The Aristocats is one of my absolute favourite Disney films, but up until now I have not featured any art from the film in a Masterpiece Monday post. This is mostly because there is very little art work or information released to the public. There is however some beautiful character concept art out there by Ken Anderson. This piece of the 3 kittens is particularly adorable and is very telling about what the development process was like for the film. As it was the first film made after Walt Disney’s death the film’s crew was left without their main guiding creative force and the budget for animated films was tight. This left Ken Anderson and the rest of the animation team with some unique and interesting challenges to face.
Although The Aristocats was released after Walt Disney’s death, it was not entirely without his influence. The film began as possible live-action segment for The Wonderful World of Color based on a children’s book that live-action producer Harry Tytle and director Tom McGowan proposed to Walt Disney in 1962. Walt liked the story idea very much, and had several story suggestions for the live-action segment, but for some reason the idea was eventually shelved. In 1963 Walt reexamined the script for The Aristocats and decided to retool the segment as an animated film directed by Woolie Reitherman. While Walt was alive, the plot of The Aristocats was very different from that of the film we know today. Not only did Edgar have an accomplice in his plan to kidnap the cats, a maid named Elvira, but his plan was not the main focus of the film. The pairs’ schemes were merely a comic side plot. Instead, Walt wanted the film to focus on Duchess’s struggle to find the perfect new home for her kittens. A place where each of their unique talents would be appreciated and flourish. He felt that by featuring a mother’s struggles to let her children go and grow up and her desire to see them be happy, the film would have the emotional heart it otherwise lacked. Unfortunately, when Walt died in 1966, things changed for both The Aristocats and the studio.
After Walt’s death those high up in the Studio’s leadership began to doubt whether animated films could still be profitable enough to outweigh their high production costs. Some began to even think that it was better to just shut the studios animation division down altogether. This put a lot of pressure on The Aristocats and Woolie Reitherman. The goal became to make a cheap animated film that would make a lot of money quickly. Unfortunately, in order to do this a lot of interesting and artistic ideas had to be sacrificed. Elvira the maid was one of the first to go, allowing Edgar to become the main villain of the film. Unfortunately, along with her went a lot of really good bits of comic business between the two partners in crime. Walt’s emotional plot about Duchess trying to find new homes for her kittens also got the boot. Instead, Reitherman wanted to focus on the Edgar kidnapping plot, making the film into an action-adventure comedy that followed the same model as 101 Dalmatians, a film that was huge box-office success. Several wonderful song sequences for the film written by the Sherman brothers were also cut for cost, and because they no longer fit the new less emotional tone of the film. Many of Ken Anderson’s wonderful character designs for the cats were also drastically changed in order to make animating the characters cheaper. Anderson had drawn O’Malley as a striped tabby cat, and this design went so far as to even make it into character models. Yet, Reitherman dropped this design because stripes were too difficult to consistently animate, and so his fur was changed to a simple orange and white pattern. As you can see from this and other sketches of Anderson’s, he designed the three kittens to be quite fluffy, especially Marie. They were initially modeled upon Persian cats. Such fluffy fur was again considered too difficult and expensive to animate and Anderson’s character design sketches became less and less fluffy over time. By the final film, Duchess and her kittens had gone from high class Persians to simple American short-hairs.
While this Ken Anderson drawing obviously shows some of the various name changes that took place during the development of The Aristocats, with context it helps expose some of the many other changes that took place. What Walt once envisioned as a heart-warming musical comedy about a mother and her kittens, became a broad action-adventure comedy about a catnapping Butler. The interesting characters that Ken Anderson drew in his sketches became brightly colored, simplified, easy to animate cats. These changes ultimately helped the studio turn a profit and save the feature animation division. Still, one has to wonder what Walt Disney and Ken Anderson’s combined vision for the film would have been like.