The Aristocats (1970)
The first original story
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Hi there and welcome back to Oof! Right in the Childhood, a podcast about the history and modern social implication of the Disney animated feature films in the order in which they were released. Today, I’m going to talk about Aristocats — possibly the first original story from Disney.
This particular movie lacks the details from the previous films. This is possibly because, in the wake of Walt Disney’s death, the studio didn’t keep as good of records. It could be because the studio’s leadership was trying to find its footing. Regardless, I’ll pepper in Disney history that doesn’t have to do with this movie so we have a little more in the history section.
As work on the Jungle Book began to wind down, the studio started looking for its next project. Though the board of directors wasn’t sure they wanted to continue with animation, Walt Disney felt it was important, so they persisted. The studio hadn’t acquired any new properties, but there were ideas floating around.
Starting in 1961, two of the Disney animators had started working on a two-part cartoon for Disney’s Wonderful World of Colour, one of a series of weekly television programs Disney produced to showcase its parks and talent to the North American Family. The cartoon, featuring a mother cat and her three kittens being kidnapped and displaced by the servants of a rich, eccentric woman in order to thwart her plans to leave her inheritance to the cats.
The more they worked on the cartoon, the less they liked it. It felt rushed and disconnected and just all around, not great. This was the problem with writing an original story. Though the animators had based the story loosely around several children’s books, they didn’t know the direction their original story should go in. By 1963, the project had been shelved. That is, until 1966 when Walt started looking for the studio’s next big project. It was then that he asked Ken Anderson to review the project and see if it was suitable for a full-length film.
Ken simplified the story and got some initial character sketches completed and brought them to Walt in late 1966. The Aristocats was the last movie Walt Disney personally approved to be made into a feature film. As you already know, Walt was dead shortly thereafter.
As soon as The Jungle Book was released, the studio went into full swing developing the movie. They developed the characters around their voice actors, filming their recording sessions so the animators could mimic their movements and really encapsulate their personalities. They spent eighteen months developing the character designs alone.
Meanwhile, the studio was moving quickly through the 60s. Prior to his death, Walt had surreptitiously purchased over 30,000 acres of land in Florida. He’d left instructions on how he wanted the company to proceed, including his plans for a much larger, more involved Disney theme park in Florida.
And when I say surreptitiously, I’m understating it a bit. Disney formed dozens of shell companies and sent speculators to individual land owners to purchase their properties. Most of the realtors had no idea what they were negotiating, and thus, the studio was able to secure some plots of land for as little $100 an acre. And regardless of inflation, that was not a lot of money.
That said, most of the land was swampland, and the people who owned it weren’t getting a lot out of it, so according to what I can see, the owners were happy to be rid of it. Why they owned land they didn’t want is beyond me, but I bet their kids and grandkids wish they’d held out for more.
The big problem came with the mineral rights. At the time, Tufts University owned the mineral rights to the land which meant that, regardless of who owned the land, Tufts could walk in and take its use over to retrieve minerals from it. Disney quietly negotiated a deal to buy the mineral rights for $15,000 which is only about $125,000 today, so I don’t think there was a lot of value to the rights in the first place.
The whispers started in 1964. NASA was building a new base. Ford a new production plant. Howard Hughes was Howard Hughesing. Then, in May of 1965, the Orlando Sentinel ran a story about a rumour that Disney had bought the land, but said it definitely couldn’t be true because Walt had said that he’d just invested $10 million into Disneyland.
But a reporter named Emily Bavar wasn’t convinced. In October of that year, she visited Disneyland for its 10th anniversary and casually asked Walt if he was behind all the land purchases. Apparently Walt had absolutely no poker face because she said he, quote “looked like he’d had a bucket of water thrown on him," endquote.
In light of these events, Walt Disney Productions announced their park in late October of 1965 instead of mid November. At least Emily didn’t blow it all out of the water too early.
Then Walt died at the end of 1966 and Roy O Disney was thrown into the CEO chair. So, until this point, I’ve just referred to Walt’s brother as “Roy”, and if Roy hadn’t also named his kid Roy, I could’ve kept doing that. From now on, we have Roy O and Roy E. Yay.
Anyway, in February of 1967, two months after Walt’s death, Roy O gave a speech describing what Walt imagined Disney World would be. He talked about EPCOT Centre, which is my personal favourite part of Disney World and the special development district they’d build to make sure they could keep tax laws on their side which is my least favourite part of Disney World.
I’m not going to go into the high level corruption that is the Reedy Creek Improvement District, because that’s really not the history I’m looking for, but give it a Google. You might be shocked.
Anyway, back at the studio, Aristocats was in high gear. They hired Eva Gabor for the female lead and Phil Harris, the voice of Baloo, for the male lead. Louis Armstrong was asked to voice the jazz singing Scat Cat, but had scheduling issues. And I'm starting to see that a lot of musical numbers had "scheduling issues" at this time.
Robert and Richard Sherman, the most prolific of the Disney songwriters, were brought into compose for the film. They wrote several songs, but all but one, Scales and Arpeggios were cut. The Sherman Brothers, having become disenfranchised with the studio’s management following Walt’s death left after that making Aristocats their final film.
I don’t talk a lot about the Eras of Disney, but this one is pretty well defined. As this was the first film without Walt’s oversight and under a new management, this marks the beginning of the Disney Bronze Era.
The film was finished for $4 million, or $26.8 million today and was released into theatres right before Christmas of 1970, and it did pretty ok. The critics loved it with the New York Times calling it “grand fun all the way” and Roger Ebert giving it three out of four stars calling it “light and pleasant and funny.”
Theatre goers enjoyed it too. The domestic box offices brought in just over $10 million or almost $70 million today. It was also a hit internationally. Aristocats was the most popular movie of 1971 in both the U.K. and France. Once the international box offices were counted, the movie raked in $28 million worldwide or almost $188 million today.
It was also rereleased in 1980, 1987, and 1994 with a total lifetime box office of $191 million which I don’t have converted to modern equivalent because it’s all spread out and the individual numbers don’t add up to that, but that’s the number Variety published in 2003.
All in all, it wasn’t that bad of a showing for Walt Disney Productions’ first non-Walt Disney film. If I were a betting gal, I’d say it probably reinforced the board of directors’ faith a little bit. After all, they’d had two hits in a row. What could possibly go wrong? [uncomfortable laughter]
So, is it a great movie? Is it “grand fun” and “light and pleasant”? Stay tuned after this short break and I’ll dive into it.
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All right. Aristocats is another movie I remember watching not all that often. I'm pretty sure it's another one we didn't own because it actually came out on VHS after the Little Mermaid was released. But I remember really liking Marie as a kid. That said, this has a “this will have an offensive portion” screen on it, so I’m certain I’ve forgotten something.
We get a really involved opening with an incredibly French accent singing about how rich these Aristocats are. In fact, it reminds me a little bit of the Naming of the Cats. Jellicle cats are white and black, etc. The funny thing about this song is that singing is accent neutralizing, so for this singer to get this over the top French accent, he worked for it. Oh he’s switched into full French.
And because this isn’t based on any one book, we don’t start by opening a book, we just show up on the streets of Paris with a very rich woman and her cats.
One of the kittens climbs all over the face of her carriage driver, Edgar. The horse’s name is Frou-Frou. Mama Duchess reminds Berlioz that he should thank Frou-Frou for pulling the carriage because it’s nice to thank your servants.
The Madame, whose name we don’t know yet, but is Adelaide, can call these cats and they come. I would please like her to come train Gandalf and Éowyn. She’s waiting for her lawyer who appears to be a humanized version of Mr. Toad, loud motor car and loud singing and all.
He’s also about 300 years old and makes jokes about elevators being for old people. He then tricks Edgar into giving him a piggy back ride up the slippery marble staircase. Y’know, he’s too dignified for an elevator, but he’ll put an adult in danger by climbing on his back without notice or consent. Yikes.
Meanwhile, Madame Adelaide is dancing in front of a full-length gilded mirror with a feather boa. I’ve seen it said that Adelaide is the epitome of happy women, and it's not wrong. She’s rich beyond good sense, she has no children, and is super happy with her glamorous life and her cats. She’s not portrayed as an old spinster or a crazy cat lady, but just as a well adjusted, happy woman who chose to be on her own in 1910.
Heck, I think Duchess has a diamond collar in this scene.
Edgar shows up exhausted because you shouldn’t carry grown people up the stairs if you can avoid it.
Adelaide is playing Carmen by Berlioz on her phonograph, and this explains a lot about her, actually. She debuted as Carmen. An opera singer. That explains her money. And the black kitten’s name is Berlioz.
She’s called Georges to make her will. Georges looks more and more like Mr. Toad as this goes on.
Making a will is a private matter, but it seems Adelaide has forgotten about the speaker in her room that goes directly into the servant’s quarters. Edgar can hear everything.
Adelaide has no living relatives. Therefore she’s decided to leave everything to her cats, and then when they die, Edgar will get the remainder of the estate. And before we talk about how Edgar devolves this, it’s actually pretty wonderful. Yes, Edgar would have to take care of the cats, but he’d get all of the perks of the estate and just have to feed them and scoop a litterbox.
Edgar sees it differently, and in an incoherent ramble of justification, he says, “Each cat will live 12 years and each cat has 9 lives,” so he’s thinking that like each of the cat’s lives starts at the end of the others and then they have 9 lives. According to his math, it’s four times twelve times nine which is 432 years which is way too long for him to wait for an estate. But if he assumes he has 12 years from now, would he have been ok with this?
So yeah, he assumes he’ll die before the cats, and instead, he’s decided he has to kill his employer’s kittens in order to get money.
We cut to a more happy scene of the kittens being kittens. This is interrupted by Toulouse, the orange kitten, being a misogynist and saying, “Females never fight fair.” Oh my god. What is this movie?
Duchess comes in and tells the kittens to not act like kittens. Marie says, “Ladies do not start fights, but they can finish them,” and I got a good laugh out of that.
Berlioz is very logical. They’re just practicing biting and clawing which is actually a thing. Baby animals play to practice their fighting and hunting instincts. Duchess however, would like them to practice different things. Toulouse will practice painting, and he makes a painting of Edgar and Duchess says not to make fun of someone who cares for them so much.
Meanwhile, Edgar is making a poison concoction to feed the cats. This is great. I love this movie. Edgar and Cruella should get married.
Oh, it’s not poison, it’s a sleeping concoction. It seems that the cats drink eggnog from what he pours into that pot.
Back to the kittens. Berlioz plays the piano and Marie sings along. And during these scenes I always wonder what humans hear when this is going on. Like, does Adelaide hear a well composed song or does she hear piano pounding and caterwauling? Also, Toulouse gets paint on the piano which I’m sure Edgar loves.
Edgar delivers their sleeping draught, and a mouse appears with a cracker. The mouse’s name is Roquefort and he has Winnie the Pooh’s voice too. He wants to share their cream, so he dunks his cracker in the cream. Then everyone starts to get very sleepy.
Edgar puts all the cats in a basket and speeds off in his motorbike. He’s all worried about the noise of garbage bins, but not the backfiring of his bike. He speeds through Paris until he reaches the countryside, and here we have dogs with deep Southern accents that know everything about engines. They’re going to chase the bike.
What is it with dogs and pulling rank on each other? These dogs are named Napoleon and Lafayette, and they have to determine who attacks first. They take the motorbike from Edgar and immediately crash it into a tree and a windmill. The basket is thrown clear, under a bridge, but somehow not into the water.
So, Edgar thought to put the cats to sleep, but he left Duchess’s collar on her, which looks very much like a fancy gold necklace. I mean, I’d have taken that, if I was terrible.
The cats wake and are startled to find themselves outside and in the wild. Duchess assures the kids that everything will be fine. Toulouse had a dream that Edgar did this to us, but Duchess assures him that Edgar would never hurt them. Poor Duchess. This is the worst betrayal.
Back at home, Adalaide has had a dream that the cats are gone. She checks on their adorable four-poster cat bed, and they’re gone. She calls for them and wakes Roquefort who puts on a deer-stalker cap and cape that makes me wonder if he was the inspiration for a later Disney movie.
Back under the bridge, it’s daytime, and a cat singing about himself wakes Duchess from her sleep. Like, what is it with people singing songs about who they are to themselves? I understand it’s a trope, but it’s one that makes little to no sense. Now, if Duchess were to say, “Hey, who are you?” And Baloo-cat were to sing back, “I’m Abraham de Lacy Giuseppe Casey Thomas O’Malley the alley cat,” I’d be cool with that.
He tells her that her eyes are beautiful. Marie thinks it’s beautiful. Berlioz thinks it’s too girly. The gender roles are strong with this one, y’all.
Duchess says that she needs to go back to Paris, and O’Malley goes on this talk about how he’ll take her on a magic carpet ride and it’ll be so romantic with just the two of them. Wait, you have kids?!?
O’Malley being the template for every jerk who freaks out when he finds out the girl he likes has kids fumbles around, and Duchess tells him he’s a jerk for treating her kids differently. After they walk off, he realizes he’s been a cad, and goes after them. With perfect timing, he shoos them into the bushes just as a delivery van comes by. He almost causes a wreck and puts the family into the van. He’s almost shot of them, but Marie falls from the van, so O’Malley decides to escort them to Paris. He’ll show them the high life.
O’Malley’s sure that the Madame is not worried about them at all. But Adelaide is pacing worried about the cats. Roquefort can’t find anything about the cats. But Edgar is the happiest human on earth. He brags to Frou-Frou the horse that he catnapped Duchess and the kittens. He says that no one will ever find any evidence to implicate him except for all the evidence he left behind. Then he runs out the door without feeding Frou-Frou.
Seriously, this guy's the worst.
Back in the van, O’Malley gives the kittens cream, but the driver sees them in the back. This results in their second almost-vehicular manslaughter moment. They cross a train trestle as slowly as possible and are surprised when a train almost kills them. Marie, the ever endangered falls into the river and almost dies.
O’Malley rescues her then the boys blame her for falling off of a shaking bridge. Down the river, two geese try to “help” Thomas learn to swim by cutting the vine he’s holding onto so he doesn't drown. Thanks?
He proceeds to drown and they finally realize he might die and help him out. Duchess and the kittens show up right on time. The geese are twin sisters. O’Malley is understandably pissed off at them laughing at him. They say he’s rather cute until they find out that he and Duches aren't married and then he’s an ugly cad. This is great.
Duchess is not annoyed at all by these twin gabbers. They’re on their way to Paris too. We'll all go together. Poor Thomas.
The two geese lead the way to Paris where Uncle Waldo is drunk and being plucked in a kitchen, and I’m certain there’s not a double entendre here. The kitchen was going to serve Waldo stuffed in chestnuts and they pre-basted him in white wine. Waldo’s incredibly upset that they didn’t use sherry to kill him.
The girls have obviously dealt with drunk Uncle Waldo before, and they ferry him off down the street.
Back at the mansion, Roquefort stows away in the broken tail light of Edgar’s motorbike. Edgar’s off to retrieve the evidence he left at the scene of the crime. Also, Edgar’s far worse at riding his motorcycle when there’s no sidecar.
At the windmill, he sneaks around with a fishing pole until he finds the dogs sleeping with the sidecar, basket, umbrella, and hat. Somehow, they didn’t hear the motorbike this time, but they know as much about shoes from their squeaking as they do engines.
Edgar uses the fishing pole to take back his hat and umbrella, but I don’t know what the fishing pole was for at the beginning. Like, did he know he had to fish the hat off of a hound’s head from the beginning? What was the plan? Is Edgar a prophet?
Edgar succeeds in stealing the hat by scratching Napoleon and then fishes Lafeyette out of the basket. These dogs, who pick up a scent from 12 miles away can’t smell Edgar in the haystack, so they go looking for him resulting in hilarity involving shoes and ears. Nonetheless, Edgar gets away with his hat, umbrella, basket, sidecar, and haystack.
In Paris, the kittens are tired, so Thomas will take them to a jazz nightclub for a nice quiet night. Scat Cat has decided to pop into O’Malley’s home with a series of racist caricatures that all play music. They sing the song everyone knows from this movie. Everybody wants to be a cat.
This song is super fun until the Siamese cat gets his spotlight. Like, buckteeth, bad pronunciation, plays with literal chopsticks, poor grammar, just references Chinese dishes. Blech.
Duchess gets her Zsa Zsa Gabor sexy moment with a harp. They do something in this bridge that I really appreciate when they talk about what’s happening with the music. “Hold on while we modulate.”
Then, back to the loudest music in the world that literally brings the house down. Who owns this building? How did they explain to their insurance the next day? Once the racist jazz band has left, the kittens are settled into bed, and O’Malley’s falling in love with them as well as Duchess. Duchess and Thomas sit in the moonlight overlooking Paris and make eyes at each other. Marie spies on them because she’s in love with love.
Duchess would love Thomas to be her husband, but she can’t leave Madame. O’Malley can’t understand because to Madame, they’re just housepets. Duchess insists this isn’t true. I mean, she’s literally wearing a gold and diamond collar. At the very least, they’re doted upon housepets. O’Malley’s sad to see them go, but he’ll take them tomorrow.
The kittens are heartbroken, and Toulouse says, “Well, we almost had a father.” And okay, I make fun of a lot of off colour moments in these films, but this moment is singularly painful to watch. I hurt for these kittens and their want for a father, and also where is their father?
As the cats walk up to the house, Roquefort sees them and ties Edgar’s shoes together. He tries to warn the kittens away while Duchess and O’Malley say a Casablanca goodbye.
Edgar opens the door for them and immediately puts them in a sack. This time he dispenses of the pleasantries. Madame hears the cats and runs down the stairs. Edgar throws them in a thankfully cold oven and lets Madame call for them.
Roquefort knows to run after O’Malley because Duchess tells him to do that. Thomas is like, “Hey, go get my friends that you’ve never met and will almost certainly be hungry and want to eat you.” Roquefort finds the alley cats and immediately forgets O’Malley’s name until he’s about to die.
The cats take off without asking where they should go and their clowder plus mouse makes a man stop drinking.
Meanwhile, Edgar’s shipping Duchess and the kittens off to Timbuktu, a place so traditionally in cartoons, I didn’t know it was a real place until I was an adult. O’Malley jumps on him, Frou-Frou tries to stop him, Edgar almost kills Thomas with a pitchfork, and the alley clowder appears and attacks him.
Roquefort can pick the combination lock, but only if everything is silent. They get out of the trunk and get Edgar into it just in time for the truck to take him to Timbuktu. At the house, Mr. Toad — I mean Georges’s car is out front. Madame is taking a family portrait with Thomas and the kitten while Gorges rewrites the will. I wonder who will take care of the cats when she dies now.
Going completely against everything that Madame has stood for until now, she says, “We do need a man around the house.” Oof! Right in the childhood. Yep, after everything that has happened in this movie that has been cringeworthy, by Twitter poll, this is the worst.
She says there’s a surprise downstairs, and she’s taken in all of the alley cats of Paris and they’ve started a jazz club with all the previous bit characters.
Um, hey this movie is wow. Like I said, I did watch this movie as a kid, but I only remembered the basic outline of the movie and that Marie was adorable and that’s it. And wow. It just really is depressing to watch as an adult. In fact, as I mentioned just a minute ago, I had so many “Oof!” moments in this episode that I took to a Twitter poll to determine which one was the cringiest moment. But believe you, me, that was not the only time my eyes threatened to pop out of my skull.
Gee, I can barely wait for what lies ahead.
But what do you think? Do you remember Aristocats fondly, or do also have some deeply sad moments over it? Let me know on my social media. You can find me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at oofmychildhood. And who knows? There may be future Twitter polls for what is the cringiest moment of a Disney movie. You should pop on by
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