With Walt Disney dead, now begins the nearly two decade period of Disney's dark ages. Although, honestly, all of animation was in the ditch through the 70s and 80s. It was being done on TV for dirt cheap (and it showed), and Disney wasn't quite on its game following the departure of their lord and master. First out of the gate is 'The Aristocats,' which initial storyline met Walt's approval. Here we have the story of a wealthy old biddy living with her butler Edgar, and her beloved fancy cat Duchess and her three kittens. They are set to receive everything upon her death, which doesn't bode well with Edgar, who proceeds to kidnap the cats and desert them far from the city. The cats are found by an swarthy alley cat Thomas O'Malley, who agrees to help them back to Gay Parie.
This is the first movie where the xerography process starts to wear out its welcome. On the subtler movements on the cats it's serviceable enough, but many times, particularly with quicker actions from characters with more complex designs (ie: the humans), the linework appears all scattered, because of the sketchiness of the drawings incorporating it. Some of it almost seems like they're just animated rough drawings, colored and animated for the final print. It looks kind of sloppy, really. I wouldn't say it hinders the film that much, but it happened enough that I grew bothered by it. I will say the backgrounds are gorgeous though, especially those of the French countryside.
The story is basic as you can get, with elements we've seen Disney do countless times before. Perhaps that's the problem, it's so derivative of films of the past, but has nothing of real immediate intrigue to distinguish itself. The distinguished lady meets scrappy gentlemen we've seen in 'Lady and the Tramp,' the struggle to return home in '101 Dalmatians,' and the Thomas O'Malley character and his carefree attitude is reminiscent to Baloo in 'The Jungle Book' (doesn't help he's voiced by Phil Harris too either). The main cats are rather uninteresting as well. To compare with its predecessor, whereas Lady had a charming naivete and sweetness to her, Duchess doesn't seem to have much of any character. The kittens aren't much better, as their bickering and inherent charm is played for laughs. O'Malley is charming enough, but he's certainly no Baloo.
Despite all that though, the movie has enough to generate interest for the most part. The movie has a few ancillary characters: two rather annoying English geese on holiday, but made it for it with their drunk, almost cooked alive uncle), two bloodhounds (one, the leader, has an incredible sense of smell, to the point that he can identify shoe size), and of course O'Malley's musician buddies, led by Scat Cat, voiced by the great Scatman Crothers. This film isn't as well known as those before it, but the one thing most remember of it (including me) is the rousing swing scene, with psychedelic colors, rousing music, and ending with them jamming so hard that they and their piano crash down from the top floor to the bottom. While it's a pretty good scene, it doesn't feel like the showstopper it presents itself to be.
The best stuff in this movie, I feel, comes from Edgar the butler. He's got a delightful voice, and his plight is pretty tragic, and his motives understandable. If someone you worked under for years put friggin' CATS before you in her will, what would you do? As a result, his ultimate retribution is kind of a bummer, considering how much more I liked him than the damn kittens. The one great scene is where he goes back to collect items he left behind at the scene of the crime, a hat, basket and umbrella. Unfortunately they are being used by the bloodhounds, who are fast asleep in and near them, so he must quietly retrieve them. And of course, hilarity ensues.
Verdict? After watching a long string of classics, this one really does stand out as being rather stale and unmemorable. It has its share of good moments, but on the whole it's just alright. It suffers from some rather uninteresting primary characters, but its side performers and momentary great animated moments manage to pull some of the weight at least. Thank heavens for that...