he brings the family out into the countryside, abandoning them to the elements. Luckily for Duchess and the kittens, they quickly run across a world-wise tomcat named J. Thomas O'Malley (Phil Harris) - a shortened version of Abraham de Lacy Giuseppe Casey Thomas O'Mallley - who falls for Duchess's beauty and charm instantly, and pledges to help them get back to Paris on the double.

Even in that abbreviated form, I think the heavy debt that The Aristocats owes to One Hundred and One Dalmatians is pretty damned obvious. European capital? Check. Adventure from the oddly marshy boondocks back to the city? Check. Greedy false friend of the pet owner gets the whole thing started? Check. Interludes along the way involving other anthropomorphic animals? Check, though I didn't mention that in my précis. My point, anyway, is that with Walt gone, the story folk were clearly inclined to play things safe, and create a story for The Aristocats that closely hewed to past successes. Indeed, the things that the film didn't lift from Dalmatians, it lifted from The Jungle Book, although here I am not speaking of its narrative content so much as its tone, heavily rooted in anachronistic music of the jazz persuasion. Not that Disney had been in the past much inclined to reinventing the wheel with every new story: look no further than how closely the plots of the three princess films align with each other. The problem with The Aristocats is not that it steals cues from other movies, but that it does so poorly.

There are a few ways to tell in any given case when something has gone terribly awry in a film's pre-production, and The Aristocats has one of the biggest: there are seven credited story writers. Now, it's not that Disney films in the past lacked for large story teams: in fact, having small groups of story men (four and under) was a fairly recent development. But just comparing lists of names is a bit misleading, for given the workflow of a Disney animated feature, most of what those story men did was to draw storyboards; the actual progression of the story was something fleshed out from a skeleton derived in most cases from a single man, whose name, unsurprisingly, was Walt Disney. With The Aristocats, I suspect we're looking at a case where it took seven people to whip any kind of story into shape that could be filmed properly, and as is usually the case on any project with so many writers, the final project is rather lumpy with all the extraneous bits that got stuck on, as though everyone had ideas but nobody had the authority to decided which of those ideas to use and which to cut.

Thus it is, for example, that we end up with the entirely pointless comic business between Edgar and a pair of farmyard dogs, Napoleon (Pat Buttram) and Lafayette (George Lindsey), material that adds nothing but slapstick and about ten minutes of running time. Obviously, in a cartoon comedy, there are such things as gags for their own sake that do not strictly advance the plot, but I don't think I can name anything in an earlier Disney film that is this completely meaningless to the actual story.

That, however, is an obvious example. There are better instances of "too many cooks", issues that one or two writers might have noticed and fixed, but a whole mess of writers can easily overlook thanks to the dreaded groupthink. The whole basis of the movie is frankly born in stupidity: not only would Edgar prefer to get the cats out of the picture before Madame dies - so he is not in fact advancing his inheritance by one hour, so far as he knows - but he also takes great pains to drug them so that he can snatch them while they are asleep, perhaps forgetting that they trust him so much that he presumably could just pick them up and put them in a sack (which he in fact does, later in the film). I am almost inclined to spot the movie the seemingly incomprehensible decision that he next makes, to drop the animals off in the country rather than just flat-out kill them, because this is a childrens' movie, and Edgar is a comic villain, not a sadist. Still, Cruella De Vil made a pretty excellent comic villain, and she didn't just want to kill 99 dalmatian puppies, she wanted to skin them. So maybe I should not give the film a pass on some floppy grounds of "it can't be too dark".

It's striking, upon consideration, just how bad of a villain Edgar is. Even as a comic figure, he lacks even the slightest credibility as a threat: his plan is idiotic and it takes about 30 seconds to best him once the cats get back to Paris. I am not certain that I'd call him the lamest villain in the Disney canon (the '00s films have a strong claim in that direction, for a start), but he undoubtedly takes the cake of anything produced up to that point. It is not the case that a great Disney movie requires a great villain - Dumbo, you know - but it makes it a lot harder, and I believe that the contrast between The Aristocats and One Hundred and One Dalmatians shows most readily that when you take away a credible threat to the heroes' success, everything else starts to fall apart. After all, one of the biggest differences between the two films in tone if not in detail is that Cruella is a truly insane, terrifying woman, while Edgar is just a dip.

That, and the music: The Aristocats possesses one of the most schizophrenic soundtracks of any Disney feature, largely because of the number of people it took to produce it. The Shermans contributed two numbers: the title tune, performed by Maurice Chevalier (and by dint of that fact, the best song in the film), and "Scales and Arpeggios", a cute little number for the kittens; a third song was cut. Terry Gilkyson, the gentleman ousted from The Jungle Book is on hand with another song for Phil Harris, the entirely forgettable "Thomas O'Malley Cat". Lastly, Floyd Huddleston and Al Rinker were behind "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat", certainly the most famous piece in the movie, and one worthy of discussion.

As with The Jungle Book, there's something about the specificity of scat-singing jazz music that, while absolutely appealing when you're in the right mood, is certainly anything but timeless. In other words: I have no problem with a 19th Century mermaid singing Broadway ballads, but something about cats in Paris in 1910 playing music that wouldn't exist for decades yet bothers me in ways that I can't describe. But I'm going to set that aside.

Less even than its peculiar anachronism, "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat" - the sequence, not just the song - is jarring because it feels like it has peen plugged into The Aristocats from some very different movie, one that was probably made and best-enjoyed by people under the influence of psychoactive drugs. That might actually be the point, if I wanted to give the studio credit for trying to sneak a head movie into their kiddie movie about talking cats. Consider: after a full day of walking in the countryside, Duchess, O'Malley, and the kittens are looking for a place to sleep. O'Malley refers to his "pad", for the first time in this film suddenly using language that firmly dates the film to the '60s (its era of production, if not release), where everyone can get some rest. Except for the bright lights and music pouring out of the skylight; O'Malley shamefacedly admits that his friend Scat Cat is there with his swingers. By the way, the movie is a lot more fun if you assume that "Scat Cat", "swinging", and everything else that follows is sexual in nature - although when isn't that true?

So, the cats meet the swingers, and - if you follow my rational - there is a heavy cloud of marijuana smoke, probably mixed with PCP or something else with mild hallucinogenic effects, and Duchess and the kittens can't help but get a contact high. That would certainly explain the physically un-anchored fantasia that comes to follow, by far the most surreal moment in any Disney feature since the druggy conclusion of The Three Caballeros. Colored lights from no particular source keep flashing about, and people are dancing everywhere, and we get to meet a whole lot of weird characters (most notoriously, a Chinese cat played with minimal cultural sensitivity by the wonderful voice actor Paul Winchell, in his second turn with Disney: the first one, paradoxically, doesn't appear in this retrospective quite yet). And at the end, everybody is pleasantly mellow, with Duchess and O'Malley acting a good deal randier than most asexual Disney couples are permitted to be.

I don't want to say anything too positive or too negative about this sequence: mostly I just like to gawp at it, wondering what in ten tells the studio was thinking when that sequence was conceived and animated - oh right, the studio wasn't thinking, because up to this point, "the studio" meant "Walt Disney", and now the studio had no functioning brain. If that had resulted in a string after one pedestrian talking animal adventure after another featuring a bizarre psychedelic sequence, I have to wonder how much different the future of the company might have looked - though the next film isn't entirely without its psychedelic angle. It's fascinating like a terrible car accident is fascinating, though at least the song is catchy.

I've beat up on the film quite a bit, so let's play nice for a little while: the animation is a definite improvement from The Jungle Book, though not quite up to The Sword in the Stone. Other than Madame, a grotesque mask of shifting lines and pencil marks, none of the characters are especially plagued by the half-finished look of nearly every character in the Kipling adaptation, although for some reason, it seems that the lines are much thicker in all cases. The character animation is still pretty decent: I particularly admire the expressiveness given to each of the kittens, although none of them come within a country mile of Disney's all-time masterpiece of the feline form, Pinocchio's Figaro. As seems to be turning into a refrain for me in these last few reviews, this is more of a cartoon, that was more of a painting. And even as a mechanical act of reproducing the animal form, Figaro had a great deal more catty personality to him. God, I love Figaro. Oh, right, The Aristocats - the kittens are cute and have sweet personalities; I particularly love Berlioz's little shit-eating smirk during "Scales and Arpeggios".

Now, I don't want to make it seem like there's not any more cheapness to the animation; for there is. There's plenty of recycled animation: obvious lifts from Dalmatians, and one segment of Toulose's hissing is repeated three or maybe four times. I also can't tell you how many continuity errors I spotted, which is all the more surprising given how much forethought has to go into cel animation by its very nature.

Back to praise: for all I hate him as a character, Edgar is a really fine example of how the animators could exploit the limitations of xerography. A collaboration between Milt Kahl and John Lounsbery, the butler is perhaps the first character animated by Disney under this technology who exhibits that classic old squash-and-stretch technique without seeming a bit grotesque (viz. Wart in The Sword in the Stone. Perhaps I am not giving Kaa the python his due in this respect. But at any rate, Edgar's rubbery expressions are quite well-achieved and funny, and he simple would not have looked as good without the sketchy lines of the 1960s-'70s technology to dictate how how could be designed and animated.

I might as well add, the backgrounds work better here than in The Jungle Book, about as well as in The Sword in the Stone, and for much the same reason as that film: they are clearly painted, but not so detailed or colorful that they draw out the flatness of the cels. There's a bit of texture to them; a bit water-colored, almost, although I am certain that they are oils and gouache, as was standard at the studio for many years.

It's hard to say when the change occurred that Disney animated features were clearly products, without any real pretensions to artistry - not that they were ever completely un-commercial affairs, but there is a real difference between something like Alice in Wonderland and something like Robin Hood. That change, which started I think after Sleeping Beauty, was complete by the time The Aristocats came out: it is the most formulaic of all Disney features to that point, and insofar as it has any real ambition driving it, that ambition seems to be that the Disney brand name must be kept alive until somebody could figure out what to do with it. It really is drearily commercial, continuing the trend of famous cast members (Eva Gabor is passable as Duchess, but it should be no surprise that the only really outstanding performance is given by Disney regular and non-celebrity Sterling Holloway, as a mouse), and out-of-place pop music. And yet, it was something of a failure upon its first release - not that the company hasn't retconned it into a classic anyways, but in this as in other ways, The Aristocats points towards the dismal future of Disney feature animation more than anyone at the time could have wanted or feared.

7 comments:

GeoX said...

"Everybody Wants to Be a Cat" features the line "if you want to turn me on," which I *guess* isn't necessarily...actually, it kind of IS, and I'm sort of surprised it made it in. An' I don't care what you say; I LOVE THAT SEQUENCE.

Meg said...

I always detested this movie as a child and you finally pointed out many of the reasons why I had never realised myself. Edgar really is an awful villain, and the whole set-up is preposterous. Why wouldn't he just put the cats in a bag and drown them? Why would he bother before the woman had actually died so that she couldn't edit her will again. It's silly even to a child.

Rick said...

I connect The Aristocats with some awful memories when I was a Substitute Teacher (don't recommend it). I had to play this movie over and over and over...and it was in Spanish! I HATED listening to that first song, but I always knew when to stop it whenever I saw two geese walking up the lane. After that day, I couldn't bring myself to finish it. Too many bad memories...but after reading this, I doubt I'll ever see it.

Amanda said...

Totally right! This is a turning point where the animation goes horribly, horribly wrong. Someone needs to stop throwing money at crappy films and start working on how to bring dear Walt back to life!

Brian said...

In my ongoing attempt to eventually own the entire Disney canon, here comes Aristocats.

I hadn't seen it since I was a kid, didn't remember much about it (outside, of course, E'verybody Wants To Be A Cat, because that is literally unforgettable) but I gotta be honest: I liked it. I didn't love it, there is a lot I could do without (oh god, those fucking Geese...) but there is a lot I really like.

The story is definitely formulaic, although I think you missed a big chunk of where it was lifted from, story wise. It plays, to me, very much as 101 Dalmatians meets Lady And The Tramp, but with cats. If the kittens weren't there, Duchess and O'Malley would be virtually exact feline stand-ins for Lady and the Tramp.

I remembered the movie being, well, jazzy (as Disney advertises it "Disney's Jazzy Classic") and I was actually really shocked that the jazz just kind of drops in out of the blue 2/3s of the way through.

Two things drive me nuts about the movie, outside the geese: One is I am incapable of hearing Phil Harris talk and not looking around for Baloo the bear.

The other is the complete inconsistency of the anthropomorphism of the animals throughout the film. Duchess, O'Malley, and the kittens all move more or less like cats. The horse (Fau Fau? Something like that) moves like a horse. The geese move like geese. The two pointless dogs are much more humanistic at points, while moving like dogs at others. The mouse wears clothes. Then we get to Scat Cat and the Swingers, and they are completely, 100% anthropomorphized. Then suddenly Duchess and O'Malley are too, while they dance. Then the song ends, Scat Cat and Co leave, and they are back to moving like cats. Then when the Swingers show up to attack Edward, they move like cats again. And... Gah. I don't mind anthropomorphizing animals (clearly, I love animation, and that would be a strangely limiting complaint) but is it too much to ask for a little bit of consistency, Disney?

Jeremy Diringer said...

I'm trying to catch up on all of the Disney canon I've missed, so I just watched The Aristocats, and I agree with the original review. It's perfectly tolerable without being remotely creative or engaging. It's not bad enough to make me dislike it (cf. The Fox and the Hound and its goddamn cavalcade of sap) but it leaves me with a bunch of niggling problems: in addition to the plot holes and unnecessary characters, why go through all the hassle of dumping them miles away from home, then skimping on any sort of journey narrative? Why not have some sort of thrilling countryside adventure instead of ten minutes of annoying geese, followed by "and they safely made it to Paris without incident"? (And why didn't they make the W.C.-Fieldsian uncle the comic relief instead?) If it's gonna be a musical and feature musician characters, why not have more than two diegetic songs?

And without great storytelling or likable and well-defined characters, the movie relies on gags and physical comedy, but they rarely seem to occur organically. The movie would suggest a gag, bring the plot to a halt, cut to a close-to-medium shot of the gag playing out, and then start back up again. No madcap energy, no Rube Goldberging, no toying with expectations, just either Thomas or Edgar getting smacked around a bit; the big exception is Roquefort, whose "QUIET!" moment is about the only thing that rose from "harmlessly diverting" to "actually funny" for me.

Also, I liked the animation--especially the pencil sketches running under the opening credits--and the backgrounds were fine, but it felt like there were a lot of moments where the characters weren't quite fitting in with the backgrounds properly; the opening scene, with the horse-drawn carriage crossing the bridge looked especially odd, like someone waving a cutout behind a prop.

All this bitching, and I didn't think the movie was bad, really: it just wasn't any good, either.

Brendt said...

"O'Malley the Alley Cat" being "entirely forgettable" must be why I remembered every lyric while watching it tonight for the first time in 30+ years.