Unavailable for many years, the 1971 animated feature “Shinbone Alley” returns in a less-than-pristine DVD release (the print is scratchy in spots). Based on a flop 1957 Broadway musical co-written by Mel Brooks (who did not adapt this work, sadly), it is a production that constantly at odds with itself in regard to both style and substance.
“Shinbone Alley” is inspired by the “Archy and Mehitabel” stories of Don Marquis that first appeared in 1916, yet it uses a “Yellow Submarine”-style psychedelic visual approach that is wildly out of touch with the story’s early 20th century setting setting. It is also crammed with 1950s-style Broadway tunes, which further complicates the sense of time.
For those who don’t know Marquis’ stories, Archy is a cockroach who bangs out philosophical missives on a newspaper typewriter and Mehitabel is a bawdy alley cat. Archy’s attempts to steer Mehitabel to a virtuous life rarely works, as she has a roving eye for the dubious tom cats. “Shinbone Alley” is basically a pastiche of sketches where Mehitabel goes bad and Archy chases after her in shock and dismay.
Some of “Shinbone Alley” is genuinely amusing, particularly when Mehitabel gets to misbehave in the unapologetic, free-spirited joy of a sluttish alley cat. Carol Channing voices the growling Mehitabel with a delightful mix of sex, camp and abandon – this is perhaps the only time Channing did a film where she plays a fully dimensional character and not a spastic self-parody. Also in the voice cast are Eddie Bracken as the hapless Archy, Alan Reed as the gruff Big Bill and, most delightfully, John Carradine as the hammy theatrical cat Tyrone T. Tattersall (although the character is designed to look more canine than feline).
But, unfortunately, the film is bogged down with too many prolonged and pointless sequences, including Archy’s grand plans to lead an insect army against humans and an ode to a suicidal moth. This makes “Shinbone Alley” feel disjointed and ruins what little fun can be found in the offbeat nature of Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel tales.