Duchess (voiced by Eva Gabor) is a pampered cat who lives with her three kittens and her owner, Madame (Hermione Baddeley), a rich and retired opera singer in the Paris of 1910. The cats live the life of Riley, waited on hand and foot thanks to the butler, Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby), but there will come a day when Madame, already getting on in years, will pass away and who will look after the pets then? She has the answer, and that is to draw up a will leaving everything to the butler - that is, after the cats have lived a long and comfortable existence. Edgar overhears this and is outraged, blustering that he cannot wait to get his reward after the cats are dead, so what can he do?
Getting rid of the cats seems to be the most obvious option, and that's the one he takes in The AristoCats, which was the final Disney animation to be given the go-ahead by Walt himself before he died. It was entrusted to director Wolfgang Reitherman, the man to go to for the studio when features needed helming in the sixties and seventies, but after The Jungle Book, which had been his last full length effort, this was seen as a bit of a comedown and while it doesn't have a terrible reputation, it's not often the film that springs to mind when thinking of the all time classic Disneys. Still, there are compensations.
The animation style was created with that sketchy, scratchy appearance which marks the work of this period, which sometimes pleases but other times looks rather messy and half-finished. This unpolished design is at odds with the supposed elegance of the plotline and setting, but when there's barely one French accent in the whole thing it's unsurprising that this doesn't hit the heights that the studio were capable of previously. The humour, too, is somewhat dominated by tedious slapstick and an over-reliance on "ain't they cute?" clichés that even at this time were well-worn in family animation, especially from these guys.
The storyline is pretty simple: the cats are kidnapped by Edgar, he takes them into the countryside, and dumps them there in the hope that they will never come back. There's a hint that after he drugs them he was planning to drown them, but this probably wasn't deemed the best idea as the butler is more a comic character than an outright bad guy, although if he had been dead set on killing the kitties then it might have offered the film a much needed edge. As it is, there's not much sense of danger here, as after we have established that the cats are far from home and at a loss what to do, a hero steps up in the person of alley cat Thomas O'Malley (Phil Harris, familiar but welcome) who sets them on the path back.
Thomas also fits the bill as a father figure, which the family needs but lacks - it's never explained where the kittens' actual father went to. So if we know that a happy ending with Thomas at the head of it is in little doubt, then it's all about the journey to get there, and there's a going through the motions pattern to the narrative that leaves dips between the highlights. One of those highlights is the film's most famous scene, where the moggies get together and sing "Everybody Wants to be a Cat", an exuberant number which is worth watching for alone. The other songs are not half as memorable, but the theme of banding together to overcome adversity, whether you're friends, family or even unlikely bedfellows, isn't heavy handed so The AristoCats isn't all bland. Mind you, if Edgar was in charge of cats who could paint and play the piano, then maybe he should have cleaned up in showbusiness instead of scheming to get rid of them?