Retired opera star Adelaide Bonfamille is warmly enjoying her latter years in Paris, circa 1910. She has a lovely villa; a devoted butler, Edgar; all the comforts money can buy; and an endearing family of cats she can love and pamper.
Duchess is the classy mother cat who keeps her kitten charges in line and teaches them well. Then there’s the prim little Marie (who never starts a fight, but surely knows how to end one); her fearless brother, Toulouse; and pugnacious sibling Berlioz. As cats go, they’re probably the most well-groomed and properly bred felines ever. Hey, they even get piano lessons. (And anyone with a cat and a piano knows that those keyboard-walking furballs need lessons.)
But all is not well in the Bonfamille household, it turns out. And it all comes down to greed. You see, the gracious Madame Adelaide has decided to draw up her will, and she’s leaving it all to her beloved cats. “Then at the end of their lifespans, my entire estate will go to Edgar,” the lovely older woman concludes to her listening attorney.
That’s when the greed part comes in.
Edgar, you see, is listening, too. And when the eavesdropping butler hears this news, his jaw drops to the floor. Yes, his mistress is being gracious … but cats have nine lives! How old will he be before they’re all gone?
There’s only one thing to do in Edgar’s butlerish mind: He must iron out this problem proper-like and scrub away those dirty spots.
Translation: The cats must go.
When Edgar soon drops the cats in the far-away country, a savvy and flirty alley cat by the name of O’Malley ambles in. He’s drawn to Duchess’ beauty; but once he assesses her and her kittens’ predicament, he decides to help. He throws himself in the path of danger several times and physically saves the life of the kitten Marie twice. And a number of other animals do everything they can to get the family of kitties home, too—including house-mouse Roquefort, family horse Frou-Frou and O’Malley’s jazz-loving cat buds.
In the course of the adventure, Duchess and her brood have a marked effect on O’Malley. He goes from being an alley-cat roustabout, who doesn’t really want to get involved, to a guy who laments the cat family leaving. In fact, he eventually says as much and shyly suggests that the kittens need a father (while sincerely trying to woo Duchess).
[Spoiler Warning] By movie’s end, Duchess and the kittens all fall for O’Malley’s bravado, charm and trustworthiness and welcome him into their family. Madame Adelaide also decides to put her money to good use, and she creates a foundation to aid the homeless alley cats of Paris.
When O’Malley first shows up, it’s easy to see the reason why: Duchess’ beautiful fur and sparkling “sapphire eyes.” He teases and flirts openly with the classy cat. Duchess is pretty savvy, too, cleaning her fur, batting her eyes and using that attraction to gain help from the street-smart cat. Marie nearly faints due to the “romance” of their interplay (though Toulouse snorts that it’s all “sissy stuff”).
As time goes on, O’Malley’s and Duchess’ attraction only deepens. But it changes, too: from something flirty and quick and easy to a relationship based on commitment.
In their travels, the cats come upon a pair of British geese, Abigail and Amelia, who join them. The geese think that O’Malley is the father of the family, but snort that he’s a cad when they find out that he and Duchess are not married.
Duchess coyly sings a verse of a jazz tune: “If you want to turn me on, Play your horn don’t spare the tone, And blow a little soul into the tune.” Later on, there’s a line about the possibility of more kittens.
When Edgar drives the cats out into the country to eliminate them, he’s attacked and chased by a pair of old hounds that break his motorcycle and chomp his backside.
The cats find themselves in several perilous situations. They’re walking over a railroad trestle when a train comes roaring in. O’Malley jumps on the hood of a speeding truck. Marie falls from the back of a truck and later falls into a rushing stream. (In both cases, O’Malley runs to the rescue.) A mouse named Roquefort runs to get help and is surrounded by a clutch of alley cats that threaten him with large, sharp claws. O’Malley almost drowns in a fast-running stream before being saved himself.
A fiesty struggle between Edgar and a barnful of animals becomes thumpingly violent as cats get tossed about and pummeled. Edgar grabs and throws a pitchfork—narrowly missing a victim. Edgar is eventually kicked across the barn by a horse and knocked out.
During a short-lived concert thrown by jazz-loving cats in O’Malley’s “pad,” the old abandoned house begins to fall apart. A vintage piano crashes down through several floors in a building.
A human truck driver screams “sacré bleu” and “stupid cat.” A dog woofs, “Criminently!”
Abigail and Amelia’s uncle Waldo escapes becoming dinner in a local restaurant. But he’s also quite drunk from the white wine that he was supposed to be basted in. With one sniff of him, O’Malley remarks, “Basted? He’s marinated.” Cats and geese laugh at the goose’s drunkenness.
eat for the cats and laces it with a bottleful of sleeping pills. The sweet cream doesn’t kill them, but it knocks them and a mouse friend out cold.
Madame Adelaide’s attorney talks of a past party filled with dancing and champagne. A man at a street café pours out a bottle of wine upon seeing something he can’t quite believe. Edgar drinks champagne.
Edgar the butler is so changed by his greed that he does things that he seemingly wouldn’t have otherwise done. (Ultimately, though, his scheming and hurtful choices all backfire back on him.) O’Malley, for his part, isn’t above stealing whatever he needs at first, such as cream, etc. A Siamese Cat is drawn as a broad Chinese stereotype.
The Aristocats is one of those Disney animated films that many folks don’t know about. And it really doesn’t feel a lot like the typical House of Mouse classics. In fact, for those classic movie lovers in the crowd, this film—featuring the sly-but-supportive amblings of Phil Harris and Scatman Crothers—feels like a direct take from something Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong would have cheerily riffed their way through a decade or so earlier.
There are jazzy musical bits; smile-worthy anthropomorphized critters; a mean, old bumbling butler villain; and some nicely animated depictions of Paris in 1910. And, yep, that’s Maurice Chevalier who came out of retirement to sing the movie’s title song.
The only drawbacks here, from a parent’s point of view, would be some giggling goosey intoxication as well as some kitten peril that might set young viewers worrying. And at least early on, O’Malley the alley cat can feel pretty smarmy with all his early “Hey, honey,” “Listen, baby” lingo. (But here’s a secret: he cleans up well in the end.)
I won’t say it’s “puuurfect,” but Disney’s The Aristocats has some light charm and fun, as well as furry nods to the life-changing attributes of family. And that, frankly, is far better than some other cat musical that played in the theaters recently.
Yeah, that one.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.