I will never forget seeing Disney animated films when I was a kid. These movies had a tendency to play in a very large theater in the town I grew up in, the kind that had a giant marquee, a large lobby, an enormous number of seats and a huge balcony. A huge red velvet curtain would rise at the beginning of the film and lower after the credits. Sitting in that theater made viewing any movie an event, especially a Disney film.
One of the first films I remember seeing there was The Aristocats, an original animated film directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, who directed many Disney classics, including 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, The Rescuers, among others. Released originally in 1970, it is supposedly the last animation film that Walt Disney gave approval to before passing away.
The film, set in Paris, tells of Duchess (Eva Gabor), a pampered cat and her three kittens, Toulouse, Marie and Berlioz. They all live in the home of Madame Adelaide Bonfamille, a retired opera singer. The cats are the woman’s only companions, except for her butler Edgar, and her lawyer, Georges. The cats lead a good life relaxing, studying the arts (note their names) and being taken care of by Edgar. That is, when one day, Madame decides to write her will, and she leaves everything to the cats, with loyal Edgar getting everything after they die. Unfortunately, loyalty only goes so far when it comes to money, so to speed up the process, Edgar drugs the cats and takes them out to the country to kill them.
But before Edgar can complete his deed, he is attacked by Napoleon and Lafayette, two dogs living out in the country. The cat’s basket falls into a river bed and our feline family just doesn't know what to do unless someone is there to take care of them. (I say this with a little disdain, because I’m a semi-cat lover; semi because five minutes prior to me writing this paragraph, my cat decides to take a poop two feet from the litter box).
OK-back on subject-The cats meet up with Thomas O’Malley, aka Abraham de Lacy Giuseppe Casey Thomas O'Malley, a street smart alley cat. He takes a liking to Duchess and decides to get her and the kittens back home. On the way, they meet up with a madcap bunch of characters-Amelia and Abagail, 2 proper British geese and their drunken Uncle Waldo, and Scat Cat and his hip jazz band, who stop the show with the song “Ev’rybody Wants to be a Cat.”
At a brisk 78 minutes, this film really flies. Since this is probably the first time I’ve seen the film since I was a kid, I come to realize how similar Aristocats is to other Disney films, such as Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians. It is one of the very few original tales in the Disney vault, and it does feel somewhat hollow. I almost feel that if they had it back then, this would be a direct-to-video release.
The films saving graces for me are the the voice-overs and the animation. I absolutely love listening to Phil Harris’s voice, whether its Baloo the bear in Jungle Book, Little John in Robin Hood, or O’Malley in this film. He just has this smooth delivery that is one of the best in the business. Eva Gabor was purr-fectly cast as Duchess, the pampered kitty. When you see Duchess, she is wearing a diamond choker collar. And when you hear Gabor’s voice, all you think of is class. And she brings it.
The animation used in the film is very non-traditional in comparison to other Disney movies. Films such as Snow White, Cinderella, and Jungle Book have very full, lush and colorful backgrounds. With The Aristocats, they are drawn with pencil, at times abstract and not filled in with color. It’s an artistic choice and it gives the film a European feel. Pencils are also used in characters and they are very obvious. At times you can see the pencil strokes: Duchess’s face, the kittens. It’s simply done and it looks great.
All in all, The Aristocats is definitely a winner. Although it arbitrarily throws colorful characters at you to pad its short running time, it’s still an enjoyable film that kids will love, and adults will fondly remember.
The Aristocats is presented with a 1080p, MPEG-4 video codec and an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. It is a terrific transfer, highlighting a broad spectrum of colors, from light pastels to bright reds and oranges. The musical number “Ev’rybody Wants to be a Cat” is a color free-for-all, with bursts of color covering the whole screen. The detail of the animation is what really shines here. You can see every pen and pencil stroke, especially in the characters faces. It’s not a clean image, like you see in current digital animation. This is pure classic hand drawn animation, and it’s gorgeous.
The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is bright and cheery, just like a Disney animated feature should sound. The front channels carry most of the weight. Dialogue is clearly produced from the center channel with off-screen voices and directional effects delivered effectively from the side speakers. The music is the star here and where the rear surrounds jump into the game. The clarity of the instruments is great, especially the high pitch of the trumpets. The LFE offers deep support. I keep mentioning the song “Ev’rybody Wants to be a Cat.” You will rewind the film back to this song because the sound here is so good.
The Aristocats is chock full of extras, but most of them involve the song score, which is ok, but not the greatest in the Disney library. I would have been very happy to have seen some of the artists who worked on the animation, or comparisons of the films backgrounds to actual Paris architecture. The extras do contain an animated short, plus an excerpt from the Wonderful World of Disney on the cat family.
The Aristocats is a classic, but I’m not sure why. People like it for its music, but surprisingly, there are only four songs in the film. The story feels ‘borrowed’ from other Disney films, making it feel like a second tier title. But the film is a classic to me because it doesn’t come off as a traditional Disney feature. If anything, it feels like a small independent film. And I think Walt Disney would be happy with that.