Disney Hall of Fame: The Aristocats
In the 1970s, Walt Disney Animation Studios entered what would be known as the Dark Ages, also known as the Bronze Age. It was a transitional period for the big studio. Walt and Roy Disney had died in the late 1960s. The studio’s famed “nine old men” animators were training younger animators to take their place. The films released during the time including The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Fox and the Hound, and The Rescuers are now considered minor classics. Even at the time, they enjoyed some box office success and warm critical receptions. During this time only one film was a critical and financial flop, The Black Cauldron. Under normal scenarios, this era would just be another series of films for a studio. It wouldn't be until 1988 that The Little Mermaid would reignite its energy and turn the studio around completely.
The Aristocats is the first film in the “Dark Ages.” While the film is not instantly iconic like The Little Mermaid or Aladdin, it’s certainly very charming and enjoyable. Taking place in 1910 Paris, the film tells the story of Duchess, the elegant and sophisticated pet cat of retired opera singer Madame Adelaide Bonfamille. The Madame also has three other kittens, Toulouse, Marie, and Berlioz. Madame drafts her will, leaving her vast fortunes to her beloved cats. Her butler then plots to kidnap the felines and leave them in the country, hoping to inherit the estate. Alone in the country, Duchess and her litter come across Thomas O’Malley, a smooth talking alley cat who agrees to help them return to Paris.
I really love this movie. The songs are catchy, the characters are engaging, and the jokes are cutely funny. The animation is admittedly bland, and I am sure there are some reused backgrounds from previous films. While many of Disney’s best films from Snow White to Moana tell emotionally charged stories, The Aristocats is just a good time. It’s sweet and comfortable, and just immensely likable. This movie is, well, catnip for cat lovers like myself. These felines retain their cat qualities, even as they are anthropomorphized. The film also features some lovable animals like Amelia and Abigail Gabble, two clucking hens and the hound dogs Napoleon and Lafayette.
The Aristocats is as standard a talking animals movie as you can ask for. There are good humans and scheming humans, the animals all get along, and they have their own very cool underground world we feeble humans are totally unaware of. The Aristocats is a delightful movie that gets forgotten among more epic classics. This film is pretty low key, with only one sequence that can be called ambitious.
“Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” is a trippy musical number that literally brings the house down. The animation is quite striking, with bright colors and dancing cats. The song is jazzy, though perhaps suggesting that cats were ahead of the jazz age by 10 years or so. The song does have one part that is really distracting: the Chinese act who plays piano with chopsticks and speaks with a very offensive accent. It’s a jolt of a reminder that even this harmless movie was made in the 1970s by a bunch of old white men. But even that short clip, which could be easily edited out, is not enough to ruin this foot-tapping, rollicking tune. It’s the best segment in the movie, and sets the tone for the madcap finale.
The Aristocats does feature a very fun, very understated romance between Duchess and O’Malley. These two cats are the thirstiest cats in movie history; they can barely stop looking at each other with “come hither” eyes. The first time I saw this film as an adult, I really picked up how the two of them really were eyeing each other from their first meeting. If the movie had been made today, their romance would be a bit more pronounced, probably giving them the love duet that the film is lacking. Instead we Duchess/O’Malley shippers will have to do with Duchess’ lyrics to O’Malley in “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat:” if you want to turn me on/play your horn/don’t spare the thought/and blow a little soul into the tune. O’Malley proposes to Duchess, but she must decline to return to the Madame.
When it comes to animated films, Disney movies just have a special touch. Even films like The Aristocats that feel small compared to the big hits like Beauty and the Beast and Frozen have some kind of magic to them. The Aristocats is a movie that is effortlessly charming and pleasurable. I have a lot of fond memories watching this movie, and thankfully the movie does hold up. Sure some of the slapstick is silly but the movie as a whole can be quite irresistible. For a movie created during the behemoth studio’s “low period,” The Aristocats is just a fun movie that delivers on its own low promises. This movie doesn’t really explore any grand themes about life, but it does offer one simple truth: everybody wants to be a cat.