The Aristocats

Posted on 08. Mar, 2011 by in Cel Animation Cat Films

The Aristocats (Special Edition) This is an exciting and somewhat nonsensical film about a fatherless family of a mother cat and three kittens who live in France in a belle epogue mansion owned by an older woman who became wealthy after an acting career. Though she is still physically fit, it is clear that “end of life issues” are on her mind.
Though the father of Duchess’ kittens is not in the picture (in any sense of the word; indeed, nothing is said in the movie of his prior existence or how a long-haired pedigreed white female cat with upper-class airs came to be the single mother of three kittens), Duchess, voiced by Zsa Zsa Gabor, lives in luxury and seeks to inculcate artistic accomplishments and posh manners in her offspring. Two male kittens, Berlioz and Toulouse, are named for artists of the early 20th century time period in which this film is set. The girl kitten, Marie, is named for Marie Antoinette. While the male kittens are told by their mother to paint and to play the piano, Marie simply “sings” to accompany her brother’s piano playing.
As the cats’ livelihood is about to be given legal protection in the event of their owner’s death, Edgar, the butler, overhears the old lady telling her lawyer that she wants to leave all her money and other assets to her cats, and schemes to eliminate (but not to directly kill) the cats. Forgetting about the fact that there would need to be some human employed as a caretaker of the cats and conservator of the estate, (cats are not considered mentally competent and neither can they use money) Edgar prepares a potion of warm milk with vanilla extract, nutmeg, sugar, …and sleeping pills. He puts this concoction in front of the cats to lap up the evening after he overhears the conversation about the old lady’s will, and scoops up the sleeping cats into a decorated bassinet type basket, which he puts into the sidecar of his motorcycle, which he rides out of town. Yes, it is a mystery, but not a murder. Yes, the butler did it.
Enter two hounds with French Creole accents, who are seen early on in the movie discussing their predilection for chasing motor vehicles. They not only chase Edgar’s motorcycle with sidecar but catch it, separating Edgar from his vehicle. In the scuffle, while Edgar ends up worse for wear and loses some accessories, the basket with the cats gets tipped into a nearby swamp. When the cats come to, they discover they are far away from home and in unfamiliar surroundings. They then meet Thomas O’ Malley, (male) alley cat about town. Almost instantly, he engages in a display of chivalry, offering to help them return home, though also trying to offer them alternatives, given the unreliability of human caretakers, as he has experienced it. Though Duchess and the kittens do take him up on his offer and end up traveling with him, there is an initial hesitation. Almost instantly his intentions and motives are questioned. His sincerity, as well as Duchess’s virtue and family structure also get questioned again, more thoroughly, a bit later by two female British geese wearing sunbonnets whom they meet during their trip back to Paris.
The early 20th century time period in which this movie is set is relevant to the plot: O’ Malley, Duchess, and the kittens are saved a lot of walking when they hitchhike in a milk truck destined for Paris. Their ability to enter the back of the milk truck and remain there undiscovered for some time was facilitated by the fact that after O’ Malley startled the driver by jumping out of a tree onto his windshield, the driver had to get out of the truck to crank it back up after having made a sudden stop. Riding in a milk truck meant the cats also had the opportunity to have breakfast from the inventory (indeed, the cats are seen only to ingest milk during the course of the film, they never seem to eat anything more solid, which makes this film a poor example of cat care).
Once the cats get to the urbanized area of Paris, they stay temporarily with O’ Malley’s friends, a small group of anthropomorphized cats led by an overweight trumpet player called Scat Cat. After a musical number which culminated with a piano and other instruments crashing through several floors of the townhouse, and an interlude in which an unnamed Siamese cat plays Chopsticks on the piano using an actual pair of chopsticks, during which a gratuitous Oriental stereotype is thrown the audience’s way when he slants his eyes and wears a cymbal for a coolie hat, the kittens are tucked in for the night in a bed of dubious cleanliness (it is, after all, a household of proto-beatniks) while O’ Malley and their mother walk on the roof in the moonlight.
The butler returns to the scene of the crime, this time in the household horse cart, to reclaim his hat and umbrella. He meets with the vehicle-chasing Louisiana-accented dogs again, and again, experiences bodily harm.
Duchess and the kittens return home, this time with O’ Malley having assumed the role of a father figure while on the road, and being instantly accepted as such by the old lady, who is later seen to have a group picture taken of all the cats, and to have her lawyer come over again to modify her will to accommodate the expanded cat family.
As Edgar schemes to be rid of the returned cats, the horse and other domestic animals attack him and otherwise put a stop to his plan.
The Special Edition disc is worth seeing because it has a lot of additional material related to the movie, such as a song and some plot elements which were pruned from the final version of the movie, as well as concept sketches and publicity materials related to the film. Also worth seeing are “behind the scenes” recountings of the other aspects of how the film came together. Included in the bonus materials a Figaro cartoon in which small sneaker cat Figaro is owned (and bathed!) by Minnie Mouse. A dubious choice, to be sure, but one would think a disc with a cat-related film could and should be an appropriate venue for cat-related cartoon shorts. There should be more Figaro shorts (if such exist) released to the public, perhaps on a disc of their own. A lot more promising is the segment of the cat-related documentary which portrayed the role of cats in Egyptian civilization, and Medieval Europe with its witch hunts and Black Plague. If only there were a DVD with the complete documentary released for present-day cinematic consumption, that would be worthwhile to watch in spite of it being dated. (That said, perhaps Disney would see its way to producing an updated version?)

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