If you need Judge Clark Douglas, he'll be grooming himself in the corner.
A purr-fectly wonderful new cartoon feature!
"We were just practicing biting and clawing."
Facts of the Case
Madame (Hermione Baddeley, Mary Poppins) is an elderly, fabulously wealthy woman who is fully aware that she's in the final years of her life. As such, she's decided to draft a will and leave all of her vast fortunes to…her cats. Yes, the lovely feline Duchess (Eva Gabor, The Rescuers) and her kittens Marie (Liz English), Toulouse (Gary Dubin, Jaws 2) and Berlioz (Dean Clark) will receive everything. After the cats pass on, the riches will transfer to Madame's faithful butler Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby, Shadowlands). However, Edgar overhears Madame's plans and determines that he simply can't wait that long to receive his wealth. The butler promptly abandons the cats in the middle of nowhere and leaves them to fend for themselves. Fortunately, Duchess and co. are a bit more resilient than Edgar anticipated. With the aid of such colorful characters as alley cat Thomas O'Malley (Phil Harris, The Jungle Book), two talkative geese (Carole Shelley and Monica Evans of The Odd Couple), a gentle mouse (Sterling Holloway, Winnie the Pooh) and the jazz-loving Scat Cat (Scatman Crothers, The Shining), the quartet of "aristocats" might just stand a chance of making it back home.
I watched The Aristocats countless times during my childhood, but it had been a long while since I had revisited the film. I was certain it would still be an enjoyable watch—and it is—but watching it with older eyes, I was surprised by how thin and insubstantial the whole thing is. It's technically the last film to be approved by Walt Disney himself before the great man passed away, but the finished product doesn't quite feel up to his high standards (after all, it was released four years after Disney's passing). It's certainly not the low point of Disney's output, but it's definitely a step down from almost everything which preceded it.
Still, it isn't fair to beat up on the movie simply because it isn't Sleeping Beauty or Bambi. As lightweight animated fare, it offers more than enough simple pleasures over the course of its breezy 78-minute running time. Let's start with the title characters. The kittens are given distinctive personalities, which the animators highlight in delightful ways; one of the film's consistent highlights is watching the assorted reactions of the young protagonists as the increasingly wild events unfold. Duchess is a rather bland in terms of both animation and voice acting, but that's soon compensated for with the arrival of the colorful, expressive Thomas O'Malley. Phil Harris is essentially doing his Baloo the Bear routine again, but it's such a charming routine that you can hardly fault Disney for casting him a second time (though by the time Harris was voicing another carefree dancing bear in Robin Hood, you could tell the studio was leaning too heavily on successes of the past).
Though pop culture references are abundant in animated features in the modern age, The Aristocats dipped its toe in that stream long before it was something everyone was doing. The geese essentially allow Carole Shelley and Monica Evans to do a variation on their routine from The Odd Couple. A memorable joke from Gone with the Wind is recycled on multiple occasions by two dogs voiced by Pat Buttram (Green Acres) and George Lindsay (The Andy Griffith Show). Scat Cat is clearly meant to be a feline version of Louis Armstrong. In fact, Armstrong was initially hired to voice the character, but dropped out for unknown reasons—replacement Scatman Crothers was bluntly asked to imitate Satchmo. Crothers does a good job in the role, but the imitation is so blatant that it's almost distracting.
In fact, The Aristocats generally feels like that: a passable imitation of something more unique and distinctive. While Disney worked hard to break new ground for decades, for much of the '70s and '80s they were content to coast on their well-established brand name. The Aristocats feels like the beginning of that era. The Sherman Brothers provide a blend of French flavor (the Maurice Chevalier-sung title tune) and The Jungle Book-style jazz ("Everybody Wants to Be a Cat"), but none of it ever approaches the dizzying heights of their best work (in fact, Thomas O'Malley's introductory song feels like a flat-out lazy way to introduce the character; the guy just shows up, sings about himself and joins the plot). The characters largely feel derivative of earlier Disney characters. The plot is a loosely assembled, episodic fusion of familiar bits and pieces. It's pleasant in the way that microwaved leftovers from that spectacular restaurant you went to last night are pleasant.
The Aristocats (Blu-ray) has received a very impressive 1080p/1.66:1 transfer, which does a nice job of recreating the film's warm, slightly rough hand-drawn visuals. It's obvious that Disney was working on a slightly tighter budget than usual with this one, but the animation is still lovely and vibrant. Colors have a lot of pop, detail is superb throughout and depth is impressive. While this isn't quite the eye-popping restoration given to something like Bambi, it's pretty terrific nonetheless and probably about as good as this particular effort is ever likely to look. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is excellent throughout, with the "Everybody Wants to Be a Cat" sequence in particular standing out as a sonic delight. Dialogue is crisp and clean, the Sherman Brothers' score resonates strongly and the occasional sound design is well-captured.
Supplements are on the thin side, unfortunately. You get a storyboarded "lost opening sequence" (10 minutes), which contains an additional musical number, a brief featurette highlighting the music of The Sherman Brothers (4 minutes), an additional deleted song, a terrible "Oui Oui Marie" music video, a 1956 animated special excerpt from "The Great Cat Family," the bonus short "Bath Day" (featuring Figaro and Minnie Mouse), a couple of different sing-along options (one which is self-contained and one which accompanies the film) and a DVD copy. Some pleasant viewing, but hardly a comprehensive overview of the film's creation.
The Aristocats is inessential, but I imagine it will entertain youngsters of the modern era as effectively as ever. The characters are likable, the story is engaging and the tunes are charming; it's just unfortunate that none of these elements compares favorably to Disney's best stuff.
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