Disney's Aristocats is really an Art Film.

March 1, 2018

 

When you're used to consuming the latest arts du cinema, or elbowing your way into cafe conversations focused on names like Cassavetes and Rohmer, or heck, let's throw in Refn for laughs, suddenly finding yourself slumped on a couch with your three-year-old daughter, eyes vacant and glued to the fifteenth screening of her favorite episode of Dinosaur Train can come as a bit of a shock to the system.

 

Don't misunderstand me. I love, love, love my daughter. To describe my fatherly affection would require more saccharine than you'd find in the entirety of Frank Capra's filmography. Still, a man who's spent his years loving thoughtful, complex films for grownups (including Capra) is somewhat at sea when restricted to what were once dismissed as cartoons. The mental rigor required to remain sane in this new, barren landscape may be on par with that of Steve McQeen's "Cooler King" in The Great Escape, minus his handy baseball mitt. Yet, stay sane we must. Our little girls grow up fast, and require less and less constant attention (new dads take note) just as a curious condition sets in, after a time, where you find yourself really wanting to hang out with her for as long as possible, to share the things she finds interesting or compelling, while you may. At some point, you hope, with luck, you may even find her sitting down to the classic films you cherish, inheriting your love of great cinema, and eventually (dare I dream it?) becoming a bit of a film snob like yourself.

 

But it's got to start somewhere, and it's all going to be on her terms, I'm afraid.

 

So...bring on the cartoons!

 

Uh...animated classics!

 

Don't despair. You love great movies, right? And this love stems from a deep appreciation of what goes into crafting a classic tale, in the hands of an unparalleled master of the art form, no doubt. The true poet can see the world in a grain of sand, so put your own keen powers of observation to work while stuck in the animated purgatory of fatherhood and find the complex art embedded in some of childhood's favorite films. You may even rediscover the reasons you became such a film snob in the first place.

 

To that end, here are the 7 things that make Disney's The Aristocats a perfect Art House movie, or at least a momentary substitute, to help brighten up your animated internment.

 

1. Unconventional Titles

 

Whether it's the famous four-minute take that opens Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, the graphic simplicity of Juno's credits, or the film-school innocence of Wes Anderson's page-turning titles for Life Aquatic, a film's opening announces its tone, and even more, its artistic aspirations. Aristocats opens with a very strange mix of colored textures, alluding to its later indulgence in late 60's psychedelia, crossed with titles appearing, literally, on a painting (read "art") canvas. Throw in Maurie Chevalier's anachronistic theme song and you've got a our attention right out of the projector gate!

 

 

2. Unconventional Score

 

When low budget auteurs can't afford big set pieces and cinematic grandeur, sometimes they grab an audience by its ears. Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, and others were known for drawing the complex lives of their characters by letting us hear their everyday anthems. While Disney is far from such early starving artists, here we do get some great Jazz thrown into an otherwise standard symphonic score. The odd mix perfectly underscores the "outsider" status of our wandering heroes, and also brings us the now classic, one of a kind number, "Everybody Wants to be a Cat."

 

3. Unconventional Art Design

 

Much like the music, the animation style here is eclectic, ranging from the austere hand-drawn style of Disney's Bronze Age, to the unique, trippy, phase-shifting color of its central musical scene. Add to this some of its every-frame-an-oil-painting backgrounds of Paris and you get a visual treat that stands out in the Disney animated universe.

 

4. It dares to be boring.

 

That's right. We're going there. Every good indie director knows that sometimes breaking free from narrative constraint and letting your characters guide the film, in effect letting them become the story, can earn you some serious Art House cred. Cassavetes famously improvised large swaths of his material, and Richard Linklater made drifting between his characters with his camera a more literal exercise in films like Slacker. Likewise, in Aristocats, we have whole scenes where we engage with new characters who entertain us for a short time and then disappear, never advancing the plot.

 

Nevertheless, stuffy geese Abigal, Amelia, and their drunk Uncle Waldo add something memorable to what is essentially a road movie, in a way other more tightly constructed characters and films often fail to.

 

 

 

5. Female Protagonist & Breaking Barriers

 

1970 may have been the heart of the Sexual Revolution and a heyday for progressive politics, but we're still inside a Disney movie here, folks. One Day at a Time (and even the taboo-busting All in the Family) had yet to debut on TV, yet here we have a main character in Duchess who is not only a single mom raising three children, but she's also playing the field without any shame. Not too shabby in the barrier busting department!

 

6. It's an ensemble piece, with kids front and center.

 

Speaking of taboos, while 1995's Kids used its cast of youngsters to draw a risque' cross section of American urban youth, and Little Miss Sunshine colored outside traditional movie lines and allowed its diminutive protagonist to let her freak flag fly, the feline "children"presented here (Marie, Berlioz, and Toulouse) hold their own as lovable but spoiled heroes who put aside their preconceptions and embrace life how the other half lives it. Their trusting acceptance of the (potentially dodgy) Thomas O'Malley and his band of counterculture outsiders brings us along for the ride in a way that a straight-up one-on-one romance could not have achieved quite so poignantly.

 

7. Down & Out "Fringe" Characters

 

From Godard's Breathless, to Renoir's Boudu Saved From Drowning,  all the way up through 1969's Easy Rider, it became a well-worn trope of the Art Film scene to prop up gritty, counter-culture antiheroes (both behind and in front of the camera), at least until these became the world's de facto subjects. Once upon a time, Jazz sprouted as America's hedonistic answer to the miseries of World War I, and with it the mythos of the original hipster, an anti-establishment, disenfranchised loner entered American consciousness alongside Tom Joad, eventually merging a ragtime-fueled syncopation into the Beat Generation of the 1950's. The counter-culture figures embodied by Thomas O'Malley and his "gang" of couch-surfing musicians, visibly torn from many nations and cast together into a new, uniquely American form (led by another true original, scat-cat's Scatman Crothers) are virtually a paean to the underbelly of the naturalized American outsider in general, and an outsider cinema in particular; poured from the foundry of alienation where all new art forms emerge. The Aristocats, unlike other more classical Disney fare, is unique in its departure from what came before it, cheerfully embracing its bold new world in a time when cultural revolution lay around every corner. It stands out in the Disney canon, like the proud individualists it celebrates, and for this, almost 50 years on, we celebrate it too!

 

You can see our Parent's Review of The Aristocats, along with our other reviews, over at our Daddy-Daughter Movie Night channel on YouTube, or watch it below.

 

 

 

 

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