*. Disney gets criticized a lot for the way it’s tried to adapt its brand to a changing audience (and changing world), but I can appreciate the jam they’re in. Things were simpler fifty years ago. Today, animated features, even those primarily directed at kids, have to appeal to adult audiences as well, creating the bastard genre of “kidult.” Such films are then marketed as being “for kids, but parents will love them too!” I wonder if either audience is satisfied.
*. It’s refreshing then to go back to a time when a movie for kids was just a movie for kids. The only “adult” moment that registered for me here was Thomas O’Malley’s double-take when, in full PUA mode, he realizes the sexy Duchess is actually a single mom with three kids in tow. But he rolls with it and I’m sure kids at the time thought it was all good. What self-respecting man-on-the-prowl would balk at taking on three adorable toddlers?
*. Of course, the downside of Disney sticking with what Disney does (or did, back in the day) is that their productions became formulaic. The Aristocats is a feline Lady and the Tramp (1955), and Phil Harris (voicing O’Malley) was criticized for just redoing his turn as Baloo from The Jungle Book. There are no surprises in the plot, which had to be stretched as it was just to make 78 minutes. But it’s good clean fun, and the cats are posh without being snobs. I don’t think I saw it as a kid, but I had a picture book of it that I loved.
*. The story has a rich ex-opera singer living in Paris living in a mansion with a pampered cat who has three kittens. One day, her bumbling butler overhears her making her will and leaving all her money to the cats, with the estate then reverting to him. Impatient (and poor at math) he decides upon the time-honored expedient of dumping the cats out in the country. This may be taken as kinder than actually killing them outright, and he will be served much the same way at the end, but having lived in the country most of my life and had plenty such cats show up in my barn I can tell you that most don’t make it and it might be less cruel to just put them down.
*. Critics carped that the animation wasn’t up to the classic, lush Disney style, but I think it works well with the material. I especially like the sketchy effect of the hair. The music, however, is a bit disappointing. There’s only the one good number (“Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat”) while the rest of the songs are disposable. The lyrics are good enough but the music is pedestrian and won’t be having you singing or humming along with any of the tunes. Even Maurice Chevalier coming out of retirement can’t save the title track.
*. The other issue with old Disney movies is that they don’t play as the most politically correct flicks today. The Chinese swinger has even been cut from some versions, and I don’t think that’s any loss at all. And there are gender stereotypes too. Today I don’t think you’d see the boy kitten wanting to grow up to be a rough-tough alley cat and the girl kitten being such a princess. And Duchess would have more “agency” (to get the lingo right) instead of having to be saved all the time by O’Malley. Really, she doesn’t do much by herself except make sure the kittens are bathed and put to bed.
*. The voices are hit and miss. Eva Gabor struck me as a bit old for Duchess, but then I guess she’s a mature feline. Harris I didn’t think added much as O’Malley. He’s a bland bit of rough, but cleans up well. Scat Cat was supposed to be voiced by Louis Armstrong but Satchmo was ill and Scatman Crothers filled in, playing Louis Armstrong nicely. Hearing Sterling Holloway made me think of Winnie the Pooh and not Roquefort the mouse detective. I wasn’t sure what two Southern bloodhounds were doing in the French countryside, but they’re just extras anyway.
*. Granted this is vintage Disney in a minor key, it still seems to me to be better children’s entertainment than most of the Pixar/Disney product on offer today. It doesn’t carry any message except the importance of not judging others too quickly. And of course there’s also the old myth being recycled of a “natural” social order, which holds that abandoned nobility will always re-ascend to its rightful place one way or another. This is the tale of Oliver Twist and King Arthur and Sargon of Akkad. The aristos being placed in a basket and tossed in a stream makes the point pretty clear. That’s an enduring fantasy though, and after 3,000 years of continual use it’s probably pointless for even the most progressive among us to complain about it now.