It seems that with every Disney full-length cartoon feature there is always a "first" or a "last" of some kind attached to it. You know, like the first full-length animated movie ever made or the first to use classical music or the last to use hand-drawn cells or...whatever. In the case of 1970's "The Aristocats," it's the first full-length animated feature made after Disney's death in 1966 and the last full-length animated feature to which Uncle Walt had any serious input. So, "The Aristocats" is a milestone of sorts and a pretty decent film, too, for the younger set. Adults, however, may find that it lacks some of the old Disney magic.
The movie has plenty of things going for it. First, its director, Wolfgang Reitherman, also gave us "One Hundred and One Dalmatians," "The Sword in the Stone," "The Jungle Book," "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh," "Robin Hood," and "The Rescuers," so he knew what he was doing. "The Aristocats" is at least on a par with "Robin Hood," even if it doesn't match "Dalmatians" or "Jungle Book." Second, the Disney artists used a slightly different artistic approach for this one, one they would continue in "Robin Hood" a couple of years later. The style is not quite as bright or colorful as previous Disney films, generally substituting more pastels, with a greater emphasis on rougher line-type drawings than on the detailed watercolor backgrounds of older times. To be fair, though, there are occasional touches of the old Disney style as well, particularly in the country scenes. Then, too, there is an abundance of wonderful voice talents on hand (more of that in a moment), and a fair assortment of songs.
It's just that the voice talents can't quite save some of the commonplace characters, and with the exception of the opening song, most of the tunes lack much spark and sparkle. Ah, but there is that wonderful opening title song, "The Aristocats," sung by Maurice Chevalier, whom the studio coaxed out of retirement to do. After that, though, the rest of the songs are unremarkable, including "Scales and Arpeggios," "Thomas O'Malley Cat," and "Everybody Wants to Be a Cat." Still, the songs by Richard and Robert Sherman, Terry Gilkyson, Floyd Huddleston, and Al Rinker are not at all distracting, and youngsters, especially, might find them of interest.
The story takes place in Paris, 1910, so one can welcome the old-timey atmosphere and the ornate architecture of the city. A rich, elderly lady, Madame Adalaide Bonfamille (voiced by Hermione Baddely), lives for her cats--a mother cat, Duchess (Eva Gabor), and her three kittens. Madame Adalaide loves her cats so much that she stipulates in her will that they should inherit all of her wealth when she dies, and only if the cats should die would her loyal butler inherit the estate. Well, you can guess what happens. The greedy butler, Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby), overhears the Madame dictating her will and determines that "Those cats have got to go." He plots to rid himself of the cats by drugging them, carrying them off to the countryside, and dumping them there. The movie concerns the cats' attempts to get back to Paris and their mistress.
Most of this initial intrigue seems perfunctory, developing little suspense or tension. The butler doesn't seem nearly evil or dastardly enough for us to care much about him one way or the other. And, frankly, Duchess and her kittens are rather bland characters; they're cute, to be sure, but they don't generate much enthusiasm for them, either.
Fortunately, things pick up considerably once the butler dumps the cats in the French countryside. That's because we finally get to meet the movie's most interesting characters. There is a pair of hounds (who sound more like they belong in the American South than in France, but who's counting?) whom we get to like, voiced by Pat Buttram and George Lindsey. There is a pair of geese, the Gabble sisters, voiced by Monica Evans and Carole Shelley. And, most important of all, there is the real star of the show, Thomas O'Malley, a cool cat voiced by Phil Harris, who helps the feline family and becomes Duchess's romantic interest. A few years earlier, Harris had pretty much carried "The Jungle Book," and clearly Disney wanted him to do the same for "The Aristocats." He almost pulls it off. It's just that this time he doesn't have a showstopper like "Bare Necessities" to work with, and the way the Disney artists draw him he looks more like a cougar or mountain lion than a swingin' alley cat. Two other characters of note: Roquefort the mouse, voiced by the inimitable Sterling Holloway, and Scat Cat, voiced by Scatman Crothers (in lieu of Louis Armstrong, who pulled out of the production at the last minute). I just wish some of these characters had had bigger parts in the movie.
Anyway, there's not as much joy or imagination in "The Aristocats" as in some other Disney animations. Basically, the movie takes the story and characters of "Lady and the Tramp" and attempts to transpose them to the souls of cats. It almost works, but I tell you, the Wife-O-Meter, who had never seen the film before, got up and walked out, bored, after about twenty minutes. It was not a good sign.
The Disney engineers offer up an all-new, 1.78:1 ratio, anamorphic widescreen digital transfer, using a high bit rate to boot. They do not appear to have restored the picture frame by frame, however, so there are still minor elements of age with which one must attend. Although the video is fairly clean, one notices the occasional fleck or speck here and there, and there is some barely discernable but decidedly odd fluttering going on in large expansive areas, perhaps the result of a touch of print grain flickering there. Also, because of the subdued color palette the original artists chose to use, one should not expect quite as brilliant hues in the Technicolor images as in many other Disney films. Let's say the picture quality is fine, if not of the very first order. Still, it's much better than the studio's earlier full-screen rendering of the movie on DVD.
The Disney folks have also improved the sound by offering it up in Dolby Digital 5.1 reproduction rather than the previous DVD's stereo only. However, that doesn't mean the DD 5.1 is very wide ranging or very wide spread out. To me, it still sounds like good two-channel stereo most of the time, with a few ambient sounds, like those of crickets, peeking through from the surrounds. The best qualities of the audio are its quietness, its smoothness, and its decent dynamic impact.
Disney include a goodly slate of extras on the disc, almost as much material as the film itself. First, there's a deleted song, "She Never Felt Alone," a seven-minute segment that reconstructs the tune then and now. Next is a "Disney Song Selection" of four tunes, with optional on-screen lyrics. Following that is "Disney Virtual Kitten," a game in which you learn about each kitten's needs and care for it. Then there's the "The Aristocats Fun With Language Game," wherein you deal with questions and answers to learn about musical instruments. A four-minute featurette, "The Sherman Brothers: The Aristocats of Disney Songs," comes after that, and we learn more about these prolific songwriters. "The Aristocats Scrapbook" is an eighteen-page section of stills and drawings from the movie. "The Great Cat Family" is a twelve-minute excerpt from the old Disneyland TV show, hosted by Walt Disney himself. Finally, there's a bonus short, "Bath Day," from 1946 with Figaro the cat.
The extras conclude with twenty scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at a dozen other Disney titles; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English captions for the hearing impaired; and a vivid and handsomely embossed slipcase.
In fairness, there is much to like in "The Aristocats," particularly in the artwork and voice talents, and there is surely enough color, action, and sweetness to keep youngsters occupied. But for me, the good-looking drawings and the colorful voices could not make up for the thin, prosaic plot line, the lack of good gags, and the generally unremarkable songs. It is not a bad film, mind you, just a middle-of-the-road one from a studio that has given us some true animated classics.