Charming the collar off Eva Gabor? That’s pure O’Malley, baby

aristocats logo 2

The Aristocats (1970)

It’s been a couple of years since I had the urge to order vol-au-vents, aubergine, café au lait and escargots as my entrée ensemble, but believe it or not, I speak good French. Or at least, I used to. It’s funny this, but having spent seven years plus change (plus ça change?) learning French, I can do a lot more with it than I can with the Irish language, which non-dunderhead kids are made to sit through for around 13 years in school.

That calls to mind the idea of what it means to be ‘fluent’ in a language. It’s all well and good being able to write out a postcard and counting to five. And even basic stuff like that can have you imagining yourself in that wonderful scenario where you too will one day travel to a south-of-France vineyard to do some sunbasked summer work. Better still, you could find yourself working alongside a Béatrice or an Aurélie or a Fabienne who puts you in the mind of a Gallic, slightly farmgirlish Audrey Hepburn – a jolie fille to sit down and quaff a cheeky wine with after your shift is over. 

Any man out there who’s deigned to take up a second language has had this same fantasy or daydream about language learning eventually paying dividends in the form of striking up a wondrous conversation with a girl in her native language. You’ve been spending weeks trying to wrap your laughing gear around the Mars Attack alien creole known as Finnish for the last few months, and now you’ve finally got the chance to practice it on a Suomi stunner – only for her to look at her feet and give you a monosyllabic answer. Well, what do you expect from the Finns?

You just remember dear Robin Williams’ words in Dead Poets Society – language was invented for one reason, to woo women, and in that endeavour laziness will not do. I’d actually postulate that it’s the only reason men learn languages. Well, unless you’re a non-native English speaker and you want to catch all of the nuanaces Spongebob, with slightly less goofy voice-acting.

Or perhaps other men want to go all-in on their weebness, in which case they take the terrifying task of learning Japanese with its three alphabets, hundreds of honorifics and millions of ways you can cause a social catastrophe by telling people you’ve got the wrong blood group.

I chose to learn French in school because it wasn’t German, which is a shame because it means my chances of buying (and indeed understanding) a PAL version of Soul Blazer for SNES diminished terrifically. Probably the idea that French was the language of love also inspired my thinking, although now it turns out that actually Italian’s what you need. Or is it Spanish?

Either way, having fully waded into the murky mires of French, it’s easy to see why a lot of newcomer Francophones feel that it’s not worth the hassle. Irregular verbs, that accent, making your tongue move in ways that even pornstars could scarcely inspire, there’s a lot there to intimidate you. Certainly I couldn’t imagine a greater social pressure than trying to speak French with a native Parisian. If you’re really bad, they’ll just walk off with a snooty look, and maybe even spit at you.

But what’s worse than that, miles worse, is if you’re a fairly moderate French speaker – but not good enough for the Parisian, who responds to your pidgin French by speaking English back at you, looking like an annoyed porcupine. Not such a cool cat now, are you?

It was un deux trois cats in the 1970 Disney classic The Aristocats, although mercifully, none of them sank. The picture takes place in Paris in the early 1900s where a retired, aristocratic opera singer and possible former harlot lives with her four cats. Is that the female dream, or what? Better than that, she’s unmarried and has no children, hence she draws up a will that’ll see her entire estate going to her feline children – much to the chagrin of her underappreciated butler, Edgar. Even as a child, I remember thinking that that was just a bit ridiculous. Why would a woman only bother with cats, and include them in her will? If I only knew.

After all, cats just have that way of getting in there, don’t they? You try to give them attention and they can’t wait to scurry away. But see when you demonstrably ignore them – there they are meowing and burrowing into you and purring, so what else can you do but begrudgingly rub the darn cat and have done with it?

Edgar the butler didn’t seem to think so. He’s a bit of a dimwit but you can’t help having sympathy for somebody who’s forcibly exposed to how the other half live, each and every single day of his working life. He’s been nice as pie to the madam of the house his whole life, and now four stinking cats are going to inherit it all? He’s not prepared to wait for the pesky cats to die, although he’s not so evil that he’d slaughter them all either, so I think his plan to make them disappear is a fair compromise.

In amongst all this is a rare thing for 1970s Hollywood, or indeed 1910s Paris – Duchess, the adult female cat, is a single mother to her three kittens Marie, Berlioz and Toulouse. High-brow names, you know what I mean? You’d be forgiven for forgetting all about Berlioz and Toulouse though, and even Duchess herself, since Marie gets 99.9% of all the Aristocats-based merchandise and exposure. She ain’t a Disney princess, but she’d make a good companion for one.

After Edgar invokes his plan and the cats are haphazardly displaced into the Parisian countryside (does such a thing exist anymore?), they confusedly try to make their way home. But wouldn’t you know it, a male kitty suitor walks straight out of the Rat Pack and into Duchess’ life. Meet Thomas O’Malley, the alley cat – he’s cool as a cucumber, and if chemistry can exist between two voice-actors who may not have ever even met each other, then it’s definitely there between Eva Gabor and Phil Harris.

It all culminates in a joint effort back at the stately home, where O’Malley and his fellow jazz-playing scat-cats all team up to send Edgar off to Timbuktu. After that, there’s the usual bombastic singalong piece of music that brings you to the ending card – the correctly titled ‘Everybody Wants to be a Cat’. And, in a fashion not too dissimilar to Mickey Rooney’s turn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, you’ve got a hell of a racist Asian cat joining in with this piece.

You also need a bit of comic relief alongside all of the accordion music and the bebopping cats, and they come in the form of two dumb dogs that seem to always pop up when Edgar least needs them. “I’m the leader” drawls Napoleon, before following exactly whatever his supposed subordinate suggests. There’s also the two scatter-brained geese that accompany the cats back to Paris, meeting up with their drunken uncle.

That above paragraph makes me realise that The Aristocats is a pretty wild picture after all, but when you’re watching it, you just tend to accept everything that’s happening. The animation, especially in fast moving scenes like when Edgar’s getting smacked around on the back of his early 20th century motorbike, isn’t quite the crispest even when you take the 1970 release date into account. But the cats move and jump and prowl as they should, the music and story are nice, the humour is there and the whole film is pretty homely and relaxed. This one’s perhaps not in Disney’s Top 10, or even Top 20, but it gets a très bien from me.

3 April 2020

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