The Aristocats (1970)
Dir. Wolfgang Reitherman
Oh, c’est très jolie, monsieur. Very poetic. But it is not quite Shakespeare.
Where One Hundred and One Dalmatians permeates a hip decadence shambling along Ronald Searle black ink expressionism, jazz-inspired Cliff Roberts rhythms of angular colour-blocks, and late fifties fashion illustration, smelling of ashtrays left in the rain, rotting leaves, damp carpets, and creaky floorboards, The Aristocats is that step in an illustration before style dictates the next one. Where One Hundred and One Dalmatians felt improvised, The Aristocats is only ambiguously finished. It’s ever so slightly a reflected image of the world outside The Aristocats, just broken and still rendering, where that other one extracts what it needs from a much bigger picture. The faces are the scratchy character studies drawn on a bus to be reworked at a later date, but they’re frozen like that never to be abstracted into a cartoon-proper. There’s a weird kind of specificity to the images as a consequence of this, a life-force that through quiet intense passion and unresolved problems has the work both reflecting and transcending its limits.
The artist, stoned, drawing from life, suddenly remembers for the first time in years a picture book they revered as children but with great sadness came to realise meant nothing to anyone else for it was always nondescript to anyone who failed to live precisely the same life as the artist when the book entered theirs. Whether or not the book was ever read by anyone else is irrelevant at this stage. The artist’s act of revenge in The Aristocats is too hazy to be described clearly, but it can be felt undeniably in the small poignant touch in the individual blades of grass or the lines delineating rot in the wood or the cold grime of the cobblestones, and it is most concentrated in the farmland at night which with all its sensuous energy feels like the film’s heart and centrepiece: the thing is that it’s here that narrative refuses to tread, a sort of no-man’s land for emotionally charged backdrops and extended slapstick gags. It is here that the film is liberated from everything The Aristocats is on paper- now a surreal Gothic landscape about nothing in particular. The composite rolls into the day as well, making for, as two of the characters remark, something that feels frighteningly like Enid Blyton’s England.
Somewhere in the haze is a half-arsed love letter to Paris that stirs the right senses (still only about half as strong as the mud and wet grass of the farm), but which never solidifies into anything concrete as there’s even less effort made turning the film into an odyssey than there is tying any the threads together for the narrative climax. It’s like they brought someone else in for the job, and that person looked at what they had to work with, at the illustrator crying into an old picture book, at the script that ends when Uncle Waldo walks drunk into the night (‘the cats go home… Edgar is there’ followed by crumpled empty pages), at the empty desks of the animation team, and then they sighed this shit wouldn’t have happened five years ago.