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Would Walt's version of "The Aristocats" have been a bigger hit for Disney Studios?

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Would Walt's version of "The Aristocats" have been a bigger hit for Disney Studios?

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The full-length animated features that Walt Disney Animation Studios has produced over the past 75 years can mostly be sorted into two distinctly different piles: Those films that Walt personally had a hand in and those movies which were produced after Disney passed away.

Please note that I said "mostly." Because the jury's still out about which pile "The Aristocats" actually belongs in.

Why For? Because prior to his death in December of 1966, Walt spent five years working on & off on the development of this project. As he and his storymen struggled to get "The Aristocats" in good enough shape to shoot.

A Walt Disney Productions publicity piece from 1969 showing the work
that was still being done at that time on this animated feature
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And -- yes -- I said "shoot," rather than animate. For much of the early 1960s, "The Aristocats" was headed for television. Walt originally saw Tom McGowan & Tom Rowe's story as perfect fodder for a fun live-action episode of "The Wonderful World of Color." So from December 1961 'til August 1963, that's where the Company's efforts (at least as far as this individual project was concerned) were concentrated. Breaking down "The Aristocats" 's story beats so that this feline-driven tale could then be told as a two-part episode on this hour-long anthology series for NBC.

But sometime in the late Summer / early Fall of 1963 (Just as Walt was riding herd on the production of "Mary Poppins" as well as zeroing in on the perfect piece of property to build Project Florida upon), Woolie Reitherman somehow got ahold of the script for "The Aristocats." Which he immediately saw as the possible follow-up project for the animated feature that WDAS then had in production, "The Jungle Book."

Now this is where this story gets kind of murky. Given that -- from the Fall of 1964 through December of 1966 -- Walt (when he sat in on "Aristocats" story sessions. Which admittedly wasn't all that often) always pushed for one particular version of this story. Which had Duchess obsessed with finding just the right owner/home for each of her three kittens. The perfect place where Berlioz, Marie and Toulouse's talents would then be allowed to flourish.  More importantly, where her children would be safe, happy and loved for the rest of their lives.

Ken Anderson once envisioned Duchess and her kittens meeting O'Malley on the
streets of Paris, rather than far out in the French countryside.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

That -- to Walt's way of thinking, anyway -- is what should have driven the story of "The Aristocats." That by placing this particular storyline front & center and then making the whole butler-and-maid-trying-to-dispose-of-this-quartet-of-cats-so-that-they-could-then-collect-Madame-Bonfamille's-fortune idea a relatively minor comic subplot ... Well, that then would have given "The Aristocats" 's plotline a real sense of urgency. More importantly, that this mother-who-makes-sacrifices,-lets-her-children-go-so-that-they-can-then-go-on-to-lead-happy,-fulfilling-lives angle is what would give this motion picture heart and allow the audience to make a real emotional connection to these characters and this story. Because -- as you know -- in all of the very best Walt Disney Studios productions -- " ... for every laugh, there should be a tear."

But after Walt died in December of 1966, Woolie began making significant changes to "The Aristocats" characters & storyline. To be blunt, Reitherman wasn't all that interested in making an mushy and emotional animated feature. What he had in mind was more of an action-adventure / comedy romp, something more along the lines of Walt Disney Productions' 1961 release, "101 Dalmatians."

More to the point, Woolie's main goal here was to make sure that WDAS would actually be able to complete production of "The Aristocats." With Walt now gone ... Well, there were a lot of people at the Studio who were questioning whether Walt Disney Productions should even keep its feature animation unit up and running.

Please note that O'Malley the Alley Cat has a very different color scheme in this concept
painting that Ken Anderson did during "The Aristocats" 's early development phase.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"The Jungle Book" 's huge box office success during the Summer of 1967 effectively tabled that discussion. For a while, anyway. But Reitherman knew that -- were "The Aristocats" to turn out to be a particularly troubled production and/or a box office failure  ... Well, Card Walker & his cronies would then just use this as an excuse to shut feature animation down.

So whatever Woolie could do to make "The Aristocats" easier to produce / keep this animated feature's overall production costs down, he did. Take -- for example -- the two villains who used to drive this film's story, Edgar the Butler and Elvira the Maid. In an effort to simplify these proceedings / streamline production, Reitherman gave the maid the boot and made the butler the singular villain of the piece.

Likewise remembering all of the extra time, effort & money that went into making sure that Shere Khan's stripes were always in the right place (not to mention all of those spots on the puppies in "101 Dalmatians") ... Well, that's why Woolie decided to rethink the look that the Studio's development team had originally come up with for O'Malley the Alley Cat.  Changing this sweet-talking tabby from an orange-colored calico with all sorts of stripes on him to a far simpler-to-paint-and-draw, brown-and-white alley cat.

Here's an image capture from an early animation test for "The Aristocats." Back when
O'Malley the Alley Cat still had his stripes. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

Mind you, not everyone at the Studio was happy with what Woolie Reitherman was doing. When I spoke with Disney Legend Richard Sherman on the phone last week (he was doing publicity for the Blu-ray version of "The Aristocats." Which -- FYI -- is out in stores today), he talked about how all of these cuts & changes that Woolie was making wound up impacting many of the songs that he and his brother Robert had written for this film.

"As you'll discover when you watch the 'The Lost Open' portion of the Special Features on this Blu-ray & DVD, we had this whole different opening sequence for 'The Aristocats' written and storyboarded. One where we used a comic song to introduce the audience to Edgar & Elvira," Sherman explained. "But once Elvira was cut out of the picture, that song had to go. Along with a bunch of other numbers that -- I think, anyway -- cost this story some emotional heft. Made this material seem far more lightweight than it really needed to."

Richard was quick to point out that he's still a big fan of the finished version of this film. He also acknowledged that "The Aristocats" did exactly what it was supposed to. Because this animated feature was a box office success when it was initially released to theaters in December of 1970 ... Well, that then prevented Disney's board of directors from having an excuse  to shut down the Studio's feature animation unit. Which is why 1973's "Robin Hood" (and the two full-length animated features which followed that film, 1977's "The Rescuers" and 1981's "The Fox and the Hound") were then allowed to go into production.

Among the sequences that got cut from "The Aristocats" during its early-early production
phase was a scene where O'Malley tricked Edgar into following him down into the sewers
of Paris. Woolie Reitherman spiked this sequence supposedly out of concern that all
of the water & lightning effects necessary to properly pull off this scene would
significantly increase "The Aristocats" production budget. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But even so, Sherman still misses some of the more-heartfelt numbers that he and his brother wrote for this motion picture: "Pourquoi" (which was supposed to have been a cute duet between Madame Bonfamille and Duchess) and " She Never Felt Alone" (which would have been the musical number that Duchess used to explain to O'Malley why she & her kittens couldn't stay with him, why they had to hurry back home to Madame Bonfamille'). Not to mention "Le Jazz Hot," the Sherman-written song which was eventually replaced by "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat."

"That song was actually cut out of the picture because the producers were worried that 'The Aristocats' was getting too French," Sherman laughed. "Which is kind of a strange concern to have when your movie is set in and around Paris."

It's this somewhat schizophrenic production history that often makes it difficult for Disneyphiles & animation historians to decide how exactly to categorize "The Aristocats." After all, Walt Disney did in fact help shape the story for this film back in the early 1960s. Only to then have Woolie Reitherman toss out many of the Ol' Mousetro's ideas. All because Woolie wasn't looking to necessarily make the greatest full-length animated feature of all time. But -- rather -- just make a movie that the Studio's feature animation team could actually deliver on time and (more importantly) on budget.

Another way that Woolie Reitherman kept down "The Aristocats" production costs is by
changing Duchess and her kittens from fluffy, long-haired Persian cats to American
shorthairs. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

That said, me personally, I still think that there's a lot to like about "The Aristocats." Especially those two slapstick-heavy sequences where Edgar encounters Napoleon & Lafayette, those two hound dogs who are guarding that farm out in the French countryside. But now after having talked with Richard Sherman as well as having seen the Special Features on this new Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment release, I wonder if -- by going the lighthearted romp route, rather than exploring the more emotional potential that Walt originally saw in this material -- Woolie didn't cost the Company a classic. A film more along the lines of "Lady and the Tramp," which -- thanks to its strong storyline and deeper, far more complex characters -- still resonates with audiences today in a way that "The Aristocats" just doesn't.

But what do you folks think of this 1970 Walt Disney Productions release? Is "The Aristocats" purr-fection to you or the animation equivalent of a hairball ... er ... airball?

Your thoughts?

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  • To add equal parts of praise and criticism for the Aristocats, all I need say is that it's one of my two-year-olds' very favorite movies.

  • I think the Aristocats was a exactly what Woolie wanted it to be. It seems the shoe is on the other foot with this feature. Walt made Jungle Book a light-hearted romp over Bill Peet'sdarker version. Now the same thing happens to Walt's vision.

    I personally would have liked the original idea. For me, there was a little too much goofy slapstick with the 70s Disney features. Over analyzing by upper management was made crystal clear with that "too French" comment. Staying in the grand tradition that is post-Walt Disney Animation.

  • It's a tough call.  I enjoyed The Aristocats.  But a part of me always thought it could have been better.

    The funny thing is, Walt's version sounds a lot more like a Pixar movie to me.

  • As a kid, I really liked the 70s features and still like a lot about them. However, it's now a little strange to hear the Southern or rural-style accents of George "Goober" Lindsay and Pat Buttram in "The Aristocats" or the English-set "Robin Hood." They work well, though, as swamp creatures in "The Rescuers." Fun to hear, but strange, nevertheless, for those two European-based movies!

    EDITOR'S NOTE: I was talking with Joe Hale & Burny Mattinson about this during the press roundtable portion of this month's Destination D: 75 Years of Disney Animation Features. How it seemed like the executives who were charge of Walt Disney Animation Studios back in the late 1960s / early 1970s seemed to cast these films straight out of TV Guide. I mean, think about it: Sebastian Cabot from "Family Affair." Eva Gabor & Pat Buttrum from "Green Acres." Bob Newhart from ... Well, "The Bob Newhart Show." And Bernard Fox from "Bewitched." Irene Ryan & Nancy Kulp from "The Beverly Hillbillies." Joe Flynn from "McHale's Navy." George Lindsay from "The Andy Griffith Show." The list goes on & on ...

    Don't get me wrong. It's not that these actors are weren't all (in the end) perfect voices for the characters they wound up playing in these Disney animated films. And one might agree that some of these performers are now better known for the characters that they voiced in films like "The Aristocats" and "The Jungle Book" than their television or film work.

    But then again, as a baby boomer / child of the 1960s, I have to admit that it was always a little weird to go out to see the newest Disney animated feature and then get pulled out of that film for a second or two as your mind adjusted to the fact that Mr. French was now voicing Bagheera the Panther and/or Captain Binghampton was speaking for Mr. Snoops.

    But maybe that was just me. I mean, I can't assume that the rest of the movie-going public was as big a Disney dweeb and/or television geek as I was ... Right?

  • Walt was involved in an early version of The Little Mermaid as well. I feel this film is strictly post-Walt. While I would have loved to see the version with more "heart", as you say, Jim, this film did exactly what it was supposed to do: save feature animation at the time.

  • This film always seemed like it was following a formula too closely. As all Disney films, it has stellar animation and it did explore new material very effectively. Now that I know there was another version in the works and what it entailed, I believe it would have made a better film. But if Woolie's focus was to save the department, well he certainly did that, and we are all grateful. I worked on the Fox and the Hound but wouldn't have had that opportunity if feature animation had been shut down. None of us would.

  • One of Disney's most charming. It's a lovely film

  • I always thought that Walt really didn't put his touch on The Aristocats.  I now understand what Woolie felt he needed to do with the film, but it's not one of my favorites.  It is very derivative of 101 Dalmatians.  But I did like the cats.  I would have liked to see Walt's version.  Maybe somebody could make a version close to what Walt had in mind and re-introduce the feline characters to the Disney fans.

  • @TJ.  When I watched the 70s Walt Disney Feature Animation films, I did recognize the voices of all the TV people.  Now that you mention it, that was kind of strange Pat Buttram as Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood.  He sounded like a country bumpkin. I liked Sebastian Cabot as Bagheera.  He also was the narrator in the Winnie the Pooh films. Eva Gabor as Duchess and Bianca, and Phil Harris as Baloo and Little John sounded the same for each character.  I sort of didn't like that.  Sterling Holloway as Kaa and Winnie the Pooh didn't sound the same.

  • Ah, però! Non sapevo della gestazione de "Gli aristogatti". Trovo che alla fine l' aver fatto una scatenata commedia con scene d' azione sia il suo punto di forza e rende il film molto particolare. Si è tentato di ripete l' esperimento con "Home on the Range", ma ci si è riusciti solo in parte secondo me.

    Più "semplice" rispetto al già citato "Lady and the tramp" e a "One hundred and one dalmatians", risulta comunque sempre fresco, dinamico, divertente e spigliato. Qui in Italia siamo piuttosto affezionati a questo film che ho pure scoperto qualche anno fa essere uno dei maggiori successi del cinema d' animazione Disney da noi ^^.

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