Anachronism and Aristocats: A Case Study

(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://www.dogalize.com/2018/06/everybody-wants-to-be-a-cat/)

The recent launch of Disney+ has led many people to revisit the entirety of the Disney catalog, ranging from animated classics like Beauty and the Beast to less than stellar hand drawn features like The Jungle Book along with recent Marvel fare and nostalgic trips through Disney Afternoon and Disney Channel programming (and yes, Baby Yoda). One of the many titles available is The Aristocats, a 1970 animated film centering on a female cat named Duchess and her three kittens, Toulouse, Marie, and Berlioz, owned by a wealthy former opera singer, Madame Adelaide Bonfamille.

When Bonfamille reveals that she is leaving her entire inheritance to her cats, her butler, believing that the inheritance was to be his, resolves to get rid of the cats. Duchess and the kittens meet an alley cat named Thomas O’Malley and attempt to return to their mistress and their lavish home. And…that’s it, that’s the story. Oh, and there’s a mouse named Roquefort because France, one memorable jazz song toward the end, a racist caricature that would make Mickey Rooney blush, and likely the most notable exposure of the West African hub Timbuktu for many children.

The film is light on story, moves at a brisk pace, and contains a lot of reused animatics, owing to the ease of copying through xerography animation used by Disney since the early 1960s. It is a movie that is hardly a classic, but ultimately, it’s a serviceable film about cute cats and kittens being cute cats and kittens, one for children to enjoy and later demand toys.

However, two scenes from this film stand out, not because they are particularly bad or particularly good, but because of their odd presence within the narrative. The very beginning  establishes (very prominently) that the movie is set in Paris, 1910, still within the zenith of aristocratic values before the trauma and bloodshed of World War I. Yet, two elements within Aristocats are utterly anachronistic, deviating not only from the temporal setting but the mentalité of the era that they are worthy of discussion.

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Abstract? More like, abs-cat…(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios)

The first moment occurs within the first act of the film devoted to illustrating the lavish lives of the “aristocats” and how they go about their day. As youngest kitten Berlioz practices piano and middle kitten Marie engages in a dramatic struggle with trying to stay in tune, the oldest kitten, Toulouse, works on his painting. The purpose of this scene is to convey a sense of refinement within the daily lives of the aristocats, highlighting art as the pinnacle of proper living.

Yet, Toulouse, a cat in 1910 Paris, does not paint within the style of the era, certainly not borrowing from the impressionist tradition of his namesake, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Instead, he approaches paint and canvas in a manner akin to Jackson Pollack, producing an abstract work of art that would certainly be familiar to the 1970 viewing audience but absolutely at odds with Belle Époque Paris. The abstract forms of art popular after World War II and the surrealist and Dadaist aesthetic tradition that inspired them emerged within a specific context, one that would tonally be at odds with the values of the aristocats.

Dadaism and surrealism began as a response and critique of the ideology and logic driving World War I, artists looking at the destructive capacity of the war and critiquing and lambasting all of the discourses that led to that point. “Civility,” a theme heavily implied in the film (though not in its racial or Social Darwinist context), drove European powers to war and violence, leading Dadaists to redefine and quite literally turn the meaning of art upside down in protest. Surrealist and abstract art, essentially a middle finger to convention and pre-World War I aristocratic values, being readily accepted by the aristocats, especially before the war, is a decision informed by misinformation about history.

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Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios

The second of anachronism occurs during the song “Ev’rybody Wants to be a Cat,” quite easily the best scene in the movie due to it’s psychedelic imagery (and being the only memorable part of the film, stereotypes and all). The song and the performance invoke jazz and swing, a dramatic shift from “scales and arpeggios” and the classical fare that would more likely be enjoyed by aristocats. Unlike abstract art, jazz was at least developing by 1910, but it was still largely confined to New Orleans, a fusion of ragtime and blues, European melodies and African percussion patterns, performed by African American musicians like Jelly Roll Morton. Jazz became wildly popular in Europe, the representation of “American music” before rock n’roll of the 1960s, but it was very, very unlikely that anyone in 1910 Paris was familiar with or a fan off American jazz. Moreover, those consisting the aristocracy would be even less likely to widely accept jazz due to the need to maintain “proper civility” and appreciate “true art.” Thus, Duchess and the kittens dancing and enjoying the jazz performance is at odds temporally and with the mentalité of the time.

For those that would argue, “this is a movie for children, one focused on cute cats not concerned with history, it doesn’t have to be historically true,” well, you’re right. The Aristocats never claims to be a documentary of the the period or an accurate encapsulation of the era, it’s light entertainment aimed at children. But, I believe that the anachronism in this film is particularly interesting and revealing, not so much for the narrative of the feature but the broader meta-narrative of Disney.

While The Jungle Book was released in 1967, one year after Walt Disney’s death, it was still a film with significant input from the man in charge. The Aristocats, the next feature released, was the first of a new era, one in which Walt was no longer at the creative helm. The incorporation of anachronistic elements, I argue, are not an attempt to blur history intentionally. Instead, latching on to popular elements of the 1960s and 1970s represents an attempt to chart a new course, to reach and maintain an audience, or as many other outlets would put it, “Disney trying to be cool.” With one man so central to the creative process within the animation studio no longer present, anything produced after is bound to be dramatically different, with some contending that The Aristocats serves as the beginning of “a dark age.” This is too much doom and gloom (many of the golden age Disney films really don’t hold up, and that’s without accounting for the numerous racist elements), but the Disney films of the 1970s and 1980s are certainly different from those that came before. The anachronism of The Aristocats exemplifies the new methods used by the animators and new thinking within the studio, one that certainly differed from “Walt’s vision.”

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