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The Aristocats (1970)

Disney DVD
DVD Released: 2/5/2008

All Ratings out of

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 2/2/2008

Over the last decade or so, Disney has fallen in love with talking about their "Vault". They are also putting movies back in the vault. Does this get on anyone else's nerves? Before the home video age, Disney would re-release their classic films into theaters every 7 years. Now, that was a big deal, as that was the only way to see the movies. Today, even when a movie, such as the now classic Cinderella III (?!) goes back into the vault, it's not that big of a deal, because the odds are good that you can still rent it at Blockbuster. These days, the only time that this should be notable is when a movie comes "back" to DVD in a better form, such as the newly released The Arisocats.

The Arisocats opens in Paris, 1910. There we meet a cat named Duchess (voiced by Eva Gabor) and her three kittens, Marie (voiced by Liz English), Toulouse (voiced by Gary Dubin), and Berlioz (voiced by Dean Clark). They live with Madame Bonfamille (voiced by Hermione Baddeley), who takes very good care of the cats. One day, Madame informs her lawyer that she wants her will to reflect that she's leaving everything to the cats. Her butler, Edgar (voiced by Roddy Maude-Roxby), overhears this and, feeling that after years of servitude he's entitled to the estate, is furious. Thus, Edgar hatches a plan. He kidnaps the four cats and takes them far out into the country. He assumes that if Madame believes that the felines are dead, she'll change her will.

Alone in a strange place, Duchess and the kittens are scared, but they soon meet Thomas O'Malley (voiced by Phil Harris), a street-smart tomcat who promises to help them. He arranges transportation back to Paris, and once there, he enlists his friends to help Duchess stop Edgar.

No other company does self-promotion quite like Disney and they throw around the word classic like it's going out of style. The DVD box for The Arisocats procliams "A Walt Disney Jazzy Classic". But, not every older Disney animated film deserves the "Classic" label, and The Arisocats certainly falls into that category.

Not that the movie doesn't have its strong points. If you take a look at the history of animated films, you'll see that a vast majority focus on animals. And while there have been plenty of cats in those movies, they are rarely portrayed in a positive light. The Arisocats is one of the few movies where cats are not only the main characters, but the heroes as well. This fact alone makes the movie somewhat unique. And there's no denying that the kittens are cute, especially Marie. (Simply check the Disney Store to see that there is a cottage industry of Marie products for young girls.) Voice acting can often be hit-or-miss, but the casting of Eva Gabor as Duchess was perfect and she lends a notable amount of personality to the character.

However, the movie has an comparable number of missteps. The plot is overly-familiar and while it's not exactly like 1961's 101 Dalmatians, it shares some traits with that film. While Eva Gabor's casting was perfect, having Phil Harris play Thomas O'Malley was an odd choice. I don't turn to animated films for realism, but someone at Disney must have loved the distinctly American-sounding Harris as he portrayed a bear in India in The Jungle Book and a French cat in The Arisocats. But, the Achilles' heel of the film is the fact that some of it feels quite dated. The movie takes place in 1910, but the infamous “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” scene comes directly from 1970. This scene features psychedelic lighting and characters which can only be described as beatniks and hepcats. And let us not forget about the incredibly racist Asian cat. If this scene baffles someone my age, I can’t imagine how kids of today would react to it.

So, “classic” may be too strong of a word for The Arisocats, for when one holds it up against the truly older films like Pinocchio and the modern achievements such as Beauty and the Beast, it doesn’t compare. The movie can easily be described as “cute” and it has some charming moments, but it truly represents a time when the Disney animation arm was going through a lull. While I respect the film’s portrayal of cats, it’s far from purrfect.

The Arisocats claws at the furniture of DVD courtesy of Disney DVD. This new DVD replaces the out-of-print version from 2000. That version was pan-and-scan, but for the new DVD, the movie has been letterboxed at 1.75:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. As with the film, the transfers has pros and cons. The image is quite sharp. The colors look fantastic, as they are a strong mixture of bold colors, light pastels, and of course, the psychedelic hues of “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat”. However, the digital transfer has made it possible to see every single line from the original cel drawings. It seems as if a digital restoration could have erased these lines. As it is, they are quite distracting at times, especially on Duchess, where they are quite obvious on her white face. The DVD has a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. However, as with The Jungle Book, The Arisocats contains several seconds of silence in each scene and some light hissing can be heard during these quite moments. The stereo effects are OK, but other than musical cues, we really don’t get much in the way of surround sound.

The Aristocats DVD contains a litter of extra features. We start with a "Deleted Song" entitled "She Never Felt Alone"(8 minute). There are actually two songs here, "Pourquois" and "She Never Felt Alone". This is introduced by Richard Sherman, who describes the creation of the songs. We hear the songs, which are accompanied by storyboards and production sketches. "Music & More" houses a karaoke-like section where one can watch four musical scenes from the film with on-screen lyrics. In "The Sherman Brothers: The Aristocrats of Disney Songs" (4 minutes), Robert and Richard Sherman describe what it was like working on the music for The Aristocats. "The Aristocats Scrapbook" is a photo gallery which includes concept art, storyboard sketches, characters sketches, and behind the scenes stills. "The Great Cat Family" (13 minutes) is an excerpt from a 1956 Disney show introduced by Walt Disney himself. This is an animated piece which describes the history of cats. The final extra is a Bonus Short entitled "Bath Day" (7 minutes), an older piece featuring Figaro (from Pinocchio) and Minnie Mouse.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long