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The Aristocats: Special Edition Blu-ray + DVD Review

The Aristocats (1970) movie poster The Aristocats

Theatrical Release: December 24, 1970 / Running Time: 78 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Wolfgang Reitherman / Writers: Larry Clemmons, Vance Gerry, Ken Anderson, Frank Thomas, Eric Cleworth, Julius Svendsen, Ralph Wright (story); Tom McGowan and Tom Rowe (story)

Voice Cast: Phil Harris (Abraham de Lacy Giuseppe Casey Thomas O'Malley), Eva Gabor (Duchess), Sterling Holloway (Roquefort), Scatman Crothers (Scat Cat), Paul Winchell (Chinese Cat Shun Gon), Lord Tim Hudson (English Cat Hit Cat), Vito Scotti (Italian Cat Peppo), Thurl Ravenscroft (Russian Cat Billy Boss), Dean Clark (Berlioz), Liz English (Marie), Gary Dubin (Toulouse), Nancy Kulp (Frou-Frou), Pat Buttram (Napoleon), George Lindsey (Lafayette), Monica Evans (Abigail Gabble), Carole Shelley (Amelia Gabble), Charles Lane (Georges Hautecort), Hermione Baddeley (Madame Adelaide Bonfamille), Roddy Maude-Roxby (Edgar), Bill Thompson (Uncle Waldo)

Songs: "The Aristocats", "Scales and Arpeggios", "Thomas O'Malley Cat", "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat"

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In 1910 Paris, a wealthy, aging opera star draws up a will so that her estate will go to a beloved single mother and her three cultured young children, before passing on to the star's loyal longtime butler. Upon learning this, the butler plots to eliminate the family of four beneficiaries with a sleeping pill stew.

Sounds dark, huh? Maybe even a little stuffy? Neither adjective applies to The Aristocats, the 1970 Disney animated film which uses that premise.
Perhaps I should have mentioned that those four beneficiaries happen to be cats. They are the stars of this lively family comedy, which stands as one of the studio's less celebrated animal cartoons.

This was the first Disney animated feature to have the bulk of its production occur after the death of Walt Disney. For some time, there had been much to occupy Walt outside of feature animation: television, Disneyland, and so on. Nonetheless, his loss was immediately felt. The Aristocats ushered in a new era for the studio, one marked by smaller audiences and less acclaim. At least, that is what hindsight and the public's perception tell us. The film actually got a fairly warm reception at first. Its $56 million gross was more than what was earned by all but four hit films of the same year: Love Story, Airport, M*A*S*H, and Oscar Best Picture winner Patton.

Aristocats was popular enough to receive two U.S. theatrical reissues, the first in 1980 and the second in 1987. Each falling short of $20 M, the engagements were at the low end of Disney's reliably strong classics rotation. The movie did not connect with '80s kids to the same extent that many older Disney cartoons did. Ever since, The Aristocats has been viewed as a nice movie, but not a great one.

Kittens Marie, Toulouse, and Berlioz add cuteness to "The Aristocats." Thomas O'Malley the alley cat shows pampered Duchess and her kittens a different side of France as they cross rooftops.

Nonetheless, there is plenty to like about this film. High among the strengths is a strong cast of characters. Matriarch Duchess (voiced by Eva Gabor) and her three spunky kittens, aspiring painter Toulouse and more musically inclined Berlioz and Marie, are an appealing lot to spend time with, both in their comfortable existence at the stately house of Madame Adelaide and their adventures in and around Paris. The family is perfectly complemented by Thomas O'Malley (Phil Harris, staying in Baloo mode), a charming, smooth-talking orange alley tomcat with romantic potential.

Supporting characters are a bit more standard. Roquefort is another mouse voiced by Sterling Holloway. A comic duo of farm hounds are reminiscent of Lady and the Tramp's Trusty. More memorable is a giggly pair of twin British geese, voiced by Monica Evans and Carole Shelley, the actresses who played the similar Pigeon sisters in the film and television versions of The Odd Couple. Edgar the butler does not spring to mind when considering Disney's great animated villains, but at least you can't accuse the role of being overly familiar.

The credits give O'Malley's city friends such names as "Chinese Cat", "Italian Cat", and "Russian Cat." They have actual names too, but they largely do exist as ethnic stereotypes, presenting diversity to which Duchess and her kittens are unaccustomed. Any concerns about the street cats' depictions fall to the wayside with "Ev'rybody Wants to be a Cat", the film's flavorful final song. Led by Scat Cat (not just voiced but embodied by Scatman Crothers), the band gives the movie some needed climactic dynamite, complete with psychedelic colors reflecting the era.

That number is the film's standout tune, but the few other musical numbers, including two penned by the legendary team of Richard and Robert Sherman, are pleasant enough.

In hurrying to cover his tracks, Edgar the butler winds up with a hound in his lap. Italian cat Peppo and his friends initially give nervous mouse Roquefort a tough time.

"Pleasant enough" is about the worst that can be said about this film. So why isn't it more popular? Timing, I guess. The movies that Disney made following Walt's passing were not markedly different from the ones before. They just didn't have the benefit of Walt's magic touch. Whether they truly suffer from that absence or only seem like they do based on the man's cosmic legend,
Disney's movies of the 1970s and early '80s just do not produce the reverence and admiration that earlier and later ones do.

The Aristocats does suffer from having to compare to a string of fine animal movies Disney made before it, such as Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians, and The Jungle Book. Post-Walt, Disney animation would stick to animals, from the human-free Robin Hood to the brave mice of The Rescuers. But it wasn't until 1988's Oliver & Company that Disney saw new four-legged characters as a major box office attraction.

Released to DVD along with much of the studio's canon in 2000, The Aristocats got a Special Edition DVD upgrade in early 2008. Last week, it joined the growing class of Disney animated features available on Blu-ray, arriving in a two-disc Blu-ray + DVD combo pack again named a Special Edition.

Watch a clip from The Aristocats' "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat":

The Aristocats: Special Edition Blu-ray + DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.66:1 Widescreen (DVD 1.75:1 Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Surround 2.0 (Portuguese)
Both: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English SDH; BD-Only: French, Spanish, Portuguese
DVD Closed Captioned; Most Extras Subtitled
Release Date: August 21, 2012 / Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Two single-sided discs (1 BD-25 & 1 DVD-9)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as standalone new DVD ($29.99 SRP), in DVD Case ($39.99 SRP), and on Amazon Instant Video
Previous DVDs: Special Edition (February 5, 2008) and Gold Collection (April 4, 2000)

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Aristocats looks just about perfect on Blu-ray. The film's first DVD presented it in the old television standard of 1.33:1, a ratio no longer being used much theatrically by 1970. The second DVD matted the film to 1.75:1 and it felt a little cramped. Blu-ray now gives us a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which may very well just be a compromise. While that's not a ratio American cinema has commonly used, it has been employed on a number of animated Disney films, particularly those made with CAPS. Whatever the reasoning, the mildly updated new framing looks good and still takes advantage of nearly every available pixel.

This dramatic restoration appears to be on par with Disney's top of the line Platinum/Diamond Edition efforts. The element is sharp and pristine, lines are bold, colors are vibrant. Some might consider this a step too far. Aristocats and other Disney 'toons from this era had kind of a raw, scratchy look to them, with animator pencil lines somehow featuring in the final product.
We get mere glimpses of that here, in certain single frames of moving characters. The movie looks better cleaned up, but one wonders if the scrubbing in a way betrays the original presentation. You can always hang on to the Gold Collection DVD for its relatively rough 1.33:1 transfer. And at least continuity errors (like Duchess' collar mid-scene color change) are not fixed.

The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio mix is good, though not the revelation that the picture quality is. Sound is crisp and vivacious throughout, though it is not the most expansive of presentations. Not that it should be, if the movie wasn't made that way. French, Spanish, and Portuguese dubs and subtitles are offered.

The DVD doesn't seem to update the Special Edition transfer, which gives us 1.75:1 framing and the '80s/'90s Walt Disney Pictures castle at the start of the film (the Blu-ray preserves the original Buena Vista card). The Blu-ray offers clear improvement over the Special Edition DVD's already clearly improved presentation.

Deleted characters sing a deleted song in the Blu-ray's hi-def primary new bonus feature, "The Lost Open." A photo of Hermione Baddeley with cats features in the 'classic' deleted song "She Never Felt Alone."

BONUS FEATURES

All of the Blu-ray's extras are presented in standard definition, unless otherwise noted.

First up is "The Lost Open" (9:31, HD), a newly-uncovered deleted story and song sequence meant to open the film. Richard Sherman introduces and narrates storyboards, which lead into a two-part demo he made with his late brother Robert.

An HD music video is provided for D!tto's "Oui Oui Marie" (1:53), a new song which incomprehensibly Auto-Tunes Marie's lines and leaves untouched other spoken dialogue from the film. The kitten doesn't take to this format as smoothly as Mr. Rogers recently did.

The "classic" deleted song "She Never Felt Alone" (7:56) is presented from storyboards and Hermione Baddeley demo, with Richard Sherman introducing and elaborating the material. Sherman then plays and sings part of the song himself.

Watch a clip from the new Blu-ray exclusive bonus feature "The Lost Open":

Richard Sherman plays piano and sings, while his older brother Robert stares off into space in "The Aristocrats of Disney Songs." An angry mob with torches and guns direct hate towards "The Great Cat Family" in this "Disneyland" animated history of the feline.

Two significant features fall under the heading Classic Backstage Disney (there's a lot of "classic" usage here). "The Sherman Brothers: The Aristocrats of Disney Songs" (4:24) has the two secretly estranged collaborators reflect upon their Aristocats work, with Richard playing and singing some while Robert stares into space.

"The Great Cat Family" (12:51) is a relevant excerpt from a 1956 episode of the "Disneyland" anthology series. Walt himself introduces this animated history of the feline, which covers the species' journey from object of worship by the Ancient Egyptians to slayer of rats during the Black Death plague to target of prejudice and fear in the Witch Hunts. While I'm not sure how accurate it all is, it is a highly entertaining cartoon, one which demonstrates this long-running series' quality efforts (when it wasn't just promoting the newest Disney movie, anyway).

Classic Music & More holds what should be a standard Disney feature: Disney Song Selection. Watch any or all of the movie's four musical numbers (10:53) with plain white subtitles providing the lyrics. There is also a clear option to watch the entire movie with song lyrics appearing.

Figaro is not happy with the way he looks clean in "Bath Day." The Aristocats Scrapbook of character development art and many behind-the-scenes photos remains present as a DVD exclusive.

Finally, the "classic" bonus short Bath Day (6:40), tuxedo cat Figaro (of Pinocchio fame) gets a bath from Minnie Mouse that makes him the laughingstock of the neighborhood and the target of a tough red alley cat.

At least one of last week's Disney animated combo packs got it right. The second disc here is simply The Aristocats' 2008 Special Edition DVD, unchanged but for new disc-opening trailers and plain gray disc art. While fans usually take Disney to task for a lack of effort, in this case it was warranted. By not authoring a lame new DVD simply watering down the Blu-ray (essentially a coaster for the hardcore Disney collectors most attracted to this release), Disney has salvaged a number of bonus features that otherwise would have been lost.

"The Aristocats Scrapbook" serves up eighteen pages of concept art, color studies, storyboard sketches, behind-the-scenes photos, publicity art, merchandise, and premiere pictures. It's valuable content that would have been nice to get in high definition.

Have you been meaning to learn English and the names of ordinary musical instruments? If so, get read to have "Fun with Language"! Figaro needs feeding in the set-top version of Virtual Kitten.

Gamers meanwhile can sleep easy knowing that two items will remain in print. The set-top "Fun with Language" game is apparently meant for young children learning English and discovering the world. More exciting is a Virtual Kitten game, which you can enjoy in set-top form or a more elaborate DVD-ROM version. Either way, it's like a virtual Tamagotchi resembling one of the Aristocats' litter or Figaro.

The DVD also hangs onto most of the extras found on the Blu-ray, only lacking the two new items, that bizarre "Oui Oui Marie" remix and "The Lost Open." Everything else is available on both discs.

The discs open with ads for Disney Studio All Access, Cinderella: Diamond Edition, and Finding Nemo 3D. The menu's Sneak Peeks listing repeats those and follows up with promos for Disney Movie Rewards, Disney Parks, Tinker Bell's Secret of the Wings, The Rescuers & The Rescuers Down Under: 2 Movie Collection, Beverly Hills Chihuahua 3, and Planes.

WHAT'S MISSING?

None of the extras from the movie's original Gold Collection DVD were carried over to the Special Edition and none resurface here. Most missed, and least necessarily so, was a trailer from a 1980s rerelease. Also gone are an Aristocats read-along storybook, a 17-question trivia game, and -- in early copies, at least -- a "Fun with Music" booklet.

Take a wild guess where the Blu-ray places its menu listings. The alley cat band never stops playing on the recycled DVD's main menu.

MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray features a standard montage of clips set to an instrumental version of Maurice Chevalier's title song. The DVD's recycled menu scheme loops animation from the "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat" scene. The Blu-ray does not resume playback or support bookmarks, but it does remember where you left off if you didn't finish the film in one sitting. It also lets you skip most pre-menu videos with a single press of the button

This set is available in both DVD and Blu-ray packaging. My review copy was the latter. The case is topped by a faintly holographic and extensively embossed cardboard slipcover with an in-case insert supplying the obligatory Disney Movie Rewards code, which will also apparently net you a free download of an Aristocats Disney Classics storybook app (retail value: $3.99). The packaging is noteworthy for assigning spine placement to two of the most minor characters in Disney history: the English and Italian cats.

This closing family photo of Thomas O'Malley, Duchess, and the kittens has never looked better than it does here on Blu-ray.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Aristocats is not as distinctive or substantial as some of Disney's other animated animal tales,
but it's a charming and fun adventure in its own right. Anyone fond of the grand tradition to which it so clearly belongs will likely agree that this little feline film holds up well.

This mid-level entry gets a pretty solid Blu-ray, one that satisfies to a greater degree than last week's slightly frustrating other animated combo packs. Unlikely and unneeded to be revisited anytime soon, this is one Disney release you can buy without reservations.

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Reviewed August 31, 2012.



Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1970 Buena Vista Distribution, Walt Disney Productions, and 2012 Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.
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