Posted December 13, 2010 by editor in Retrospectives

Disney: The Aristocats

I had an Aristocat once, he was called Stanley – cut above the rest was Ol’ Stanley, would only drink full fat milk, that sort of thing. Used to strut about in a full dinner suit at eleven o’clock in the morning. Unfortunately Harrow-on-the-Hill isn’t quite Paris, so opportunities for fraternising with the social elite were few and far between.  But The Aristocats is a taste of the high life for socially aspiring cats everywhere: such conduct; such elegance; such decorum. Nothing fazes these feline nobles, even getting lobbed out of a speeding motorbike into a river in the middle of nowhere under the effects of a bottle of sleeping pills. Now that’s class.

Of course, when the introduction to the film is Maurice Chevalier crooning away to oh-so-French accordions, you know you’re in for a pure (or should that be ‘purrrrr’?) Parisian treat. More than anything else, The Aristocats is famous for its exceptional score and rightly so; whether you’ve seen the film or not, who doesn’t know ‘Everybody Wants to be a Cat’?

It’s just as well the score is so memorable, because the storyline is really nothing we haven’t seen before from Disney. Think 101 Dalmatians: beloved and valuable pets get stolen/removed, pets find way back home against the odds and with the help of delightful four legged (or winged) friends. In this case, the culprit is the dastardly English butler Edgar, servant to the glamorous Madame Adelaide Bonfamille, a retired opera singer who dotes on her cats like they are her own children. So much so, in fact, that she leaves everything to them before Edgar in her Will, the catalyst for his kidnapping and disposing of them. 

Whilst Edgar probably didn’t help the American perception of the English as pure evil, he’s a well grounded villain with a real life motivation, even if he is a bit bumbling and accident prone. His scenes with the slack-jawed guard dogs Napoleon and Lafayette are chuckle-worthy for their admirable acrobatics, but it’s the interaction between the mismatched pair which makes their scenes worthwhile. Despite their laudable attempts to thwart him at every turn, the pair do inadvertently save Duchess and the Kittens from a watery grave, even if they lose out on Edgar’s hat and umbrella at the end of it all.

Despite their dismay at discovering themselves a million miles away from their velvet mats after the kidnapping, the Cats are soon put on the right track by Thomas O’Malley (whose full name I had to look up on Wikipedia).  O’Malley struts his stuff from the start, never giving off any illusions of grandeur or class. His self-proclaimed Alley Cat status is mysteriously attractive to the ‘pure as the driven snow’ Duchess and just plain exciting for her adventure-hungry kittens, who adopt him as their father almost immediately. Duchess is harder to win over, particularly when O’Malley is a little less than delighted with the surprise that Duchess has kittens (perhaps a bit of social commentary on the women’s empowerment movement of the Sixties? Probably not though, they are cats after all). Anyway, O’Malley saves the day in true renegade style, securing them a first class seat on a magic carpet all the way back to Paris… or not.

Most of the action happens after O’Malley’s lead. No doubt without his input the bulk of the film would just be Duchess and the Kittens enjoying a pleasant country walk, but thanks to him we meet all sorts of kooky characters, including geese Abigail and Amelia Gabble (twins – you could almost say they were related!) and their hapless, drunken Uncle Waldo. And of course there’s the character we’ve all been waiting for, Scat Cat and his gang of virtuoso kitties who perform the wonderful ‘Everybody Wants to be a Cat’ (which everybody does) in which we learn that Duchess can play the harp rather well.

Ah, Duchess. I don’t care how graceful Belle or Jasmine are, I bet they can’t lick their own backsides with the same elegance as Duchess can. Voiced by the delectable Eva Gabor (of the Gabor Sisters, of course), she slinks her way through the film as though she’s made of rubber, never for a single moment losing her perfectly classy composure, even when she’s stuck in an oven about to be shipped to Timbuktu. A role model for Eliza Doolittle if ever there was one.

Her kiddies are somewhat more raucous. Toulouse, the oldest kitten and most adventurous just wants to be one of the cool kids, but someone should really tell him it’s just not going to happen with that perfect bow tie. Then there’s the distinctively prissy Marie, apple of her mother’s eye but possessive of none of her demure countenance; she insists that as a female she is the best but is most certainly the weakest of the kittens what with falling into a river and all. Besides, a lady never brags. Berlioz, the baby of the bunch, just wants to be loved but with his overpowering sister I just don’t fancy his chances.

For a cat lover such as myself, watching the Aristocats is like watching a home video: my cats are always up to mischief like painting and playing the piano, they just don’t do it with as much skill as Duchess and the Kittens (we can’t all afford to live for leisure, some of us have a family to feed. That’s the cats talking, not me).  But the film, whilst not overflowing with action, suspense, mystery, drama etc. is a lovely little masterpiece in its own way, capturing the nature of our feline companions and applying it to a situation we all fear; that of losing our beloved Fifi/Snuggles/Dr Picklepot and the trauma of hoping and waiting for their return.

Dani Singer