The Aristocats is one of the slightest of director Wolfgang Reitherman’s contributions to the Disney animated feature canon, which is to say it’s still among the studio’s least suffocatingly ornate and ideologically risible films (though that could only be because its status as a second-stringer has consigned it to a much smaller audience than the psychologically toxic Cinderella). The Aristocats was also the first movie Disney conceived and released after Uncle Walt’s death. If there isn’t a single element in the entire film that’s not derivative of the studio’s then-recent past, you can’t blame them for sticking with what worked best—business models-cum-creative habits conditioned by horsewhip die hard, if at all.
Cribbing liberally from Reitherman’s own 101 Dalmations (and, to a lesser extent, The Jungle Book), Aristocats merges visual vitality with bestial fidelity. Both are ultimately retrograde in their intentions, but come to some sort of redemption as their family values are offset by the Disney equivalent of brash, jazzy sensibilities. Aristocats swaps out unfixed dogs for cats in heat, dognapping for half-assed cat disposal, mid-century London for Gilded Age purr-ee, and the deliciously diabolical Cruella De Vil for an incompetent butler named Edgar who lets his jealousy of his master’s cats get the better of him. Of course, he does have reason, since the dotty, childless meal ticket (Christian name: Madame Adelaide Bonfamille) intends, with the legal assistance of her downright embalmed family executor, to will her entire fortune to her cats. The long list of favors performed upon Madame by the long-suffering Edgar are left to the imagination, but it’s probably safe to say that it’s not just croque-monsieur she asks him to deliver to her boudoir, judging from his shattered reaction to being demoted beneath a group he frequently sees licking their own butts while lounging around in the piano room. Instead of killing them, he just drives them 20 miles outside of town and loses not once but twice in a fight with two 20-pound dogs.
In short, as a villain, Edgar doesn’t cut the catnip. But, then, when compared against 101 Dalmations, The Aristocats doesn’t either. Whereas the earlier film’s downright innovative (for Disney) slapdash sensibilities seemed entirely of-the-moment in 1961, and its jaggedly slashed lines of animation seemed to have been summoned from the blood-drenched pelts of Cruella herself, Aristocats’ ersatz early jazz is applied wonton to a period and locale that doesn’t make sense. Duchess (voiced by Eva Gabor in one of the only memorable vocal performances in the entire film) does in that she represents the soon-to-be outmoded era, but the revolutionary alley cat O’Malley really ought to be a ruthless male ballerina in Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, not the bebopping tuft of orange scat he is in the film. (What we really have here is the prehistory of Jack and Rose in Titanic.)
For what it’s worth, Aristocats doesn’t push the dramatic conflict any harder than it’s worth, and the low stakes are themselves a shot of fresh air in comparison to the last few decades of Disney output, when in seems every single villain has to spurt to 70 feet tall by the last reel. But ultimately Aristocats does little to alter the truism that Disney knew dick about pussy.