Breaking Down Disney’s “Dark Age”: Part 1

WDPpresents

It is often stated that Walt Disney Animation Studios went through a prolonged “Dark Age” after the death of Walt Disney and the posthumous release of The Jungle Book. A dark age that would end with The Little Mermaid in 1989, often called the start of Disney’s Renaissance…

What is true is that the studio did face a lot of hard times without their leader. The early 1970s in particular. The animation studio reportedly was usually in the danger of being shut down by the higher-ups, so they had to seriously trim budgets, which I think had pretty bad effects on the first two features that entered production after Walt’s passing, the first of which was The Aristocats

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The Aristocats entered physical production after The Jungle Book‘s autumn 1967 release. Walt Disney had given the go-head to the project before his death, a project that had actually begun life as a two-part live-action TV special for Walt Disney’s anthology series in the early 1960s. After Walt’s death, director Wolfgang Reitherman – according to several reports and accounts – was literally forced to cut so many elements out of what was going to be a good, heartfelt 101 Dalmatians-esque adventure on the streets of Paris.

The Aristocats feels like “60s Disney’s Greatest Hits”, trying to go for that road movie-and-jazz songs structure that The Jungle Book had, and tying it to the comedy of the studio’s wacky live-action films of the era. There’s very little to get excited about in the thin story. Eccentric Madame Bonfamille intends to have her riches go to her cats after she passes on, and then once the cats pass, butler Edgar will inherit all of it. Edgar, being up there in age, plans to get rid of the cats and collect the fortune. After an encounter with two farm dogs, Edgar dumps the cats’ bed basket into the countryside. Duchess (voiced by a standout Eva Gabor) and her three kittens are stranded, but with the help of a savvy, charming alley cat named Thomas O’Malley, they begin their journey home.

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There is no ticking time clock, just a butler who is in the way. Unfortunately, Edgar’s not really a force to be reckoned with, he’s more of a bumbling fool than anything. With the similar 101 Dalmatians, Cruella was determined to her have dalmatian fur coat, and stopped at nothing to make sure the puppies were in her clutches. Thus, the movie’s second half is an ongoing chase. Edgar simply wants to abandon the cats in a faraway place, lowering the stakes a bit. In the climax, he tries to lock them in a trunk that’s to be sent to Timbuktu.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a less frantic story, but the film meanders to a fault. There’s a lack of focus, too. The film’s episodic structure could be forgiven if our characters were more compelling. It wouldn’t mind spending lazy time with very memorable faces. 1963’s The Sword in the Stone did just that. There’s no plot to that film, nor is there a looming threat, it’s just the meandering misadventures of Merlin and Arthur. That kind of approach is not Sword in the Stone‘s problem, its failure to pay off the themes and individual sequences with completing Arthur’s arc is.

Duchess and her three kittens are likeable enough, but aren’t highly memorable, while Thomas O’Malley (voiced by Phil Harris, obviously because of his successful performance as Baloo in Jungle Book) comes off as an alley cat version of the Tramp. They meet various faces that really just supply a few minutes of comedy (and sometimes music), but that’s about it. A stretch with two giddy geese and their drunken uncle mostly brings the picture to a grinding halt, but then we get to Scat Cat…

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Scat Cat’s gang stands out, a wild group of musical alley cats that love to rock their joint – an abandoned apartment. However, there are some issues in that pretty memorable portion of the film: The film is set in 1910 Paris, yet one of the cats is supposed to be like a late 60s hippie (showing how out-of-touch these older folk were with the hip crowd), most of the other cats are stereotypes, the most egregious being a Siamese cat who plays the piano with chopsticks and sings Chinese names and the names of Chinese objects. It’s embarrassing to say the least…

The other minor characters produce some strong comedic moments. On his way to the countryside, a motorcycling Edgar gets the attention of two farm dogs, Napoleon and Lafeyette. Green Acres‘ Pat Buttram and The Andy Griffith Show‘s George Lindsey voice them, respectively… Wait hold on… Why is an Americna South flavor in 1910 France? These are bizarre additions to a cast that’s already not quite consistent, though the performers did do an overall fine job. Edgar’s run-ins with them make for fun slapstick and an energetic action set-piece that adds a little oomph to the crawling film.

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It almost feels like you can separate all of these sequences, and turn them into fun featurettes. I feel the same way about The Sword in the Stone, though unlike Sword, there is a climax here and a bit of a plot.

With such limited resources, Wolfgang Reitherman, the other Nine Old Men, and the rest of the crew did what they could to make The Aristocats a pleasing romp. Perhaps they knew going into it, with all the limitations imposed on them, that they weren’t going to make the next Lady and the Tramp, or the next Snow White. It’s easy to blame the film’s issues on the lack of Walt’s guidance, but to me this insinuates that the Nine Old Men weren’t able to tell good stories without their maestro. They, I think, would prove later on that without Walt, they could indeed impress. They just needed more freedom, a bigger budget…

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Visually, The Aristocats looks fine enough. It tries to go for the look of 101 Dalmatians (mainly in the Paris-set scenes), but at the same time tries to go for The Jungle Book‘s lush art direction (for the countryside sequences). It’s a weird hybrid but it is satisfying enough, making it look far more advanced than your average early 70s Saturday morning cartoon. Perhaps the most exciting visual moments in the film come from the scene where Scat Cat’s band goes all out, colored filters bring a light psychedelic vibe to the jazzy number.

The Aristocats has aged okay. Definitely out-of-place and square in late 1970, it felt like an old-timey family comedy that belonged in 1960 more so than the year it hit theaters. With the introduction of the MPAA’s new rating system in 1968, the company wanted to stick to the kind of family-friendly films Walt specialized in from the 1950s up until his death. They didn’t want a potential PG film, or something more foreboding for younger audiences like Pinocchio. The Aristocats fit their bill, a fun innocuous little romp with great music by the Sherman Brothers and others.

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Watching it now without placing oneself in 1970, it’s pleasant enough, and produces a few laughs and toe-tapping moments. At other times, it’s cloying, sugary, and a little too cutesy for its own good. Earlier Disney animated features balanced the cute factor out, so the films never seemed too sappy or treacly. At times, The Aristocats feels like a through-and-through “kids” film rather than a film that the whole family could enjoy. Certainly a bit of a step back for the studio at the time, I think they somewhat got their act together for the next feature.

For many years, Walt Disney had looked into adapting the classic fable character Reynard the Fox. At one point in the studio’s history, development on feature starring Reynard and rooster Chanticleer had commenced. Then, in the early 1960s, an infamous pitch for an animated feature based on Edmund Rostand’s play Chantecler went over terribly. It seems like DNA strands from those failed projects found their way into the next feature.

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Robin Hood, also directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, has that same sequences-pieced-together structure of the previous three pictures. The stakes are a little higher this time, but the story prefers to meander for a little while and then have a plotline in its second half. Robin Hood has that same laid-back fun vibe of The Aristocats, but there’s a little more punch here. For starters, our cast of character is a winner…

Many of the characters are instantly likable, sport great designs (though they are a far cry from the original designs that Ken Anderson had done), and are bolstered by the voice actors who play them. Like The Jungle Book and The Aristocats, Robin Hood‘s backed with an all-star cast. Brian Bedford turns in a sly and heartfelt-heroic performance as Robin Hood, Phil Harris is Baloo again with Little John (his design being the weakest, a cut-and-paste of Baloo with a recolor), Peter Ustinov hams it up as the whiny and cowardly Prince John. Terry-Thomas is great fun as the slithery Sir Hiss, Pat Buttram plays a mean Sheriff of Nottingham. Actually, what’s fascinating about half of this cast is that it’s country-and-western, rather than British.

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While a fair share of British actors are on board, a chunk of the cast seems to evoke down South rather than Merry Old England. Buttram’s a fine example ditto George Lindsey (who plays vulture henchmen Trigger) and country singer Roger Miller, who voices narrator-balladeer rooster Alan-a-Dale. Longtime Western actor Andy Devine turns in a somewhat overblown performance as Friar Tuck. (“Get out of my church!”)

Musically, Robin Hood‘s a lot of fun. Miller provides a lot of the songs, while Floyd Huddleston (Aristocats‘ ‘Ever’body Wants to Be a Cat’) and veteran songwriter/Capitol Records founder Johnny Mercer fill in the gaps. Miller’s opening ‘Whistle Stop’ is guaranteed to stay in your head once you’ve heard it, a fun little tune that sets the tone of the picture. ‘Oo-De-Lally’ is minimalist, country finger-pickin’ fun, while the dreary ‘Not in Nottingham’ is the polar opposite – a haunting accompaniment to all of Nottingham’s citizens being taxed out the wazoo and being sent to jail. ‘The Phony King of England’ is the ‘I Wan’na Be Like You’/’Ever’body Wants to Be a Cat’ of the picture, the bring-down-the-house, middle-of-the-movie dance number. ‘Love’, sadly, is just a generic if not maudlin love ballad that doesn’t do much service to Robin and Maid Marian’s relationship, feeling like the obligatory love song.

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The film is set on an alternate Earth that’s populated by human-like animals, a long-used format in animation, as it endures today in films like DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda trilogy and Disney Animation’s latest, Zootopia. The filmmakers go for a loose, cartoony tone. Lots of slapstick dominates, but the more intense moments don’t feel out of place. There are also some really goofy, very bizarre sequences here too! Lady Kluck’s square off against Prince John’s rhino guards is staged like a football game, set to the fight songs of the University of Southern California and University of Wisconsin! In fact, Robin Hood‘s action set-pieces bring some thrills. The lengthy showdown after Robin Hood is revealed at the archery tournament is a great middle, and the climax is a very slow burn. Starting with Robin Hood and Prince John quietly busting everyone out of jail, it’s pretty darn suspenseful! Then when everything goes awry, the climax escalates and escalates. It’s so much fun to watch, though the climax ends on a whimper. Why’s that?

While Robin Hood definitely has more character and verve than The Aristocats, it’s still held back due to the studio brass’ budgetary concerns of the early 1970s. The majority of the ‘Phony King from England’ sequence infamously recycles animation from The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, and even Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Many scenes have recycled animation of scenes we see earlier in the film. (i.e. marching rhino guards, trumpeting elephants.) Even the opening book doesn’t turn a page, instead we get a wipe transition. The one element of the film that was effected by all of this the most was the ending. Originally, King Richard was set to show up during the final climax looking quite furious, the scene got as far as the pencil test phase. (Reportedly shown on an episode of the Disney Family Album in 1984, though I have yet to find the clip of it. You can see a storyboarded alternate ending on the 2006 DVD and the recent Blu-ray) Instead, the climax stops and fades out when Prince John angrily chases Sir Hiss into his flaming castle, and Alan-a-Dale tells us that King Richard returned and straightened everything out. King Richard makes a very brief appearance during the wedding ceremony and then the picture’s over.

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The Disney animation house simply had to stay alive in the early 1970s, even if it meant cutting corners and extensive reuse of things. There is effort in both The Aristocats and Robin Hood, they are attempts at being fun comedy romps for everyone to enjoy. While The Aristocats sags too much and doesn’t have compelling characters, Robin Hood feels much more lively, is paced better, and has a great cast of characters that make up for the movie’s shortcomings. Audiences were charitable, The Aristocats was a box office hit, Robin Hood at the time pocketed the highest gross for an animated feature on its initial release. Both films, however, were met with generally lukewarm reviews.

During production of Robin Hood, Disney had begun to hire more animators, many young upstarts looking to make their mark in the medium and perhaps breathe some new energy into the studio’s animation. One of those new people wasn’t young, but he sure had ambition. His last name rhymed with Tooth. 1974’s Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too! would be a training film for these people, alongside other projects, which would prepare them for something bigger… Something that, to me, shows that the 1970s wasn’t all that bad for Walt Disney Animation Studios…

We’ll take a look at that very film in the next part

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