A wealthy Parisian decides to leave her entire fortune to her pet cat, Duchess, and her three kittens: Marie, Berlioz and Toulouse. The decision infuriates her butler Edgar, who has served Madame faithfully for years; even though the will stipulates that upon the death of the cats, her fortune will pass on to him, Edgar doesn’t want to wait until the beloved pets expire of natural causes. That night, he drugs the cat with a sleeping potion and kidnaps them. He takes the four cats to the countryside and abandons them to nature. Duchess is initially panicked, but a slick, street-smart alley cat named J. Thomas O’Malley appears and helps her and the kittens return home.
The Aristocats has the unfortunate distinction of being the first Disney film with, well, no Disney in it. Walt had approved the story for development, but he died before significant work had been done on the film. His death seems to have set the studio into a sort of panic mode, and they played The Aristocats as safely as they could.
The story is frustratingly similar to 101 Dalmatians, but it falls short in almost every way. To break it down:
- Both stories take place in a major European city. The somewhat loose, scratchy style of Xerox animation worked well in creating bustling modern London, but it seems out of place in the statelier turn-of-the-century Paris.
- The pets are greatly beloved by their owners. Madame is an old woman, a former opera singer, who treats her pampered cats like her children. Unfortunately, she has no identity beyond ‘wealthy cat-lady.’ By comparison, Roger and Anita, the humans in 101 Dalmatians, had personalities to match their dogs. Well, Anita was still a bit of a dud, but Roger was hilarious. I love that his reaction to Cruella was to write a song about her and blast it at her when she entered his home.
- The pets are kidnapped by someone the owners trust. Cruella was Anita’s old friend, so they never expected her to take their puppies! Edgar, likewise, is a trusted servant who has been with Madame for who knows how long. Both his mistress and the cats trust him implicitly. (Which begs the question: Why did Edgar bother with drugging the cats? They trusted him enough that if he said, “Jump into this sack and I’ll take you somewhere awesome!” they totally would have believed him.)
- These pampered pets must be assisted by other streetsmart animals. (OK, that’s actually more like Lady and the Tramp then Dalmatians, but it’s still a theme repeated from a previous Disney film.)
- After a journey through the countryside, the pets make it back to the city and, eventually, to their home. Check!
Edgar is a frustratingly inept villain. I felt sorry for him throughout the film, and I kept hoping the cats would kick the bucket so that he could finally be happy. That’s not the reaction they wanted him to inspire, is it? But my goodness, he is bad at being bad. First, why did he want to kill the cats right then and there? Why not wait ‘til after Madame died, so she can’t change the will? Second, why didn’t he kill the cats? One should never leave anything so vital up to chance. Third, why did he brag about his bad deeds to the horse? Granted, he couldn’t know that the animals communicate with each other, but don’t discuss your bad deeds anywhere you might be overheard, you dingbat! In terms of animation, I really liked Edgar – he squashes and stretches his movements in a way that fully takes advantage of the medium – but he was much too bumbling and stupid to ever feel like a threat.
Another thing that bothered me was the music. It’s just so…forgettable. I am trying to remember one of the tunes, but I can’t hum them. In fact, every time I try, I get sidetracked. The song sung by J. Thomas O’Malley keeps morphing into “The Bare Necessities”, probably because Baloo the Bear and the alley cat are both voiced by Phil Harris. The big number shown in all the promotional trailers, “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat” seems out of place – what’s jazz doing in 1910 in Paris? Worse, the animation shown during the song is as hallucinatory as “Pink Elephants on Parade” during Dumbo. Did the cats get drunk or smoke something?
Lots of little things just added up for a dull movie: Marie and her brothers were oh so pwecious, so twee and darling, that I almost felt sick to my stomach. The cats move in a very cat-like manner in most scenes, but for some reason during the performance of the Scat Cat group they dance like humans, abandoning their cat-ness at the door. The two hound dogs don’t really serve a purpose to the main story; they just beef up the run time of the film. Animation footage gets recycled throughout the movie; even the line animation, before color is added, is used to make an opening sequence instead of animating fresh material. So many of the voice actors are repeats that it feels like Disney just went with “tried and true and available” actors instead of trying to find some new blood that could really bring the roles to life.
It just wasn’t a very good movie. Thank goodness I’m almost done with these animal movies.