Chief Justice Michael Stailey has never been a cat person, but for these feisty felines he'll make an exception.
To which pets do the others tip their hats? Naturellement, The Aristocats!
Disney's Phil Harris / Sherman Brothers era continues. Coming off the highly successful The Jungle Book, director Woolie Reitherman and Walt's Nine Old Men draw inspiration from the recent past while infusing even more comedic zaniness into a character-driven formula that defined the studio's animated features through 1981's The Fox and the Hound.
Facts of the Case
Nearing her twilight years, Madame Adelaide Bonfamille (Hermione Baddeley) has decided it's time to draft her last will and testament, leaving all her worldly possessions to her beloved cats—Duchess (Eva Gabor), Toulouse (Gary Dubin), Berlioz (Dean Clark), and Marie (Liz English). This greatly upsets her faithful butler, Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby), who feels slighted for his years of dutiful service. However, there is one loophole in the will: At the end of their natural lives, Edgar inherits whatever remains of Madame's fortune. So, for a man whose career has been spent overcoming obstacles, what better way to ensure a comfortable retirement than quietly dispose of these four overly pampered and defenseless creatures? Too bad he underestimates the power of Paris' animal kingdom. Vive la resistance!
If this is your first exposure to The Aristocats it might seem somewhat familiar. Based on a story by Tom McGowan and Tom Rowe, it's basically a spin on 1967's 101 Dalmatians, with cats replacing dogs. In both cases, defenseless, young house pets have been shanghaied by an assumed friend for his/her own nefarious purposes, and its up to the youngsters friends and neighbors to mount the search and rescue. Instead of two bumbling idiots doing the hatchet job, as in Dalmatians, here Edgar is more than enough idiot to screw things up. Whereas parents Pongo and Purdy lead the charge to bring their puppies home, here momma Duchess is assisted by Thomas O'Malley, swarthy cat about the countryside. In both films, our heroes are joined by a hilarious cast of supporting characters who entertain and enlighten, while enabling daring escapes. And Ken Anderson's exceptional production designs on each film draw heavily upon the work of famous painters: Picasso for Dalmatians and Toulouse-Lautrec for Aristocats.
These observations are not meant to criticize the film, as The Aristocats has long been one of Disney's underappreciated gems. Rather, it's to point out that even though comparisons can be made, the film stands on its own four paws as solid storytelling. The relationship between Thomas and Duchess is authentic and heartfelt. Here's a guy who's willing to sacrifice his bachelorhood to start a new life as husband and father to an instant family. The danger posed by Edgar's greed is real, not only to the kittens but to Madame herself who may very well die of a broken heart. And the gag driven comedy, which opened many new doors in Dalmatians, comes back in full force, after being toned down somewhat in Jungle Book.
But it's the characters that make the real difference. The adorable coupling of Madame and her ancient, half-blind attorney Georges (Charles Lane) will bring a smile to anyone's face, young or old. Each of the kittens have their own unique personalities—Marie is a singer who wants nothing more than to be a high society lady, Berlioz a thoughtful and observant musician, and Toulouse a painter with a bit of alley cat within him. Duchess is a mother first, and a caretaker for Madame second, leaving no room for herself to entertain thoughts of being romantically involved. Thomas is a self-sacrificing, self-confident, macho influence the kittens have never experienced. Thomas' gang is made up of the United Nations of felines—a Russian bassist (Thurl Ravenscroft), a Chinese pianist (Paul Winchell), an Italian squeeze box player (Vito Scotti), a British hippie guitarist (Lord Tim Hudson), and American jazz horn player (Scatman Crothers). In fact, Scatman is riffing very much like Louis Prima, who played opposite Phil in Jungle Book as King Louie, which makes me wonder if they didn't write the role with him in mind. And rounding out the cast, you have the great Sterling Holloway as Roquefort the mouse, who single-handedly sets out to rescue the kittens; Monica Evans, Carole Shelly, and Bill Thompson as the Gabble goose family, who help guide them from the French countryside back to Paris; Nancy Kulp as Edgar's horse Frou-Frou who takes none to kindly to his treachery; and Pat Buttram and George Lindsey as Napoleon and Lafayette, the farm dogs who may very well prove Edgar's undoing. Now talk about things feeling familiar, six years later, Hanna-Barbera would unveil another short-lived, Scooby-Doo knockoff in the form of Clue Club, which starred Woofer and Wimper, a Bassett hound and hound dog who look and act very much like Napoleon and Lafayette. Coincidence or influence? You make the call (see the show's opening credits linked under Accomplices).
Presented in 1.75:1 anamorphic widescreen, this remastered transfer has been given a new paint job (which looks great), but has not undergone the meticulous expunging of dirt and scratches that Disney's "Platinum Editions" receive. Seeing Aristocats on the big screen for its DVD premiere at the El Capitan Theatre showed just how badly in need of a cleanup the film really is. In fact, when I visited the Disney Animation Research Library last fall for the 40th Anniversary release of Jungle Book they didn't even want to talk much about Aristocats. Alongside Sword in the Stone, Robin Hood, and Fox and the Hound, these are considered the studio's B-team films, which in my opinion is doing them a great disservice.
On the other hand, the film does receive an enhanced 5.1 Surround mix, which sounds fantastic. A robust bass removes the somewhat tinny feel of the previous Gold Edition release and amps up the appreciation for Floyd Huddleston and Al Rinker's classic "Everybody Wants to Be a Cat," Phil Harris' smooth rendition of "Thomas O'Malley Cat," the Sherman Bros.' "The Aristocats," and yet another exceptional underscore from composer and jazz man George Bruns. Interesting side note: Maurice Chevalier came out of retirement to record the title track, which turned out to be the final project he worked on before passing away in January 1972.
If you were hoping for a vast array of supporting bonus material, you may be disappointed. The most valuable pieces for Disney animation junkies are a segment from the Sep 19, 1956 episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color entitled "The Great Cat Family" (When are they going to start releasing full seasons of this series on DVD?!); a new featurette, "The Sherman Brothers: The Aristocrats of Disney Songs," which has Richard and Robert talking about the work they did for the film; a deleted song, "She Never Felt Alone," which uses the original studio recording by Hermione Baddeley and storyboards from the archives to recreate a scene in which Madame sings to her kittens; a production art photo gallery with 18 sketches and character designs; and the animated short "Bath Day," which features Figaro from Pinocchio now living with Minnie Mouse, who's set on giving the little guy a bath. Everything else is filler—Sing-along versions of each song with onscreen lyrics; "Disney Virtual Kitten," a creepy little tamagotchi game in which you care for one of the kittens in real time (in both set top and DVD-ROM form); and "Fun with Language" in which you respond to a series of prompts to learn the names of the cat band's instruments. Whatever. None of the little ones in my family have any interest in these games. They'd rather watch the film again for the second, third, or 100th time.
It was definitely time for The Aristocats to get a re-release and this "Special Edition" is a step above the bare bones release from 2000. While I would like to have seen a little more care and attention go into cleaning up the transfer, I'll shelve my slight disappoint and recommend this as a must buy for any Disney nut in your family tree. Despite what some may believe, this will forever be a classic.
The only thing The Aristocats can be found guilty of is language-cide. All of these characters live in France, but the only one who speaks the language is the milkman. Go figure.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Great Cat Family" (Excerpt from Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color)
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