A play on the word “aristocrats,” ’tis a tale of a family of aristocratic cats in early twentieth-century Paris. Their owner, typically referred to as Madame, though occasionally referred to as “Adelaide” by the elderly lawyer, is a former opera singer (her favorite role was Carmen, from Bizet’s opera of the same name [the song playing on the record player is Habarnera]). Her dearest companions are her four cats; Duchess and her kittens Toulouse (a nod toFrench artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec), Berlioz (a reference to French composer Hector Berlioz) and Marie (an homage to Marie Antoinette, most likely). They are cared for by indulgent butler, Edgar. Except when Edgar eavesdrops on Madame’s conversation with her lawyer, he discovers that he will inherit her vast fortune after the cats.
One could call Madame a crazy cat lady; leaving a family of cats a fortune seems…ridiculous on a level. They’re cats; what are they going to do with it? But I view her sympathetically with Duchess. She’s an old woman who has admitted she has no living relatives (we don’t know if she was ever married, ever had any children) and her closest companions have been this family of cats. So, if she wants to, why not leave the money to the cats?
Duchess carries on her day, heedless of Edgar’s plotting and scheming, educating her offspring to be proper aristocrats. Toulouse practices his painting while Berlioz accompanies Marie practicing her Scales and Arpeggios. Toulouse and Berlioz are typical brothers, who like to roughhouse a bit (the piano gets some paint on it at one point and they practice fighting alley cats) while Marie is a little diva, swooning at romantic phrases and insisting she’s a lady. “Ladies don’t start fights, but they can finish them.” Her brothers’ response to her insisting “ladies first,” is that she is “not a lady, you’re nothing but a sister!” Duchess keeps patient control of them. Their lunch, served by Edgar, includes sleeping pills so he can remove them from the house that evening quietly.
He drives his motorbike out into the country and runs into two hounds, Napoleon and Lafayette (yes, the movies does indeed take place in Paris. If Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower aren’t enough proof). A wild and slightly improbable chase later, the basket with Duchess and her kittens is left under a bridge. A storm wakes them up and they realize what has happened. They take shelter in their basket and wait for morning.
Morning brings Thomas O’Malley Cat singing an introduction (with words that I am not sure of to this day). Duchess is the only cat visible during his exposition, so he flirts. He’s flustered by the appearance of her kittens and almost rescinds his offer of help. Duchess, while very ladylike, does not hesitate to set off with her children. O’Malley comes to his senses and scares up a ride for them (Marie spends a portion of the movie as the damsel in distress). When they’re kicked off the truck by a “horrible human,” the group attempts to take the train tracks. An actual train chases them off and Marie is in distress again. That escapade introduces them to Abigail and Amelia Gabble, very silly English geese. (Their giggling is incessant). With them they do manage to return to Paris and meet up with “Uncle Waldo,” who is “marinated.” He seems a harmless enough drunk, but as an adult, I take it with a grain of salt. (Abigail and Amelia giggle throughout)
Back at Madame’s mansion, she has discovered her beloved cats missing. Edgar brags to the horse, Frou Frou, and mouse, Roquefort (a French cheese) that he is the now famous catnapper from the paper, though he realizes he lost some items when he abandoned the cats. He must retrieve them before they’re found by the police. This leads to another run in with Lafayette and Napoleon (who still asserts he is the leader and he’ll decide).
It is too late in the evening for Duchess and her kittens to return to Madame, so they crash at O’Malley’s pad where Scat Cat and the gang are swinging. (I used to like Everybody Wants to Be a Cat more before it was part of a medley for a synchronized swimming routine. It took several years before I could listen to it again.) I think I even cringed as a child at some of the stereotypical racial characterizations; I knew that was not how Asians should be portrayed, it was demeaning. The song is still “bouncy,” as Berlioz states. There’s a harp interlude that I always forget is part of the song. It’s a nice demonstration that both sides can appreciate each style. Once the kittens are asleep, Thomas and Duchess have a conversation. Duchess wants to stay with Thomas, but she won’t leave Madame. Madame loves them very much and would miss them terribly. Berlioz sadly sums up the children’s feelings: “Well, we almost had a father.”
O’Malley is still a gentle-cat and sees Duchess and the kittens home. To be grabbed by Edgar again and locked in a trunk to be sent to Timbuktu. Roquefort is sent to fetch O’Malley, who sends him to Scat Cat (real smart, Tom, sending a mouse to a gang of cats). They attack Edgar, with some help from Frou Frou, and he switches places with Duchess et al and he’s carted off to Timbuktu instead. Madame is happily reunited with her companions, and gladly adds another man to the house. She comments to her lawyer that the new will should include any offspring Thomas and Duchess have, both of whom seem open to the idea. Madame blithely mentions that if Edgar knew about the will, he would not have left. I guess she thought that Edgar had just run off. In addition, Madame has started a new foundation, giving a home to all the alley cats of Paris (so she can enjoy the swing music).
I tend to associate this movie with my mother, since she loves cats. The kittens are adorable and act like human siblings; Duchess is a remarkable female feline, with all of the poise and manners of breeding, but she’s also able to accept and befriend those of a lower class, without being condescending. Overall, it would rank under Jungle Book, but certainly higher than some other Disney movies (Lady and the Tramp, for instance. I didn’t mind puppies and dogs in 101 Dalmatians, but I’m not fond of Lady and the Tramp).
Let me know if you have any questions or comments!
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