Released at the end of 1970, The Aristocats is Disney’s twentieth animated feature, and was the last to be approved by Walt Disney himself before he passed. The movie features the voice talents of Phil Harris (better known for his role of Baloo the bear from The Jungle Book), Eva Gabor, Sterling Halloway (better known as the voice of Winnie the Pooh), Scatman Crothers, Pat Buttram, and George Lindsay. It also features the last recorded song from French actor and singer Maurice Chevalier, with the title track for the film used in the opening credits.
The Aristocats is set in turn-of-the-(twentieth)-century France, where a wealthy opera singer spends her high society retirement surrounded by her beloved cat Duchess (Eva Gabor) and her three little kittens. She so loves her cats that she decides to name them as the key beneficiaries in her will, followed by her faithful servant Edgar. When Edgar gets wind of this, he hatches a scheme to get rid of the cats by disposing of them off a bridge, which would leave him as the sole remaining beneficiary. The execution of his plan isn’t without incident (since this is a Disney film, after all) and the cats escape, but are stranded to try to make their way back to their owner.
They happen upon a street-wise alley cat by the name of Thomas O’Malley (Phil Harris) who vows to escort them back to the city. Along the way the group meets up with a colorful array of characters on the way back to town, although once there they are met with the challenge of figuring out what to do about Edgar and his plot to get rid of them.
That sense of deja vu you’re feeling? Yeah, a lot of people get that with this film, mainly because the story feels like a calculated mashup of leftovers from Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmations. It’s tweaked slightly, of course, but perhaps the main gripe with The Aristocats is its lack of originality – or really even much suspense – in the story department. The film starts off pretty strong, but then about halfway through it becomes a rather slow jaunt back to town. But it’s a setup that lays out a classic Disney framework to squeeze in some animation and songs.
Unfortunately that dismissive air is where a lot of people leave it. But in spite of its predictable setup, The Aristocats actually proves to be a rather enjoyable film. After all, it’s pretty difficult to go too far wrong when you have five of the “nine old men” working on the production, and the voice talent pool is one of the largest who’s-who collections from the studio’s archives. Add in one of Disney’s most veteran musical teams working on the songs and you’d do well to give this largely overlooked film a fair shake.
In fact, the film has so much going for it, you quickly forget that it’s all hanging on a rather generic and, frankly, weak premise. With the exception of the geese – a duo who, for my money, wore out their welcome the second they laughed – and the surprisingly non-politically correct Asian cat drummer, the cast is quite charming, even memorable. In fact, I almost wish that the two hound dogs (voiced by Pat Buttram and George Lindsay) could have had at least a spin-off short together, because they are hilarious, and classic Disney side characters. The songs are catchy, and the animation is wonderful, even unique amongst the studio’s other films. The Aristocats is, in my mind, unfairly neglected. Although not in league with the studio’s masterpieces, it certainly stands up on its own. Even when the story flags, it showcases the sheer breadth of talent amassed elsewhere in the production.
Video / Audio
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this combo pack is that the DVD included uses a different and older print of the film, looking very much like they may have repurposed the prior DVD release – menus, bonus features and all – from a few years ago and just slapped some new “coming soon” trailers on it. And that might be odd in and of itself, but on the plus side it offers a convenient way to evaluate how the different prints address the unique style of the film.
The Aristocats came near the end of Disney’s use of a Xerox animation process which was meant to help streamline the more tedious and traditional route of having individual cel sheets for each part of a shot, that fill-in artists would then take and basically clean up and fill in, piece by piece. Instead they could xerox repeating elements onto a more flat sheet and have less parts to work with. That process alone gives films like this one and 101 Dalmations something that seems to have less visual depth than some of the older cel-animated features, with characters and set pieces having their own more defined sense of depth against their background art. But in addition to this, the animators decided to leave “ragged edges” on the characters, where line work isn’t cleaned up around the outlines of characters, especially when in motion. It’s actually quite fascinating to just watch this deliberate animation choice, as it combines the sheer beauty of the Disney animations with a somewhat more rough-hewn and hand-made authenticity.
The Blu-ray transfer handles this style almost as a challenge, and seems to want to find a balance between giving this film the “cleaned up” look of some of its more marquee films styles, while also retaining those elements unique to The Aristocats. For the most part, their work is a success, as Disney is famously meticulous with preserving and properly presenting their library of films. The color of the film is the first major improvement you notice between the two, as tones that once felt muted or even washed out are now much more bright and lively. This alone helps give the foreground characters a bit more depth of presence. Stability of the print is also greatly improved, as are the many instances of debris and marks that have been cleaned up.
About the only downside is that you can notice a slight decrease in edge sharpness when compared to the DVD. The older print really makes the “ragged edges” pop out, and honestly with more contrast and detail. The Blu-ray seems a touch overambitious with its digital noise reduction, smoothing out the image a notch or two more than it should have been. The Blu-ray’s restored transfer is overall better by a French countryside mile, but it’s not without its issues, as the older DVD print makes clear.
The audio track is an unqualified improvement, however. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is strong and vibrant, even if its surround channels are sparsely used. Both the dialogue and music are pretty firmly planted up front, for the most part, but the music especially is clear and commanding. The Scat Cats section especially benefits from this meatier audio track, and overall there are no real issues to report.
There are two bonus items that are new to this release. The first one is “The Lost Open” (HD, 9:30) where Richard Sherman details a cut scene – as well as a cut character – from the film’s opening and share’s the musical number that was to accompany it. The song is illustrated with original storyboard art and is as close as we get to having much behind-the-scenes material on the movie. Also new, a music video for “Oui Oui Marie” (HD, 1:53) gives a grating club-youtube feel to one of the film’s musical themes.
There are several bonus items that have been ported over from prior DVD versions. “Classic Deleted Song ‘She Never Felt Alone'” (SD, 7:56) features the Sherman Brothers discussing and performing this song that was cut prior to production. “Classic Bonus Short ‘Bath Day'” (SD, 6:40) is a Minnie Mouse short where she gives her cat a bath, and the adventure its new pampered appearance causes with the other neighborhood cats. “Disney Song Selection” (HD, 10:52) highlights the main song scenes from the film, along with on-screen lyrics. “The Sherman Brothers” (SD, 4:24) is a quick bonus item about the songwriting duo’s tenure at Disney. And “The Great Cat Family (excerpt)” (SD, 12:51) is from an old Disney program on the animal kingdom, this segment dealing with cats.
Available solely on the DVD are two games, “Disney Virtual Kitten” and “Fun With Language Game”. The former is a DVD remote tamagotchi-type game, while the latter has you learn and match up musical instruments with their names and sounds. Both are geared towards very young children. Also included is “The Aristocats Scrapbook” which is a photo gallery of original artwork and behind-the-scenes photos.
It’s a little sad that The Aristocats comes across as one of the little-loved Disney movies, because despite its imperfections, it’s a quaintly charming ride and features some fantastic animation and voice acting. Even the scant bonus features give the impression that – the songwriters aside – no one really had that much to say about the film, and perhaps just thought of it as an underperforming trifle. But it commendably rises above its leftover storyline, showcasing some interesting and unique animation style choices and featuring some catchy music. This newly restored version offers a unique chance to revisit one of the studio’s true hidden gems, and is recommended for all Disney and animation fans.Powered by Sidelines