First Theatrical Release: December 24, 1970
First Home Viewing Release: January 1, 1990 (Europe) / April 24, 1996 (USA)
My Rating: 3/5 stars
Where I Found It: The library’s DVD collection
Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters include “Madame,” Duchess, Marie, and geese Abigail and Amelia. Duchess and Marie talk about many things besides men; Duchess does not discuss her romantic life with her kittens.
Disney’s wonky release schedule constituted a missed opportunity for me to fall in love with this movie. I’ve always been a “cat person,” and I was understandably enamored by The Aristocats when I attended its theatrical re-release in 1987 (I was 6). Had Disney released the movie to VHS shortly thereafter, I expect it would have been one of the mainstays of my childhood as Bambi and Lady and the Tramp were. Alas, Disney didn’t release the movie to home video until 1996, by which point I had outgrown my childhood longing for it.
Last weekend’s rewatch was my first time seeing it since that original 1996 release, and the cats were not enough to raise it any higher than another average, three-star rating.
The Crazy Cat Lady, Redeemed
One of the things I like about The Aristocats is the way it redeemed the stereotype of the “crazy cat lady” in the character of Madame Adelaide Bonfamille. Although we see very little of her, we do see enough to know she lives alone in an elegant mansion, that she dresses as befitting her station, and that she adores her little cat family. In fact, she loves them so much that she decides to bequeath her wealth to them in her will.
Now, her lawyer is admittedly eccentric, but he does not balk at her request. Only her butler objects, and that is because after the cats die, her wealth will pass on to him. Thus, the plot is set in motion, as the butler tries to do the cats in for more direct access to Madame’s fortune.
Throughout all of this, Madame is portrayed as good, gentle and loving, while the butler is portrayed as silly, selfish and altogether unworthy. I love Disney’s recasting of the “crazy cat lady” archetype into one of dignity.
The one thing Disney got wrong in its portrayal of a close human-cat bond was the beautiful bed for the cats set up in Madame’s own bedroom. Meant to show how completely she indulges the cats, it only had me wondering, Why weren’t the cats sleeping in bed with her? That’s an awful big bed to sleep in alone; I can hardly take a nap without my cat curled up with me, and the pleasure of sleeping with cats is one I don’t think I will ever be able to live without. I feel sorry that Madame apparently did not partake of this, the ultimate pleasure of cat ownership.
A Single Mom Must Be in Want of a Tom
One could almost give Disney props for its depiction of Duchess as a single mother. She is warm and attentive with her kittens, and no mention is ever made of the missing father(s) (more on that later.) She is well suited to raising them in their comfortable, wealthy home, teaching them to paint, play piano, and say please and thank you. Unfortunately, her mothering capabilities apparently disintegrate the moment she meets a handsome Tom.
The romance between O’Malley and Duchess is appropriately subdued, but it’s refreshing that Duchess seemingly has no hang-ups about finding love despite the fact that she is also raising a family. To his credit, O’Malley hesitates only momentarily when he realizes the cat he’s been wooing comes with three kittens. But once the romance has officially begun, Duchess devolves into a helpless damsel, totally dependent upon O’Malley for her own and her kittens’ safety:
- Duchess relies on O’Malley to secure them a ride back to Paris after they have been dumped in the countryside by the butler, and to find her hungry kittens food for breakfast.
- When Marie slips off the train bridge and in to the water, Duchess wrings her paws while O’Malley dives bravely into the current to save her. (O’Malley is later “saved” by two gossiping geese, but they are portrayed as so silly that it’s a rescue one can hardly take seriously.)
- When Duchess and her kittens return home, Edgar shoves them in to a chest to send them to Timbuktu; Duchess sends for O’Malley, who sends his friends (a bunch of dudes) to save them.
Unfortunately, Duchess is a better mother when it comes to teaching her children manners than in keeping them alive. Sure, she’s been sheltered, but even the most sheltered mother would dive into a river after her child to save her.
Still, Duchess’s devotion to Madame is admirable — she turns down O’Malley’s marriage proposal in favor of her loyalty to Madame. (As an aside, O’Malley broaches the subject by insinuating that her kittens need a father — not the natural way of things in the cat world, but considering Duchess’s ineptitude at keeping them alive, I might be inclined to agree. At the end of the movie, Madame adopts O’Malley and comments that it is nice to have a “man around the house.” Cue eye-roll.)
Duchess is not completely passive, however. While she parties with O’Malley’s friends (including another Siamese playing into Asian stereotypes a la Lady & the Tramp), she tells O’Malley and his friends:
If you want to turn me on
Play your horn, don’t spare the tone
And blow a little soul into the tune
Oh boy, here is a cat who knows what she wants! (For the song’s full lyrics, including the politically incorrect “Chinese Cat’s” lines, click here.)
Indeed, despite his warnings, Duchess does not mind hanging with O’Malley’s “swinging” friends. While the romance plays out much like that between Lady & the Tramp, with a guy from the “wrong side” teaching a girl from the “right side” how to cut loose and have fun, Duchess lacks Lady’s innocence and is better able to meet O’Malley on his own level. And the final section of this post lends some insight into why.
Why Duchess Should Have Been a Calico
Disney should have done its research on cat genetics, because in failing to do so, it may have painted Duchess in colors of scandal it did not intend.
Let the genetics lesson commence!
Duchess (white) has three kittens: Marie (white), Toulouse (orange) and Bertriol (gray).
Marie is easy: she gets white fur from Mama.
Toulouse and Bertriol are trickier. Where do their fur colors come from? Was Papa Cat gray, or was he orange? Now, you might think that perhaps he was both — a calico, or a tortoiseshell. But he wasn’t because …
This is because the orange and gray/black colors are carried on the X gene. A male cat has just one X gene — thus, his color must display as either orange or gray. Because a female has TWO X genes, both the orange gene carried on one X and the gray/black gene carried on another can manifest simultaneously, giving us calicoes and tortoiseshells. (In rare cases males can be calicoes or torties, but then they are usually also sterile.)
If Duchess were calico or tortoiseshell, or even white speckled with orange OR gray, two parents could have genetically birthed these three kittens. But Duchess’s coat is as pure as the undriven snow.
Here’s how it IS possible for a white cat like Duchess to give birth to orange and gray kittens in the same litter. Because cats release several eggs when they ovulate, a female who mates with more than one male in a single heat cycle can have kittens in the same litter that were fathered by different toms. In Duchess’s case, it appears she got lucky with a gray tom, and an orange tom.
A little more about Duchess’s past than you wanted to know?