A feline sequel in spirit to 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp, Walt Disney's 1970 animated adventure The Aristocats proves that even the studio's halfhearted larks still have life in them, thanks to golden-age animators (including the legendary Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston), tunesmiths (led by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman), and vocal talent.
The corny plot is no obstacle to Disney-style fun. In Paris, former opera star Madame Adelaide Bonfamille (Hermione Baddeley) is the loving "cat lady" for a feline family: single mother Duchess (Eva Gabor) and children Marie (Liz English), Toulouse (Gary Dubin), and Berlioz (Dean Clark). When Madame Bonfamille's "sneaky, crooked, no-good butler" Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxbury) decides jealously to protect his inheritance from the cats in his way, the kidnapped "aristocats" find themselves stranded on the wrong side of the tracks. There, they find help from an unlikely source: free-spirited O'Malley the alley cat (Phil Harris).
The hand-drawn animation has a je ne sais quoi that's neither superior nor inferior to the best of CGI—just different, unmistakeable, and inimitable. The charcoal strokes beneath the paint are evident in the drawings that come to life in The Aristocats, adding a pleasing funk that's a distinctive part of '70s animation (likewise, the endearingly unpolished vocal performances of children who aren't twenty-first century pod people). The Parisian backgrounds are lovely in their fine detail, and the studied, naturalistic movement of these animated animals is the kind of Disney gold standard that has become "reference quality."
Another chief charm of The Aristocats is its charmingly insistent slapstick, from the very funny body language on nonagenarian lawyer Georges Hautecourt (voiced by the late, great Charles Lane, who passed on in 2007) to the wacky finale that inevitably pits the entire feline cast against Edgar. Among the lively cast of characters you'll also find deerstalker-clad mouse Roquefort (Stanley Holloway), jazzcat Scat Cat (Scatman Crothers) and his fellow musicians, geese twosome Amelia and Abigail Gabble (Carole Shelley and Monica Evans), and a pair of basset hounds with inexplicable American-Southern accents: Napoleon (Pat Buttram, a.k.a. Mr. Haney from Green Acres) and Lafayette (George "Goober" Lindsey, best known for The Andy Griffith Show).
Though The Aristocats is one of the lesser-known entries in the Disney canon, it has its share of memorable moments, including the music lesson/Sherman Brothers tune "Scales and Arpeggios," farcical scenes involving Edgar in the French countryside digs of Napoleon and Lafayette, and the "blow the roof off the joint" pseudo-jazz showstopper "Ev'rybody Wants to be a Cat" (featuring Crothers and Harris; written by Floyd Huddleston and Al Rinker). Other songs include the title tune, crooned over the credits by Maurice Chevalier (who else?), and Terry Gilkyson's "Thomas O'Malley Cat." An antidote for kids ruined by the worst of Saturday morning, The Aristocats is easy like Sunday morning.
I have zero complaints with the presentation of The Aristocats offered by Disney in its Blu-ray debut, a Blu-ray + DVD Special Edition. The image is beautifully rendered, a bit soft by modern standards, but with natural colors and best-yet detail highlighting the pre-CGI animation: pencil lines and brush strokes remain palpable. It's difficult to imagine a better looking (or sounding) presentation of this 38-year-old film. The now lossless audio, in a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, mightily impresses, especially musically, in delivering all there is to get from the original elements (with a minimum of inherited hiss).
For those wanting some background on animation history, The Aristocats: Special Edition unfortunately lacks a documentary or commentary. However, the inclusion of the deleted song "She Never Felt Alone" (7:54, SD) is invaluable. As we learn from Richard Sherman, seated at his piano, the song wasn't entirely deleted: it's heard in the film in instrumental form and Eva Gabor recites some of the lyrics. Thanks to the Disney archives, we're treated to original audio tracks by Hermione Baddeley and Robie Lester, the uncredited singing voice for Gabor. The excised song and reprise are put in context by Sherman and accompanied by production drawings, storyboards, and cast photos.
Added to the new Blu-ray edition are "The Lost Open" (9:31, HD), in which Sherman introduces the deleted character Elvira and two deleted songs, and a whacked-out "'Oui Oui Marie' Music Video" (1:53, HD).
You'll also find "The Sherman Brothers: The Aristocats of Disney Songs" (4:33, SD), an all-too-short discussion with the boys about their contributions. The Aristocats Scrapbook is a fully stocked gallery of production and pre-production art (a record of character development), cast and crew photos, live-action reference material, poster art and promotional items, and photos from the film's premiere.
"The Great Cat Family" (12:51, SD) excerpts a 1956 episode of The Wonderful World of Disney. Predating the film, the segment is at least thematically relevant, with Walt Disney narrating an animated history of cats. Also included: a 1946 Figaro the cat cartoon, "Bath Day" (6:39, HD), in which Minnie gives the li'l guy a washing prior to a street rumble with a gang of tough cats.
The menu also gives the options of Play Movie with On-Screen Lyrics and immediate song access with Disney Song Selection (10:44, HD), sing-alongs of “The Aristocats,” “Scales and Arpeggios,” “Thomas O’Malley Cat,” and “Ev’rybody Wants to be a Cat.”
In the DVD bonus features department, Disney continues its tradition of splitting the difference for kids and movie buffs. Kids get Virtual Kitten, a primer on the needs of a pet cat (parents will appreciate the implicit lesson that a pet cat is a responsibility); the game has more detail in its DVD-ROM version, so you may want to pop the disc in the computer for this one. Fun With Language teaches and quizzes kids on the names of the instruments played by Scat Cat's band.
The Aristocats: Special Edition hasn't quite used up its nine lives yet with video collectors (it's getting close), but this is the one to own.
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