In Paris 1910, mother cat Duchess and her three kittens, Marie, Berlioz, and Toulouse, live with retired opera diva Madame Adelaide Bonfamille, and her English butler, Edgar. One day while preparing her will with lawyer Georges Hautecourt, Madame declares her fortune to be left to her cats until their deaths, and thereafter to Edgar. Edgar hears this through a speaking tube, and plots to eliminate the cats. Therefore, he sedates the cats by putting sleeping pills in a milk mixture intended for them, and enters the countryside to abandon them. There, he is ambushed by two hounds, named Napoleon and Lafayette, and the cats are stranded in the countryside, while Madame Adelaide, Roquefort the mouse, and Frou-Frou the horse discover their absence.
In the morning, Duchess meets an alley cat named Thomas O'Malley, who offers to guide her and the kittens to Paris. The group briefly hitchhikes in a milk truck before being chased off by the driver. Later, while crossing a railroad trestle, the cats narrowly avoid an oncoming train, but Marie falls into a river and is saved by O'Malley, who in turn has to be rescued himself by two English geese, Amelia and Abigail Gabble, who accompany the cats to Paris. Edgar returns to the country to retrieve his possessions from Napoleon and Lafayette, as the only evidence that could incriminate him.
Travelling across the rooftops of the city, the cats meet O'Malley's friend Scat Cat and his musicians, who perform the song Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat. After the band has departed, O'Malley and Duchess converse on a nearby rooftop while the kittens listen at a windowsill. Here, Duchess's loyalty to Madame prompts her to decline O'Malley's proposal of marriage. Duchess and the kittens return to Madame's mansion, but Edgar places them in a sack and prepares to ship them to Timbuktu; whereupon they direct Roquefort to retrieve O'Malley. He does so, and O'Malley returns to the mansion, instructing Roquefort to locate Scat Cat and his gang. This done, the alley cats and Frou-Frou fight Edgar, while Roquefort frees Duchess and the kittens. At the end of the fight, Edgar is locked in his own packing-case and sent to Timbuktu himself. Madame Adelaide's will is rewritten to exclude Edgar, with Madame remaining ignorant of the reason for Edgar’s departure. After adopting O’Malley into the family, Madame establishes a charity foundation housing Paris's stray cats (represented by Scat Cat and his band, who reprise their song).Eva Gabor as Duchess - Madame Adelaide's cat and mother of three kittens; but forced to choose between loyalty to Madame and her own attachment to Thomas O'Malley, until the end of the film. Robie Lester provided the singing voice for Duchess.Phil Harris as Thomas O'Malley (full name: Abraham de Lacy Giuseppe Casey Thomas O'Malley) – A feral cat who befriends Duchess and her kittens, becoming a father figure to the kittens and falling in love with Duchess.Liz English as Marie - middle kitten; often imperious or snobbish to her brothers, but her mother's especial companion. Something of a singer.Gary Dubin as Toulouse - the oldest kitten, who idolizes all alley-cats and especially Thomas. He is also a talented painter, and is loosely based on French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.Dean Clark as Berlioz - the youngest kitten. He is somewhat timid and shy. He is also a talented pianist, and is loosely based on French pianist Hector Berlioz.Roddy Maude-Roxby as Edgar Balthazar - Madame Adelaide's butler who tries to get rid of the cats in order to inherit her fortune.Scatman Crothers as Scat Cat - Thomas's best friend and leader of a gang of jazz-playing alley cats. Scat Cat plays the trumpet.Sterling Holloway as Roquefort - A house mouse and also a friend of the cats, who assists in the expulsion of Edgar.Paul Winchell as Shun Gon - a Chinese cat in Scat Cat's gang. Plays the piano and drums made out of pots.Lord Tim Hudson as Hit Cat - an English cat in Scat Cat's gang. Plays acoustic guitar.Vito Scotti as Peppo - an Italian cat in Scat Cat's gang. Plays the accordion.Thurl Ravenscroft as Billy Boss - a Russian cat in Scat Cat's gang. Plays the double bass.Pat Buttram as Napoleon - a Bloodhound who attacks Edgar when he intrudes in the farm where Napoleon lives. Napoleon insists, whenever cohort Lafayette makes a suggestion, that he is in command, then adopts Lafayette's suggestion as his own.George Lindsey as Lafayette - a Basset Hound and Napoleon's companion. He sometimes proves smarter than Napoleon, but is also more timid.Hermione Baddeley as Madame Adelaide Bonfamille - a former opera singer and owner of Duchess and her kittens.Charles Lane as Georges Hautecourt - Madame Bonfamille's lawyer: an eccentric, lively old manNancy Kulp as Frou-Frou - Roquefort's horse companion, who subdues Edgar. Ruth Buzzi provided her singing voice.Monica Evans as Abigail Gabble - a goose who befriends the cats.Carole Shelley as Amelia Gabble - Abigail's twin sister.Bill Thompson as Uncle Waldo - the drunken gander uncle of Abigail and Amelia.Peter Renaday as French Milkman/Le Petit Cafe Cook/Truck Movers (uncredited)
On December 9, 1961, Walt Disney suggested that Harry Tytle and Tom McGowan find some animal stories to adapt as a two-part live-action episode for the Wonderful World of Color television program. By New Year's 1962, McGowan had found several stories including a children's book about a mother cat and her kittens set in New York City. However, Tytle felt that a London location had added a significant element to One Hundred and One Dalmatians and suggested setting the story of the cats in Paris. Following a rough storyline, the story became about two servants—a butler and a maid—who were in line to inherit a fortune of an eccentric mistress after the pet cats died and focused on their feeble and foolish attempts to eliminate the felines. Boris Karloff and Francoise Rosay were in mind to portray the butler and the distressed Madame. A subplot centered around a mother cat hiding her kittens to keep them out of danger in a variety of different homes and locales around Paris, France. During the filming of Escapade in Florence, McGowan brought him the story that had been written by Tom Rowe, an American writer who was living in Paris.
By August 1962, they sent the completed script to Burbank, where it was returned as "rejected" by an unknown executive at the Disney studios. Nevertheless, Tytle brought the script to Walt staying at the Connaught in London. Disney approved for the draft, but recommended additional cuts which were made by February 1963. Before filming was to commence, Rowe wrote a letter to Disney addressing his displeasure of the script revisions, in which Tytle responded to Rowe that the changes Walt approved of would be kept. However, by summer 1963, the project was shelved, where Tytle, in a discussion with Walt, recommended to produce The Aristocats as an animated feature. For that reason, Walt temporarily shelved the project as the animation department was occupied with The Jungle Book. Meanwhile, director Wolfgang Reitherman learned of the project and suggested it as a follow-up project to Jungle Book. Because of the production delays, Tytle was advised to centralize his efforts on live action projects and was replaced by Winston Hibler.
In 1966, Disney assigned Ken Anderson to determine whether Aristocats would be suitable for an animated feature. With occasional guidance from Reitherman, Anderson worked from scratch and simplified the two stories into a story that focused more on the cats. Walt saw the preliminary sketches and approved the project shortly before his death. After The Jungle Book was completed, the animation department began work on Aristocats. Hibler was eventually replaced by Reitherman, who would abandon the more emotional story of Duchess's obsession to find adopters befitting of her kittens' talents initially favored by Walt suggesting instead the film be conceived as an adventure comedy in the vein of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Furthermore, the character Elmira, the maid, who was intended to be voiced by Elsa Lanchester, was removed from the story placing Edgar as the central villain in order to better simplify the storyline.
As with The Jungle Book, the characters were patterned on the personalities of the voice actors. In 1966, Walt Disney contacted Phil Harris to improvise the script, and shortly after, he was cast to voice Thomas O'Malley. To differentiate the character from Baloo, Reitherman noted O'Malley was "more based on Clark Gable than Wallace Beery, who was partly the model for Baloo." Reitherman furthermore cast Eva Gabor as Duchess, remarking she had "the freshest femme voice we've ever had", and Sterling Holloway as Roquefort. Louis Armstrong was initially reported to voice Scat Cat, but he backed out of the project due to illness. Out of desperation, Scatman Crothers was hired to voice the character under the direction to imitate Armstrong. Pat Buttram and George Lindsey were cast as the farm dogs, which proved so popular with the filmmakers that another scene was included to have the dogs when Edgar returns to the farm to retrieve his displaced hat and umbrella.
Ken Anderson spent eighteen months developing the design of the characters. Five of Disney's legendary "Nine Old Men" worked on it, including the Disney crew that had been working 25 years on average.
The Aristocats was the last Disney animated feature Robert and Richard Sherman worked on as staff songwriters, growing frustrated by the management of the studio following Walt Disney's death. For the Disney studios, the Sherman Brothers completed their work before the release of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but would return to the studio to compose songs for The Tigger Movie.
The brothers composed multiple songs, but only the title song and "Scales and Arpeggios" were included in the film. Desiring to capture the essence of France, the Sherman Brothers composed the song "The Aristocats". Disney film producer Bill Anderson would ask Maurice Chevalier to participate in the film. Following the suggestion, Richard Sherman imitated Chevalier's voice as he performed a demo for the song. Chevalier received the demo and was brought out of retirement to sing the song. Deleted songs that were intended for the film included "Pourquoi?" sung by Hermione Baddeley as Madame Bonfamille, its reprise, and "She Never Felt Alone" sung by Robie Lester as Marie. For the show-stopping number, the Sherman Brothers composed "Le Jazz Hot", but the filmmakers preferred "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat" composed by Floyd Huddleston and Al Rinker. Lastly, a villainous song was envisioned to be sung by Edgar and his assistant Elmira as a romantic duet, but the song was dropped when Elmira was removed from the story.
Another deleted song was for Thomas O'Malley titled "My Way's The Highway", but the filmmakers had Terry Gilkyson compose the eponymous song "Thomas O'Malley Cat". Gilkyson explained "It was the same song, but they orchestrated it twice. They used the simpler one, because they may have thought the other too elaborate or too hot. It was a jazz version with a full orchestra."
The instrumental music was composed by George Bruns, who drew from his background with jazz bands in the 1940s and decided to feature the accordion-like musette for French flavor.
On Classic Disney: 60 Years of Musical Magic, this includes "Thomas O'Malley Cat" on the purple disc and "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat" on the orange disc. On Disney's Greatest Hits, this includes "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat" on the red disc.
On August 21, 2015, in honor of the 45th anniversary of the film, a new soundtrack was released as part of Walt Disney Records: The Legacy Collection. The release includes the songs and score as used in the film, along with The Lost Chords of the Aristocats (featuring songs written for the film but not used), and previously released album versions of the songs as bonus tracks.
The Aristocats was released in December 1970 where it grossed $10.1 million in domestic rentals. The film, which was very popular in France, grossed $16 million in foreign markets. The film was the most popular "general release" movie at the British box office in 1971. The film was re-released to theaters on December 19, 1980 where it earned an additional $18 million and again in April 10, 1987 where its gross was $17 million. The Aristocats has had a lifetime gross of $55.7 million.
The New York Times praised the film as "grand fun all the way, nicely flavored with tunes, and topped with one of the funniest jam sessions ever by a bunch of scraggly Bohemians headed by one Scat Cat." Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, awarded the film three stars out of four summarizing The Aristocats as "light and pleasant and funny, the characterization is strong, and the voices of Phil Harris (O'Malley the Alley Cat) and Eva Gabor (Duchess, the mother cat) are charming in their absolute rightness." For its 1987 re-release, animation historian Charles Solomon expressed criticism for its episodic plot, anachronisms, and borrowed plot elements from earlier Disney animated features, but nevertheless wrote "But even at their least original, the Disney artists provide better animation--and more entertainment--than the recent animated features hawking The Care Bears, Rainbow Brite and Transformers." Writing in his book The Disney Films, Disney historian and film critic Leonard Maltin wrote that "[t]he worst that one could say of The AristoCats is that it is unmemorable. It's smoothly executed, of course, and enjoyable, but neither its superficial story nor its characters have any resonance." Additionally, in his book Of Mice and Magic, Maltin criticized the film for re-using Phil Harris to replicate The Jungle Book's Baloo, dismissing the character Thomas O'Malley as "essentially the same character, dictated by the same voice personality."
The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that the film received a 66% approval rating with an average rating of 6/10 based on 29 reviews. Its consensus states "Though The Aristocats is a mostly middling effort for Disney, it is redeemed by terrific work from its voice cast and some jazzy tunes."
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:Nominated Animation Film
It was released on VHS in Europe on January 1, 1990 and in the UK in 1995. It was first released on VHS in North America in the Masterpiece Collection series on April 24, 1996.
In January 2000, Walt Disney Home Video launched the Gold Classic Collection, with The Aristocats re-issued on VHS and DVD on April 4, 2000. The DVD contained the film in its 1.33:1 aspect ratio enhanced with 2.0 Dolby surround sound. The Gold Collection release quietly discontinued in 2006. A new single-disc Special Edition DVD (previously announced as a 2-Disc set) was released on February 5, 2008.
Disney released the film for the first time on Blu-ray on August 21, 2012. The 2-disc Special Edition Blu-ray/DVD combo (both in Blu-ray and DVD packaging) featured a new digital transfer and new bonus material. A single disc DVD edition was also released on the same day.
In 2005, DisneyToon Studios originally planned to make a follow-up to the movie, along with sequels to Chicken Little (2005) and Meet the Robinsons (2007). Originally intended to be a 2D animated feature, Disney executives decided to produce the film in computer animation in order to garner more interest. Additionally, the story was meant to center around Marie, Duchess's daughter, who becomes smitten by another kitten aboard a luxury cruise ship. However, she and her family must soon take on a jewel thief on the open seas. The project was cancelled when John Lasseter was named Disney's new chief creative officer, in which he called off all future sequels DisneyToon had planned and instead make original productions or spin-offs.