Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The AristoCats

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The AristoCats

When Walt Disney died in December 1966, he left behind a handful of animated and live-action projects in varying stages of production. Four years later, that stockpile was almost gone. The AristoCats, Disney’s twentieth animated feature and first since The Jungle Book in 1967, would be the studio’s first feature-length cartoon produced entirely without Walt’s guiding hand. So perhaps it isn’t too surprising that it feels a lot like some of their earlier work.

Walt was involved in the project’s earliest development. In 1961, he had tasked producer Harry Tytle and director Tom McGowan with finding animal stories for the Wonderful World Of Color TV series. McGowan had made the popular short The Hound That Thought He Was A Raccoon and Walt wanted more stuff like that. Here’s where things get a little tricky. According to some sources, McGowan found a kid’s book about a mother cat and her three kittens set in New York City. Tytle thought New York was boring and suggested transplanting the story to Paris, since One Hundred And One Dalmatians had benefited from its London setting. Others claim that the film is inspired by a true story about a group of cats who really did inherit a fortune left them by their eccentric owner in 1910 Paris.

Now, I don’t know if either one of those stories is true. If it was a book, I don’t know who wrote it, what it was called or when it was published. And presumably Walt would have had to buy the rights to this thing if it existed. As for it being a true story, the internet has tons of stories about rich weirdos bequeathing their money to their pets. But sources that make the claim for The AristoCats are noticeably light on specifics. Could it have happened? Sure, why not. But I wouldn’t swear to it under oath.

Regardless of where the story originated, Tytle, McGowan and cowriter Tom Rowe envisioned it as a live-action production. Boris Karloff was in mind to play the devious butler, which is wild to think about. As usual, the script went through numerous revisions, none of which pleased Rowe. One by one, the original production trio of Tytle, McGowan and Rowe would either quit or be reassigned.

Sometime in 1963, Walt decided the story was better suited to animation. With the animation department fully committed to The Jungle Book, Walt put the project on hold. Shortly before his death, he handed it to longtime employee Ken Anderson. Anderson and Wolfgang Reitherman tossed out most of the old work and came up with a more cat-centric story. Walt approved the new direction and signed off on some early sketches before his death.

Once The Jungle Book was completed, the animation department turned their attention to The AristoCats (the studio has never been entirely consistent with the title stylization but since the official on-screen title has a capital “C”, that’s what I’m going with). A team of seven Disney veterans cracked the story, including Anderson, Larry Clemmons, Vance Gerry, Frank Thomas, Eric Cleworth, Julius Svendsen, and Ralph Wright. Winston Hibler was originally going to produce the picture but it had been a while since he’d worked on the animation side. Most of his 60s work had been in live-action, mostly animal and nature movies like the recent King Of The Grizzlies. When Hibler ran into trouble, Reitherman took over the production.

The version of The AristoCats that hit screens on Christmas Eve, 1970, was markedly different from the one Tytle, McGowan and Rowe had come up with. A secondary human character, a maid named Elvira, was dropped entirely. New animal characters like Roquefort the mouse (voiced by Disney Legend Sterling Holloway) were either added or had their roles expanded. The Parisian atmosphere Tytle felt was so important gradually fell by the wayside. Harry Tytle walked away from animation and returned to live-action. Tom Rowe tried suing the studio but since this had always been a work-for-hire gig, he didn’t get far. It’s a surprisingly bumpy origin for what ended up being a pleasant but innocuous movie.

Quad poster for The AristoCats

I don’t necessarily want to say The AristoCats straight-up borrows elements that worked in earlier Disney movies but it’s impossible not to see the similarities. The family of cats trying to make their way home across the French countryside recalls One Hundred And One Dalmatians. The dynamic between Duchess and O’Malley gives off some serious Lady And The Tramp vibes. And while The AristoCats team reportedly tried to differentiate Phil Harris’s O’Malley from his performance in The Jungle Book, they didn’t try very hard. O’Malley is basically Baloo in cat form.

The story of The AristoCats is one of the simplest in the Disney library. Madame Bonfamille (voiced by Disney regular Hermione Baddeley, last seen in The Happiest Millionaire) is a retired opera star living alone in Paris with her beloved cat, Duchess (Eva Gabor), and her three kittens, Berlioz (Dean Clark), Toulouse (Gary Dubin), and Marie (Liz English). She sends for her ancient lawyer, Georges (Charles Lane, last seen in The Gnome-Mobile), to dictate her will. She wants to leave her entire estate to her cats. Once their nine lives are up, the rest will go to her devoted butler, Edgar (British comedian and performance artist Roddy Maude-Roxby).

Being paid to live in a Parisian mansion with a bunch of cats sounds like a pretty sweet gig to me but it’s not enough for Edgar. He wants to inherit the whole thing right away, so he douses the cats’ cream with sleeping tablets and abandons them far out in the country. He may have had a more insidious plan in mind but his motorcycle ride is interrupted by a couple of farm dogs, Napoleon and Lafayette (voiced by Gabor’s Green Acres costar Pat Buttram and George “Goober” Lindsey from The Andy Griffith Show…don’t bother asking why two French dogs sound like hicks from the American South).

The cats aren’t on their own for long before they meet Abraham de Lacey Giuseppe Casey Thomas O’Malley, an easygoing alley cat. O’Malley finagles a ride back to Paris on a milk truck, then ends up going along when Marie falls off and needs rescuing. And in a lot of ways, that’s kind of the whole story. Oh sure, other stuff happens. The cats meet up with a couple of vacationing British geese (Monica Evans and Carole Shelley) and their drunk Uncle Waldo (Bill Thompson in his final role). Edgar has to go back and retrieve some incriminating evidence from Napoleon and Lafayette. And, of course, we meet O’Malley’s jazz-loving friends, led by Scat Cat (the great Scatman Crothers, stepping in to voice a role originally intended for Louis Armstrong). But none of it really advances the story.

Things wrap up when Duchess and the kittens get back home and O’Malley reluctantly says goodbye. But they’re quickly intercepted by Edgar, who locks them in a trunk bound for Timbuktu. Roquefort runs after O’Malley, who sends him off for the other alley cats. The animals all team up to defeat Edgar and O’Malley ends up becoming a stepfather to the kittens. The movie’s practically over before you even realize it got started.

The AristoCats re-release poster

Now, there are a lot of problems with The AristoCats and many of them revolve around Edgar. He is by far the least interesting villain Disney ever came up with. His plan doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially considering Madame Bonfamille seems a long way from kicking the bucket. Even if he had succeeded in getting rid of the cats, what’s to stop her from just going out and adopting more? If your bad guy’s evil plan is essentially to wait patiently, your central conflict might not be as dramatic as you think.

The AristoCats also manages to feel both needlessly padded out and like it’s missing pieces at the same time. Napoleon and Lafayette are fun characters, so I understand the desire to bring them back. But why do they never once interact with the cats themselves? They really feel like they’re in their own movie that has nothing to do with Duchess and O’Malley.

There’s a similar problem with the geese. Practically their entire journey to Paris takes place off-screen. One minute they’re in the middle of nowhere, the next they’re walking up to the café. They’re pretty important characters for a hot second, then they wander off, never to be seen again. Unlike the dogs, the geese aren’t really funny enough to make much impression. They’re just kind of there until they’re not and you forget all about them.

At this point, you’re probably thinking I don’t like The AristoCats all that much. That’s not actually true. It’s a testament to the Disney animation crew that this is still an enjoyable movie despite its familiarity and story problems. In a way, it feels like Walt Disney’s Greatest Hits. There’s nothing remotely new here but the band can still play all your old favorites and that’s just fine.

A big part of what makes The AristoCats work is the music. This isn’t really a musical, in the sense that you could remove every single song and not effect the story one iota. The Sherman Brothers wrote quite a few songs but most of them ended up not being used. Of the few that made the cut, “Scales & Arpeggios” walks a fine line between endearing and annoying. I think it’s cute but I’d understand if someone hated it.

The Shermans also contributed the title song, which is probably the most French thing about the movie. Maurice Chevalier had retired after his appearance in Monkeys, Go Home! back in 1967 but the Shermans were able to coax him back for one last recording session. It ended up being his final work before his death in 1972.

Terry Gilkyson’s Jungle Book song, “The Bare Necessities”, had been nominated for an Oscar, so it makes sense that Disney would want him to come up with another signature song for Phil Harris. “Thomas O’Malley Cat” does not stray far from the “Bare Necessities” formula. It’s an okay song but nowhere near as memorable as Baloo’s big number.

Of course, the song everyone remembers is “Ev’rybody Wants To Be A Cat” by Floyd Huddleston and Al Rinker. Huddleston and Rinker first teamed up in the late 40s, writing hundreds of songs at Decca Records. This would be Rinker’s only work at Disney but we’ll see Huddleston in this column again. Their AristoCats song doesn’t sound much like anything you’d have heard in 1910 but it’s pretty terrific, changing direction repeatedly and building to a show-stopping finale.

The whole sequence is lively and beautifully animated, which makes the lazy ethnic stereotyping of the cats even more unfortunate. Supposedly these cats have names but in the credits, they’re just referred to as Russian Cat (the incomparable Thurl Ravenscroft), Italian Cat (Vito Scotti, who we just saw in The Boatniks), English Cat (Lord Tim Hudson, one of the Beatle Vultures in The Jungle Book) and (sigh) Chinese Cat (Paul Winchell, immediately recognizable as the voice of Tigger). And sure, all four of them are broad, over-the-top exaggerations, so it’s not like anyone was going out of their way to specifically insult Asians. But Chinese Cat is the one everyone singles out because he is objectively terrible.

We’ve already seen plenty of examples of Disney’s…shall we say…checkered history of depicting people (and animals) of color and no doubt we’ll see even more. And yes, it is important to view these films within the context of their times and Disney was by no means alone in perpetuating Asian stereotypes. But it is worth noting that these kinds of Asian characters held on a lot longer than stereotypes of other cultures and ethnicities and movies like The AristoCats are partially to blame.

Obviously, the studio thought whatever Paul Winchell was doing was funny and this was going to be a breakout character. He’s the only member of the band singled out with a character box on the original poster above. That poster actually makes it worse by referring to him as “Oriental Cat”. It also says he’s the leader of the band, which isn’t true. Scat Cat is clearly in charge. The character’s bad enough as it is without calling attention to him and trying to build him up. So while we should be able to look back at The AristoCats and forgive it as a product of less enlightened attitudes, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t cringe a little (or a lot) when Chinese Cat pops up.

The AristoCats quad re-release poster

Despite its flaws, The AristoCats was a big hit, winning over audiences and most critics. It did even better overseas, becoming the highest grossing film of 1971 in the UK, Germany and even France. The painted Parisian backgrounds are genuinely lovely. Maybe the movie plays more authentically when it’s dubbed in French.

It’s a little surprising that Disney has yet to return to The AristoCats well, although it’s not for lack of trying. Back in 2000, the studio began developing an animated TV series based on the film that would have followed teenage versions of Toulouse, Marie and Berlioz. Then in 2005, Disneytoon Studios, the direct-to-video branch of the company, announced they’d be making The Aristocats 2. This was going to be a computer-animated feature following the older Marie as she falls in love. Those plans were dropped after John Lasseter took the reins of the studio, realized almost all the Disneytoon movies were garbage that cheapened the brand, and shut the whole thing down. Now the studio is working on a live-action remake because of course they are.

Whether or not the public realized it at the time, the legendary Disney animation studio was in trouble. Without Walt to steer the ship, the department was beginning to cut corners and recycle proven formulas. We’ve already been seeing fewer and fewer animated features in this column. Sad to say, that trend is only going to continue. It’s a shame because The AristoCats proves that even an uninspired Disney cartoon is still pretty darn good.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Jungle Book

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Jungle Book

In many ways, The Jungle Book marks the end of a journey that began all the way back in 1921 when Walt Disney founded the Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City. Walt didn’t invent animation by any stretch of the imagination. But he had revolutionized the format many times over since those early days back in Kansas. As the last animated feature Walt Disney had a hand in, The Jungle Book automatically earns a special place in history.

Of course, the studio had gone through some major changes since their first animated feature, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Back then, the entire operation revolved around nothing but animation. Walt was personally involved in every aspect of production, poring over every cel and story beat until it was just right.

By the time work began on The Jungle Book in the mid-‘60s, animation was a small fraction of the studio’s output and Walt was trusting his staff to make most of the major decisions. It’s a testament to Walt’s love of animation that the studio was even continuing to make cartoons. The animation division had been on the chopping block more than once during economic lean times. Animation was expensive and time-consuming and Walt certainly didn’t need the extra work. Most of his attention was now devoted to live-action films, television production, Disneyland and his ambitious new Florida venture, EPCOT.

There had once been an entire department devoted to story development. Story meetings could turn into raucous affairs with Walt and his team acting out entire films. For the last several years, Bill Peet had been a one-man story department. After proving himself on One Hundred And One Dalmatians, Peet had been entrusted with The Sword In The Stone. It was Peet’s idea to develop a feature based on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Walt thought that sounded like a swell idea and Peet went off to work his magic.

But The Sword In The Stone hadn’t quite turned out the way Walt had hoped, so he decided to get a bit more involved with The Jungle Book. He looked at Peet’s treatment and storyboards, which were heading in a very dark and dramatic direction, and essentially told him to lighten up. Peet strongly disagreed, arguing that it went against Kipling’s original stories (he wasn’t wrong about that). Walt didn’t really care. He wanted to make a movie everybody could enjoy, not just members of the Kipling Society. When Walt continued to insist on significant changes to the script, Peet quit, a bad end to a relationship that stretched back to the 1930s.

With Bill Peet gone, Walt turned The Jungle Book over to Larry Clemmons. Clemmons started with the studio as an assistant animator back in the ‘30s but left when World War II broke out. He came into his own as a writer working for Bing Crosby’s radio shows. When he returned to the Disney studio in the 1950s, it was as a writer and producer for the Disneyland and Mickey Mouse Club TV shows.

Clemmons struggled with the assignment at first. Kipling’s book was so episodic that he couldn’t find an actual story to hang his hat on. Walt advised him not to worry about it and instead focus on the characters and their personalities. He also brought in the Sherman brothers, whose songs had helped shape Mary Poppins’ story. They would be replacing Terry Gilkyson, a folksinger who had written several original songs for Peet’s abandoned, darker version of the film. Gilkyson was no stranger to the Disney studio. He’d contributed songs to Swiss Family Robinson, Savage Sam, The Scarecrow Of Romney Marsh, The Three Lives Of Thomasina, and The Moon-Spinners.

By all accounts, everyone was having a hard time wrapping their minds around what Walt envisioned for The Jungle Book until he suggested casting jazzman and radio star Phil Harris as Baloo the bear. Harris had been the bandleader on Jack Benny’s program. His appearances were so popular that he eventually got his own show, headlining with his wife, Alice Faye. Everyone knew Harris’ voice and it was nobody’s idea of what a Rudyard Kipling character should sound like. Even Harris didn’t think he was the right man for the job. Once he got to the studio, he was uncomfortable delivering the lines as written and asked to permission to just do it “his way”. All of a sudden, Baloo came to life as a fully-formed character, albeit one that didn’t have much to do with Kipling.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Jungle Book

After that epiphany, things seemed to click for The Jungle Book crew. The character designers and animators were inspired by the vocal performances. Once Harris joined the cast, someone (I’ve seen multiple people take credit for it) had the idea to cast Louis Prima, another instantly recognizable voice from the jazz and swing world, as King Louie the orangutan. Disney legend Sterling Holloway was cast against type as the villainous snake, Kaa, another of Walt’s suggestions. And to lend at least a little British authenticity, Sebastian Cabot was tapped to play Bagheera the panther and the great George Sanders was cast as Shere Khan, the man-hating tiger. Cabot had previously done voice work on The Sword In The Stone and appeared in Johnny Tremain, while Sanders was previously seen menacing Hayley Mills in In Search Of The Castaways.

This wasn’t the first time Disney had relied on celebrity vocal performances. Bing Crosby was near the peak of his popularity when he voiced his half of The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad. Even Cliff Edwards was a known commodity when he was cast as Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. But this was certainly the starriest cast Disney had assembled to date and not everyone was happy about it. You can draw a straight line from Phil Harris’ improvised performance as Baloo to Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin.

Today, there is absolutely an over-reliance on celebrity voices in animation. But young audiences discovering The Jungle Book for the first time have no idea who Phil Harris, Louis Prima, George Sanders or any of these people are (you’ll be doing them a kindness if you continue to expose your kids to these talents after they watch this). I was born just a couple years after The Jungle Book was released and this was certainly my introduction to them. A voice either works or it doesn’t work, regardless of how famous the face attached to it might be. There’s no denying that the voices in The Jungle Book are absolutely spot-on.

That extends to the youngest members of the cast. Bruce Reitherman, son of director Wolfgang Reitherman, got the part of Mowgli after the original actor’s voice changed midway through. Woolie Reitherman also battled puberty on The Sword In The Stone, cycling through no less than three kids (including two more sons, Richard and Robert) as Wart. Bruce had already performed the voice of Christopher Robin in Winnie The Pooh And The Honey Tree, so he knew his way around a studio. He was also young enough to make it through production without a voice change.

Bruce wasn’t the only young Winnie The Pooh alum in the cast. Clint Howard, the voice of Roo, provides the voice of the young elephant. Howard made his screen debut at the ripe old age of 2 on The Andy Griffith Show and he’s been busy ever since. Around this same time, he was guesting on shows like Star Trek and starring in Gentle Ben, which premiered just a few months before The Jungle Book. Clint will be back in this column before long, alongside his older brother, Ronny.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Jungle Book

The Sherman Brothers ended up contributing five original songs to The Jungle Book, the best of which is unquestionably “I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)”. Louis Prima is a perfect fit for the song. His signature style sounds nothing like any Disney song that had come before. It’s one of the biggest indications so far that Disney could change with the times, even if that change came slowly.

The Shermans’ other songs are honestly not up to the same level. Kaa’s “Trust In Me (The Python’s Song)”, which recycles a melody from an abandoned Mary Poppins song, isn’t bad and it’s imaginatively animated. But it doesn’t stay with you. “Colonel Hathi’s March”, on the other hand, does stick with you and not in a good way. It’s an annoying military-style earworm, so of course that’s the song that gets a reprise.

Probably the biggest miscalculation is “That’s What Friends Are For (The Vulture Song)”, a barbershop quartet number performed by four vultures modeled after The Beatles. It was originally meant to be performed as a rock & roll song until Walt got cold feet, worried that the style would date the picture. So naturally the Shermans changed it to that most timeless of styles, barbershop. That never gets old.

This is one of those rare times that Walt’s usually unerring sense of what will or will not stand the test of time failed him. For one thing, rock & roll has proven to be a whole lot more enduring than Walt predicted. Certainly more than barbershop, a time machine back to the days of vaudeville and straw boaters.

More importantly, the musical style certainly wouldn’t date the movie any more or less than the fact that the vultures are physically and vocally modeled after The Beatles. Two of their voices were even provided by Lord Tim Hudson, a Los Angeles DJ with a dubious claim to being a friend of the Fab Four, and Chad Stuart of the British Invasion pop duo Chad & Jeremy (the others were J. Pat O’Malley and Digby Wolfe). So now you’ve got The Beatles singing a barbershop quartet, a reference that’s both dated and incongruous.

Ironically, the one song from The Jungle Book to receive an Academy Award nomination and arguably its most popular number overall was the one that almost got cut. Terry Gilkyson’s “The Bare Necessities” survived from Bill Peet’s abandoned version. If Walt had his way, it also would have ended up on the cutting room floor. When he brought the Shermans on board, he wanted to eliminate all of Gilkyson’s songs and start fresh. The animators fought for the song and Walt eventually relented.

Today, it’s impossible to imagine The Jungle Book without “The Bare Necessities”. It’s one of the best, most iconic numbers in the Disney Songbook. Plenty of classic Disney songs failed to win Oscars but Gilkyson really got robbed. The Oscar went to “Talk To The Animals” from the overstuffed musical Doctor Dolittle. Terry Gilkyson never quite became one of Disney’s go-to songwriters but he’ll be back in this column at least once more.

The Jungle Book is a hard movie to dislike. Walt instructed his team to focus on character and personality and they followed his mandate to the letter. Everybody remembers Baloo, King Louie, Shere Khan and the rest. They’re vivid, fun, highly entertaining characters that pop off the screen.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Jungle Book

The movie’s biggest flaw is Mowgli himself. Everything revolves around him and our investment in the story depends on us believing that Baloo and Bagheera really love this little man cub. But he’s a total blank slate. His only goal is a negative. He doesn’t know what he wants to do, he only knows that he does not want to go to the man-village. And for a kid who was raised for years by wolves in the jungle, he displays virtually no wolf-like characteristics. The wolves, not so coincidentally, are also the animals we spend the least amount of time with. They’re theoretically his family, right? If anybody should care about Mowgli leaving the jungle, you’d think it would be them.

Walt didn’t want his team getting too hung up on story but it would have been nice if they’d put a little bit more effort into it. The movie ends up turning into a series of encounters that don’t necessarily feed into one another. Even the threat of Shere Khan feels underbaked. When the final showdown does arrive, it’s difficult to feel like the stakes are too high. Walt continues to keep things light and jaunty up to the end, even when a tiger is trying to eat a little boy. It’s one of the most tension-free climaxes in Disney history.

The movie comes to a rather abrupt end when Mowgli sees a girl fetching some water by the river. He’s instantly smitten, shrugs his shoulders and follows her into the man-village as Baloo and Bagheera bop back into the jungle. The Blu-ray release storyboards an “alternate ending” from Peet’s version that’s really more like an alternate second half. Here, Mowgli is reunited with his birth parents and runs afoul of a treasure-seeking hunter. The movie is probably better without this lengthy digression. The quick pace allows The Jungle Book’s strengths to come into clearer focus. If the choice is between the movie slowly petering out or just stopping all of a sudden, I suppose I prefer the latter.

The Jungle Book was released on October 18, 1967, not quite a year after Walt Disney’s death. Critics and audiences alike were very pleased with Walt’s farewell animation. It was the studio’s highest-grossing film of 1967 and the 9th highest-grossing movie of the year overall, ahead of Camelot and just behind Thoroughly Modern Millie. Over the years, re-releases have added to its total both at home and overseas. According to a 2016 Hollywood Reporter article, it’s the biggest movie of all-time in Germany, ahead of Avatar, Titanic or any of those other also-rans.

More Jungle Book album cover

In 1968, Disney tested the sequel waters, bringing back Phil Harris and Louis Prima for the book-and-record set More Jungle Book. The album didn’t do well and The Jungle Book went back on the shelf for awhile. In the 1990s, Disney brought the characters to television, first on the show TaleSpin and later on Jungle Cubs. Not long after, the studio brought Baloo and company back to theatres, in animation, in live-action and in whatever you want to call the CGI hybrid style employed by Jon Favreau. This column will be getting to many of those eventually.

Disney’s original The Jungle Book continues to have a place in the hearts of fans around the world. Walt had made better, more important animated features before and the studio that still bears his name has made better movies since. But it’s hard to argue against a movie with no ulterior motive other than showing its audience a good time. It’s fun, breezy and as easy to swallow as sweet tea on a hot day. It really does provide the bare necessities of what you want out of a Disney movie.

VERDICT: Disney Plus  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North

Quad theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North

Walt Disney loved dogs, although you wouldn’t necessarily guess that based on some of the ordeals they go through in his films. We all know the sad fate of Old Yeller. The adorable little pup in Ten Who Dared comes within a whisker of being shot in the face himself. Even the animated dogs have a rough time of it. It’s a miracle all one hundred and one Dalmatians made it back to London in one piece. But all those dogs had it easy compared to Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North.

With Perri, Walt had constructed a fictional narrative about a squirrel using techniques honed by the True-Life Adventures crew. Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North represents the next step in that evolution. Winston Hibler, the narrator and cowriter of the True-Life Adventures, produced and cowrote the screenplay with Ralph Wright, a long-time Disney storyman and later, the voice of Eeyore.

Jack Couffer, one of two credited directors on the film, had been a cinematographer on films like Secrets Of Life. He’d go on to an Oscar nomination for his cinematography on the film Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The other director, Don Haldane, was new to Disney. He was a Canadian filmmaker whose company Westminster Films seems to have specialized mainly in educational films.

Hibler and Wright based their script on the novel Nomads Of The North by James Oliver Curwood. Curwood was a hugely successful and prolific author of Jack London-style wilderness adventure stories that I’d honestly never heard of before sitting down to write this. But evidently, nearly two hundred movies and TV shows have been based on his work, most of which you’ve probably never seen. One you might be familiar with is the 1989 French adventure film The Bear directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud.

Now I’m not going to assume there are too many Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North superfans out there, so perhaps a more detailed plot synopsis is in order. When we first meet Nikki, a Malamute pup, and his master Andre (played by Jean Coutu, a Canadian actor who does not appear to have made many films in English other than this one), they’re peacefully canoeing down the river on their way to “fur trapping headquarters”. They make a pit stop and Nikki goes exploring, discovering a treed bear cub named Neewa.

Neewa had run afoul of a huge grizzly named Makoos and his mother died trying to protect him. Andre finds Nikki barking up at Neewa, spots the mother’s dead body nearby and pieces together what happened. At first, Andre is quite sensibly unsure that bringing Neewa along would be a good idea. But he can’t just leave the cub to die, so he gets it out of the tree and ties Neewa and Nikki together with a rope.

The three Canadian caballeros get back on the river, whereupon Nikki and Neewa predictably begin fighting. Andre’s attention is split between separating the animals and navigating the canoe through some treacherous rapids. Dog and bear cub go overboard, shooting down the rapids at a breakneck pace. Working together, they’re able to reach the shore. Andre searches for his lost dog but when Nikki sees him cruising down the river, the pup assumes he’s been abandoned.

Nikki and Neewa spend the next several weeks lashed together, roaming the forest like a wildlife version of The Defiant Ones. Nikki definitely gets the short end of this deal. Unable to hunt for food, he’s forced to adapt to Neewa’s diet of berries and grubs. When Neewa catches the scent of honey, it’s Nikki who suffers the worst of the bees’ wrath. And when Neewa climbs a tree to catch some sleep, Nikki ends up dangling from the rope beneath him.

Eventually the rope breaks (Andre must have been an Eagle Scout in knot tying) and the two go their separate ways. But the pair developed a bond, or at least some form of Stockholm Syndrome, during their forced cohabitation, so Neewa returns and the dog and the bear grow up together, roughhousing and learning the ways of the forest.

However, all good things must come to an end and when winter hits, Neewa returns to his den to hibernate. Nikki struggles to survive over the next few weeks. Food is scarce and he can’t compete with bigger predators like wolves. Relief comes when Nikki stumbles upon a trapping line. After some trial and error, Nikki figures out how to safely spring the trap so he can get to the bait inside. Our plucky hero has himself a little feast, following the line and stealing the fresh meat from the traps.

Needless to say, this does not sit well with diabolical trapper Jacques Lebeau (Émile Genest, who will be back in this column). Lebeau sets a trap for Nikki, lacing a piece of meat with enough poison to drop a horse. Nikki is smart enough to not eat the whole thing, consuming just enough poison to make him temporarily sick. Lebeau and his Indian guide (whose name is Makoki, played by Uriel Luft, although he’s only referred to as “the Indian” for most of the picture) catch up to Nikki. Impressed by Nikki’s size and strength, Lebeau decides he’d make an ideal fighting dog and starts him on a cruel and ruthless training regimen.

Lebeau and Makoki arrive at the trading camp, only to discover that the new factor has outlawed dog fighting. Nobody seems to take the new rule too seriously and Lebeau soon has a fight lined up. Nikki wins the savage bout but the new factor arrives to put a stop to it. The factor turns out to be Nikki’s old master, Andre. He naturally wants his dog back and Lebeau jumps into the pit to challenge Andre to a fight. When Makoki sees Lebeau pull a knife, he cuts Nikki’s restraining rope and allows the dog to jump in and save Andre.

Lebeau is killed and the entire camp is ready to put down the savage, uncontrollable dog. But once again, Makoki intervenes, demonstrating that Lebeau fell onto his own knife. With the dog exonerated, Andre hires Makoki and the three of them presumably live happily ever after.

Walt Disney's Story Of Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North album cover.

This is a difficult movie to judge on its own merits. It’s never boring, the wilderness photography is impressive and Nikki is a very good boy indeed. Directors Couffer and Haldane stage some very exciting sequences. The human actors are all pretty good, although their contributions are minimal. Genest in particular makes Lebeau into one of the most despicable villains in the Disney canon. Even fellow dog hater Cruella DeVil might find him to be a bit much.

All that being said, I’m not sure I can recommend Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North. There’s a reason this one isn’t available on Disney Plus. This is easily one of the most violent Disney movies I’ve ever seen. Nikki is really put through the wringer and it’s hard to imagine that the animal’s welfare was anyone’s primary concern. If the bullfighting sequence in The Littlest Outlaw rubs you the wrong way, you’re really not going to like seeing two beautiful dogs going at each other in a barren ice pit.

I’m not sure how well Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North performed at the box office. I assume it did okay relative to how much it cost to produce. By 1964, it was airing on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color. After that, it didn’t leave much of a mark. Today, it’s another live-action Disney obscurity. It isn’t impossible to find but you have to put in the effort to seek it out.

If the movie has a legacy, it’s the realization that dogs make much more interesting and sympathetic protagonists than squirrels. Walt would continue to build features around our canine companions. As a matter of fact, we’ll be seeing another one in this column next time. And while all of these movie star dogs will face challenges and obstacles, most of them will dial back the physical peril a few notches. Nikki definitely had it rougher than most.

VERDICT: If you’re cool with dog fights and other scenes that border on animal cruelty, this is a minor Disney Plus. If not, steer clear of this Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Perri

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Perri

By 1957, Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures had become profitable, critically acclaimed, popular and maybe just a little predictable. Shorts and features alike followed an identical template. You see that spinning globe centered in the compass, followed by the Animated Paintbrush setting the stage, and you know pretty much what to expect. You do not expect something like Perri, which may well be one of the strangest movies we’ll cover in this column.

Perri is unique among True-Life Adventures in many ways, most obviously in its official categorization as a “True-Life Fantasy”. Some of the other True-Life Adventures may have engaged in some dubious methods but this is the first (and only) one that is explicitly not a documentary. It’s based on the novel Perri: The Youth Of A Squirrel by Felix Salten, the author of Bambi. But while the narrative is entirely fictional, the accompanying footage is so expertly shot that it can be hard to tell the difference between what’s staged and what’s real.

As the movie opens, it’s easy to assume that you’re watching Bambi II. Instead of the typical True-Life Adventures opening or even a live-action establishing shot, the first thing we see is a gorgeous matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw with effects by Ellenshaw and Ub Iwerks creating the illusion of a sunrise. The effects slowly and seamlessly transition to live-action nature photography. But the juxtaposition of real and manmade footage creates a subliminal dreamlike atmosphere.

The general thrust of the story follows Perri, a newborn female pine squirrel over the course of her first year. The movie hews closely to the Bambi template. The action is divided into seasons. Perri loses her father early on and later becomes separated from the rest of her family. It even features a climactic forest fire. At least Perri doesn’t have to worry about the threat of man in the forest.

None of this was accidental. Walt knew exactly what he was doing. He makes the Bambi connection even more explicit by having Perri actually encounter the Great Prince of the Forest and his new young son. So the concept of a shared universe didn’t arrive at Disney with their acquisition of Marvel. As early as 1957, Walt had already established the Shared Bambi-verse.

Perri boasts some extraordinary footage, some of which is very intense. There’s an early sequence where Perri’s mother attracts the attention of a hungry marten (the marten will eventually reveal itself as the film’s villain, even as Winston Hibler’s narration goes to great pains to assure us that the marten is just another mother trying to feed her young). The marten chases the squirrel back to her nest high in the trees and even tries to follow her in, nipping in extreme close-up the entire time. Perri’s father sees the commotion and draws the marten away from the nest, only to lose his own life.

Because of sequences like this, you might want to think about it before you plunk your youngest, most impressionable kids down in front of Disney+ to watch Perri. Younger children have a rough enough time with Bambi and his mom’s death happens off-screen. The footage in Perri would be rough to watch even if we weren’t being asked to identify with a baby squirrel losing a parent. These animals are really going at it.

Perri’s dad is far from the only casualty. We can safely assume at least some of the on-screen deaths were captured in the wild and on the fly. There’s a spectacular shot of a hawk nabbing a flying squirrel in midair that I would chalk up to skilled nature photographers being in the right place at the right time. The squirrel vs marten sequence is more problematic since it was clearly staged. The story dictates that Perri’s dad dies, so co-directors N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. and Ralph Wright set up their cameras, let loose a couple of their many squirrels and martens and shot nature taking its course. PETA would definitely have a problem with Perri if it was released today.

Theatrical re-release poster for Perri

If you’re not an animal rights activist, the biggest problem with Perri is narrative. The life of a squirrel just doesn’t seem to be as interesting as the life of a deer. Perri runs around a lot trying to find food and a nest. Eventually, she finds Porro, the young male squirrel who becomes her mate. But she doesn’t make any friends and spends most of the movie alone. Because she’s an actual squirrel and that’s the way actual squirrels behave. Disney would have left himself a lot more story options if he’d turned this into a cartoon.

Instead, the movie fills time with a lot of other animals whose interactions with Perri are minimal at best. There’s a beaver family and a racoon family and a skunk family and a fox family and all sorts of birds. At times, the movie gets so sidetracked by these other woodland creatures that it’s easy to forget about Perri completely.

Also like Bambi, Perri makes time for several original songs by the likes of Paul J. Smith, George Bruns and Hazel “Gil” George. None of the songs in Perri are as memorable as “Little April Shower” or “Love Is A Song” but they’re fine. Smith’s score did manage to snag an Academy Award nomination, his eighth and last. He lost to Malcolm Arnold’s score for The Bridge On The River Kwai.

Music plays a big role in the film’s strangest sequence, an extended winter dream filmed entirely in studio. To the accompaniment of Smith’s score, rabbits, squirrels and birds scurry about, appearing and disappearing in bursts of animated snowflakes courtesy of effects animator Joshua Meador. Meador had been with the studio since 1936 and he’d worked on pretty much everything. From shorts to features, from propaganda films to True-Life Adventures, from live-action/animation hybrids to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Meador had done it all.

When an effects animator is doing their job right, you really shouldn’t notice them at all. Their work is designed to blend into the background, providing things like ripples and waves that add to a scene’s realism. Perri provides a rare showcase for Meador. This time, the snow effects are meant to call attention to themselves, distinguishing the dream from reality. It’s a beautifully realized sequence, even if it does seem to come out of left field.

Perri was one of the few True-Life Adventures not directed by James Algar. Instead, it was a collaboration between cinematographer Paul Kenworthy, animator and storyman Ralph Wright, and True-Life narrator Winston Hibler. Walt had been impressed enough by Kenworthy’s work as a college student to buy his footage and hire him to expand it into The Living Desert. Kenworthy assembled a large and impressive team of photographers for Perri, including Walt’s nephew, Roy Edward Disney. Roy got his start in the family business working as an assistant editor on earlier True-Life Adventure films. He would end up wearing a wide variety of hats at the studio over the next several decades. We’ll see his name again.

Perri would be Kenworthy’s crowning achievement at Disney. He left the studio by the end of the 1950s and would go on to win a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for developing the Kenworthy Snorkel Camera System, a revolutionary periscopic camera head still used today.

Ralph Wright joined the studio in the 1940s, making a name for himself as a story artist on Goofy’s How-To shorts. Apart from a couple of documentary shorts for Disney’s People & Places series, Perri would be Wright’s only live-action credit at the studio. Later on, he’d achieve immortality as the voice and personality model for Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh films.

As for Winston Hibler, he had been co-writing and providing the narration for the True-Life Adventures since the very first short, Seal Island. Hibler was very involved with Perri, producing, writing the script with Wright and lyrics to some of the songs. Hibler and Wright decided to present most of the script in rhyming couplets, a choice that gets a little distracting after awhile. The rhyming isn’t consistent or rhythmic enough to fade into the background. Hibler also tries on a more formal affect for the narration, losing some of the friendly charm that made his voice so distinctive. Still, it’s nice to have the consistency of Hibler’s voice throughout the series.

When Perri was released in August 1957, both critics and audiences were impressed. It did well enough at the box office to inspire a couple of theatrical re-releases and some memorabilia: storybooks, a record, even a Revell model kit of Perri herself. But it did not inspire any follow-up True-Life Fantasies. Its legacy would be carried on in movies like The Incredible Journey, features with minimal human cast members and animals that are somewhat easier to film like dogs and cats. But Perri remains one of a kind, a unique, sometimes meandering but often beautiful film that would almost certainly never be made today.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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