It seems like the 1970s were a weird time to be alive, and I think the films Disney released in this decade kind of encapsulate that.
A couple of these films I hadn’t seen before, and the others were a delight to revisit.
The Aristocats (1970, Wolfgang Reitherman)
This is one of my personal favourites about a family of cats who are so beloved by their owner, they become beneficiaries to her estate. Her butler, Edgar, takes exception, and decides to murder them. Yes, that’s correct: murder. For someone worried about the initial The Jungle Book storyboard being too dark, Disney sure is fine with a lot of discussion around killing animals… It’s quite funny watching how quickly Edgar goes to murder. A little too quickly perhaps? He didn’t even wait to have a conversation with his mistress, and he’s immediately attempting theriocide.
Throughout this project, I’ve noticed that a preoccupation of Disney films seems to be this obsessive characterisation of good girls with bad boys. I know a lot of this is based on the films being the product of their own environment, and the reflection of how women are treated in society through to the representation of female characters onscreen. But it is a motif that occurs throughout a lot of Disney’s catalogue. We even see it in Peter Pan – Wendy is the innocent young girl corrupted by Peter’s inability to grow up.
A more obvious comparison is with Lady and the Tramp, a film that is recognisably similar to The Aristocats. This film is basically Lady and the Tramp… but with cats. Now don’t get me wrong, I really love this movie, but it’s hard not to see the similarities and repetitiveness of the narrative. Like Tramp, O’Malley is another fuckboy, buttering up Duchess and doling out all sorts of cringey lines. Unfortunately, Duchess falls for it.
This film isn’t without other trappings of its time. The musician cats are unfortunately racist stereotypes, which is disappointing to see. Still, it’s nice that Disney now have a disclaimer before their films acknowledging that they regret this, while still having the film in its original form to learn from.
I love that the story was originally going to be about a butler and a maid who were in line to inherit the fortune of an estate, and that the story became more and more focused on the cats with each script revision. Could a film about cats occur any other way?
Interestingly, and in a huge development for voice acting, the characters were semi-based on the personalities of the voice actors. The Jungle Book’s Baloo, voiced by Phil Harris, is back as O’Malley, and Eva Gabor’s voice helped form the character of Duchess. Both are perfectly cast, according to Roger Ebert in his review here, which I would highly recommend reading if not just for Ebert’s beautiful writing.
Toulouse, Marie, and Berlioz are also characterised beautifully – each with enough individuality and personality that they are distinct characters. This film just has part of my heart, and not least because ‘Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat’ is an absolute banger. Sadly, The Aristocats was the last film scored by the Sherman brothers, who lost faith in the studio and left following Walt Disney’s death. Only one of their songs ended up included in the film.
The Aristocats was hugely successful upon release, and completely loved by both audiences and critics. I’m included in this, too – it’s a great film, and perfectly pitched to a young audience.
Long story short, I am the old cat lady who leaves everything to her pets. So, I hope you enjoyed getting a glimpse of future me.
Robin Hood (1973, Wolfgang Reitherman)
To be perfectly honest, I actually don’t think I had seen Robin Hood before now. I was aware of the fable, of course, and knew that the character was a (literal, not figurative) fox in the Disney interpretation, but that was about as much as I knew.
It didn’t really grab me, I’m ashamed to say. We have another good girl in Maid Marian and a bad boy with Robin Hood, which instantly made me disengage with that relationship. (Side note: this is prime dissertation real estate if you’re studying animation and gender studies.)
As has become custom in Disney’s films, production and development was a mess of people coming up with ideas, being told to rewrite, and eventually having their ideas taken and given to someone else to work on. It’s disheartening to read as an aspiring film writer, that something you loved and worked so hard on can be taken away from you and morphed into its most reductive, simplistic form. I feel bad for Ken Anderson, who reportedly cried when he saw his original character concepts mutated into generic stereotypes. All it takes is a studio exec to tell you they want a buddy film and out the window your whole storyboarding goes.
Robin Hood does have really interesting commentary on how a society crumbles under the weight of an oppressive monarchy. There are some touching moments of the animals supporting each other, offering the last skerricks of food they have or money they were saving for a rainy day. It’s got a world-weary, insightful, perceptive quality to it that elevates it beyond a children’s film.
The anthropomorphic animals are charming and likeable, and it’s an interesting lens through which to view the Robin Hood tale, but I wasn’t really invested in it.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman)
What an interesting way to do a film! I think this marks the first time in animated film history where we have some semblance of a fourth wall being broken. Further than that, the characters know they are in a book, as they tumble across and into pages of the story. The film is essentially a series of vignettes, where Pooh and all his friends get into mischief.
This film actually reminded me of how underrated the live-action Christopher Robin was. I did a podcast review on it a couple of years ago, which you can listen to here.
There isn’t a lot of information available about this film’s production, only that one of the shorts was previously released in Disney’s lifetime and that he was involved in the production of another one. Apparently, the film holds a 100% approval rating with critics on Rotten Tomatoes, mostly praising the film as a ‘faithful literary adaptation’. I have to say I’m a little surprised, although less so when I think about the ages of these critics at the time of release, and realise many of them had a lot of nostalgia surrounding A. A. Milne’s stories.
I didn’t feel that personally. Mostly, I was infuriated by Tigger, and surprisingly uncharmed by Pooh’s naivety. The vignettes are fine, and jumping into snapshots of characters that I already knew works kind of well. I don’t know if there’s enough narrative to hold them all together as one feature film, though.
One thing I know for sure: nothing has looked more delicious on film than Pooh’s honey.
The Rescuers (1977, Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lounsbery, Art Stevens)
What a beautiful concept for a film! Even ‘The Rescue Aid Society’, an internationally reaching mouse organisation dedicated to helping children around the world. Just… genius. Give someone an Oscar just for that.
And it’s great! It’s engaging, dynamic in its illustration, and has enough sentimentality to feel like a true Disney film. I think this is one of the most underrated films I’ve watched so far, and would highly recommend giving this a watch, if you haven’t already seen it. It is quite dark, with Penny being abducted, used as child labour, and physically and emotionally abused, but I think the film toes the line really well.
Although a more faithful adaptation to the book sounds almost more appealing, Disney wasn’t happy with the ‘political overtones’ inherent in the initial storyboards. The film found a production stronghold with the young animators in a smaller ‘B picture’ team, and when the project the ‘A Team’ were working on didn’t get green lit, they turned their attention to this.
The critics loved it. Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times praised the film as “the best feature-length animated film from Disney in a decade or more—the funniest, the most inventive, the least self-conscious, the most coherent, and moving from start to finish, and probably most important of all, it is also the most touching in that unique way fantasy has of carrying vibrations of real life and real feelings.” You can read more from him here.
Here’s a crazy fact: the second release of the film onto home video resulted in a recall, as an ‘objectionable image’ of a topless woman was found in one of the film’s backgrounds in a post-production prank. It’s interestingly not able to be seen in ordinary viewing because the film’s 24 frames per second is too fast, so it’s only able to be found through slow forwarding. The nudity was ‘blocked out’ from the rerelease, which I assume means they just coloured over it?! Does that mean we all have secret nudity in our children’s films?! What a bizarre situation.
Eva Gabor is back from The Aristocats to voice Bianca, and she’s perfectly cast, adding credibility to the international reach of ‘The Rescue Aid Society’. But she isn’t the only component of the film that’s reused. It becomes apparent around this time in Disney’s history when characters become reused project to project. While I didn’t notice this as a child, it really takes me out of the film as an adult. I don’t know if I’m advocating for each character to be fresh and unique, but it is a little disheartening when the same owl in the bayou (for example) is copy and pasted from Sleeping Beauty. Yes, time saving. Yes, there’s only so many ways Disney can draw an owl within that animation style. But when even the same colouring is used, you can’t help but feel like the team didn’t apply themselves fully.
I recalled this film and its sequel fondly (The Rescuers was the first Disney animated feature to even have a sequel, as it happens), but something it sparked in me was thoughts around Disney’s characterisation of female villains. I’m not trying to be #woke here, but I think not commenting on this would be remiss of me.
So, Madame Medusa was purportedly based on one of the animator’s wives, whom he didn’t like very much. Wikipedia says: “This was Kahl’s last film for the studio, and he wanted his final character to be his best; he was so insistent on perfecting Madame Medusa that he ended up doing almost all the animation for the character himself.” Am I the only one who has an issue with a thinly veiled attack on his current wife folded into a kids’ movie? It got me thinking about Cruella de Vil, and her stark, bony, jagged characterisation, and it’s difficult not to see some of the animator’s attitudes towards women peeking through their art styles. Then I thought back to the films I’d seen so far: out of all the films I’ve watched, over a third of them have female villains. This isn’t a problem in itself, but when you have one of the animators saying on record that it was a deliberate attack on his wife… that just doesn’t sit right with me.
Of course, The Rescuers isn’t the only film to do this, but I think it’s worth paying attention to when undertaking a project such as this. Overall, the film was an unexpected delight, and I would very much recommend it.
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