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The AristoCats: Special Edition

Walt Disney Productions (December 24 1970), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (February 5 2008), single disc, 79 mins plus supplements, 1.75:1 anamorphic widescreen crop, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Rated G, Retail: $29.99

Storyboard:

Slinky feline Duchess (Eva Gabor) and her three pampered kittens, Berlioz, Marie and Toulouse, have it made when their eccentric Paris millionairess owner Madame Bonfamille plans to leave them her entire inheritance. This doesn’t go down well with the snooping, untrustworthy butler Edgar, who feels his years of service should be rewarded rather than have to continue caring for the cats. Proving the old adage that “the butler did it”, Edgar hatches a plot to dispose of Duchess and her family, a plan that soon goes awry, leaving the kitties lost in the French countryside. Thinking that he’s gotten away with it clean, Edgar hasn’t counted on Duchess meeting up with alley cat Thomas O’Malley (Phil Harris) and an assortment of crazed geese and artistic bohemian hepcats who all offer to help Duchess and her kittens make the long trip home…

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The Sweatbox Review:

The AristoCats is the Disney film that gets a bad rap and undue dismissal from Disney fans themselves! And that’s not really fair, because the movie is actually an important one in the Studio’s history, not to mention fun and highly entertaining!

It’s often remarked that Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book were among the last films to carry Walt Disney’s thumbprints on them, but the truth is that Poppins was released two long years before his death, and of course he already had several films in production before he departed for that mother of all theme parks in the sky. Blackbeard’s Ghost, The Happiest Millionaire, Boy-Car-Girl, which eventually became The Love Bug…all these films had been in various states of production before he fell ill, and he had approved scripts, casting and even some finished music and songs. It’s true that Walt passed away during the production of The Jungle Book, and that the huge success of that film can at least be partly attributed to audiences wanting to enjoy the Mousetro’s final animated picture, but Disney had actually already given the thumbs up to the animation department’s next feature.

Devised by Ken Anderson in the mid-1960s, The AristoCats was very much a film that Walt Disney knew about and was involved in. In fact, it was Walt who decided the tale be told as an animated feature after it was suggested as a two-part live-action film for his weekly TV show. The big question, after he had died, was how to continue. The top brass, including Walt’s brother Roy O. Disney who was now effectively running the company, didn’t have a handle on how the animation unit worked. Walt had passed the reigns to director Woolie Reitherman, who had helmed various projects for the Studio throughout the 1960s and became the ringleader in pulling the team through The Jungle Book. With that film’s triumph very much to do with the way Reitherman kept production going throughout the turmoil of the loss of the company’s founder, he was a natural to continue in the role of overseeing the unit’s next outing.

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In truth, it has to be admitted that The AristoCats is a slight reworking of One Hundred And One Dalmatians, crossed not with Lady And The Tramp as is often stated, but by way of Chuck Jones’ earlier UPA feature Gay Purr-ee, in which Judy Garland’s pampered feline is lost and has to fend for herself in the big city, and against a wandering (orange) lothario cat. Anderson’s concept added three kittens and a villainous element, and while unscrupulous butler Edgar is no Cruella De Vil, he’s still got some pretty dastardly plans for the kitties. Over time, Edgar’s cat-napping scheme goes bad, the cats are lost in the big city and mother cat Duchess has to fend for her young as well as against the advances of a wandering (orange) lothario, Thomas O’Malley, an alley cat with a warm heart. O’Malley provides a lot of grounding to the film, as well as a pass to stay with his swingin’ Parisian pal Scat Cat and his band of jazz-playing feline friends. With her neighborhood just around the corner, Duchess and the kittens should be home free, but the ever resourceful Edgar has come so far and is determined to see them off in order to claim his employer Madame Bonfamille’s vast inheritance…

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With a darker and more complex plot than it ever gets credit for, a lot was riding on the success – or failure – of The AristoCats. If it had been an out and out failure, it could have spelled the end of Disney Animation as we knew it then. Luckily, audiences at the time made the film a more than modest success, paving the way for the Studio’s artists to continue drawing away. Since it’s debut, however, the film has picked up something of a bland reputation, and I’m still rather puzzled as to work out why. I wonder if it’s because, as with Pocahontas coming on the back of the huge hit of The Lion King, it needed to follow up the kind of gigantic success it could never achieve even with all the cards stacked in its favor? A popular mentality seems to be that it’s “missing the Walt touch”, but then he had approved the story, and there were many other projects he either wasn’t directly involved in or had less to do with that never get this level of derision. Perhaps it’s because it falls into that middle ground where it’s still not yet old enough to be labelled a grand classic in the Pinocchio or Bambi mould, and not successful enough to equal the popularity of the biggest recent blockbusters…?

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It’s true that the film isn’t the most original of outings: the plot for one thing is begged, borrowed and stolen from other animated movies (there’s even one shot, with O’Malley falling off the back of a truck, that’s an exact duplicate of the same scene in Dalmatians), and is at times fairly episodic. It’s true that the Studio relaxed a little with the voice cast, bringing back the proven Jungle Book breakout star Phil Harris as the male lead, where he basically reprises his Baloo the bear, as he would again do even more transparently two years later in the Studio’s next, Robin Hood. As always the characters couldn’t be more the same: O’Malley possesses the same streetwise attitude and easy going nature that sees him slip effortlessly through life – he even gets to sing about his own Bare Necessities in a song (again by Terry Gilkyson) that, given a little more bounce, could jingle like a Baloo carbon copy – but snaps out of the haze and jumps into sincere action when the need arises. The rest of the cast, too, essentially continue the Jungle Book trend of playing caricatured versions of their established personalities, the most notable of which is Eva Gabor, who would go on to play the same kind of role in The Rescuers, and there are others – including the ever dependable Sterling Holloway – who had or would go on to voice other similar characters.

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But there are very good things too: the Xerox-style artwork suggests a contemporary air even within the period 1910 setting, expertly delivering authentic-era, Parisian toned backgrounds reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec and the bohemian artists of Montmartre while making the film timeless for audiences of the day and still now. The animation is among the best the Studio produced during this age, at times outshining the animal work in The Jungle Book and laying the groundwork for the films to follow. It certainly surpasses the rather lazy approach to Robin Hood the Studio would tackle next, and remained a quotable movie for recycled animation shots well into the Eisner/Katzenberg era, also unquestionably influencing Don Bluth’s own independent short, the delightful Banjo The Woodpile Cat, that has so many similarities they’re too numerous to mention, not least the casting of Scatman Crothers, later of The Shining, here playing a role originally intended for jazz legend Louis Armstrong (and not Jungle Book’s Louis Prima, as is usually inferred), of whom Walt was a big fan.

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So The AristoCats is a hard one to pigeonhole – on the one hand it’s a leftover from Walt’s time, on the other a transitional project that rested on the shoulders of many of the Nine Old Men and their need to prove their ability to continue without Walt. It’s also deserved of more than a little leeway for being an original project: for all of the derivative elements, The AristoCats was the first Disney feature not to be based on any source material since Lady And The Tramp some fifteen years before, making it, by my count, only the third Studio-generated concept after Dumbo, and the last until the might roar of The Lion King, itself an amalgamation of multiple influences. This is deserved of a little kudos itself, and places The AristoCats in a unique bracket of films. If the story can be argued to stop in one place for a little too long, surely that’s the pay-off for being treated to an original screenplay?

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And the story, simply put, is fun! It’s got a no-nonsense approach – the set up comes early and economically, delivered in a clever way and mapping out what Edgar must do in order to swing the plot into action. The butler’s attempts to drug and cat-nap the kitties in the dead of night is expertly played in pantomime, allowing the artists the time for some wonderful behaviour animation that actually rounds Edgar out as one of the Studio’s fullest and realistic personalities. His eventual run-in with country hounds Napoleon and Lafayette creates an exciting sequence and introduces two of the truly funniest, non-grating comics in the Disney line-up. On the way home, Duchess and the kittens’ narrow escape from a steam train is played strictly for suspense, distinctively without musical score, helping it to remain a strong memory that’s routinely turned up in other movies. O’Malley’s eventual rescue of Marie feels very involving, we even get some sly pokes at the French penchant for wine in the form of a very drunk goose, Uncle Waldo, and the sight of a mouse, Roquefort, seemingly chasing a bunch of alley cats. And, hey – we haven’t even yet touched on meeting Scat Cat and pals for the movie’s signature song, Ev’rybody Wants To Be A Cat!

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Unlike The Jungle Book, which is almost a perfect animated film but does dip badly after the double whammy exuberance of The Bare Necessities-I Wan’na Be Like You midway point, The AristoCats saves its swingin’ trick up its sleeve for later in the movie, and an enjoyable “final curtain” reprise. In fact, re-watching this again after five or so years, from the outset (where Maurice Chevalier famousy came out of retirement in “respect for Walt Disney” to sing the Sherman Brothers’ jaunty opening scene setter) and through the many other highlights, it soon becomes clear that for all the negatives one could throw at this film, it is in fact very tight, without an ounce of fat on it, and with a momentum that strides along at a very even pace. It rests when it needs to, but usually fills in those moments with a subtle progression, to develop a character or set up a situation for a later payoff.

But because it’s almost so good, The AristoCats often finds itself getting compared to the much stronger titles in the Disney canon, with which it can’t quite compete. Put it up against the similarly French-themed Ratatouille and it doesn’t stand a chance, but what other animated movie would? The episodic nature can’t entirely be excused, but then again what road movie can’t be called episodic? How about the derivatives? Point me in the direction of something that doesn’t have their elements cribbed from somewhere (even Ratatouille nods its head in this direction once or twice). Essentially, The AristoCats is a very good little movie that is very much more than the sum of its parts, but sadly gets little respect for it. It’s time for a jazzed-up reappraisal, and while it not be totally purr-fect, you’ll find these toe-tappin’ Cats have certainly got the cream.

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Is This Thing Loaded?

The AristoCats was originally announced as a two-disc edition, though there’s nothing here that feels it might needed to have been stretched across more than one disc, leaving the distinct impression that maybe an alternate aspect ratio transfer or, indeed, an extra helping of features destined one day for Blu-Ray, are the things that have been dropped in order to facilitate a single disc only.

On loading the disc into a computer, the ever-cumbersome InterActual Player launches, leading to some limited DVD-ROM extras. There’s a Virtual Kitten “activity” that works much as the Virtual Puppy we were offered to look after on the Lady And The Tramp Platinum Edition, though in this version there are a few new tricks you don’t get in the set-top edition, such as printable adoption certificate, a screensaver and wallpaper – none of which looks like anything from the film, and the accompanying music is even worse! A few weblinks include the option to register your DVD or read the Disney Newsletter, badly out of date from last March 2007, promoting Peter Pan on DVD and Meet The Robinsons in theaters!

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Technical Note: I was going to say that, still, at least InterActual didn’t crash my system the way it usually does, but when I then tried to access any of the bonus content on the disc, the disc would literally return me to the Special Features options, the Disney DVD logo leading into the film (gosh I hate that Title 14 now!) or simply close my regular computer player altogether. I also have reasons to believe that the FastPlay authoring may be at fault too, since it appears to be the video based content tied to that formatting that’s playing tricks, so be aware of these potential issues. After trying other programs (none of which would take screenshots), I resorted to my set-top, which played the disc fine. This however, accounts for the lack of any bonus frame grabs other than the menu stills seen here – I literally couldn’t access them in any way!

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A Deleted Song: She Never Felt Alone is a delightful excursion with the always wonderfully genial Richard Sherman, who plays us a few bars of a wistful song that is actually credited in the main credits, but seems to have been cut at the last minute. Sherman explains that he doesn’t know why the song was removed, but my guess would be for reasons of pacing: The AristoCats is an upbeat picture primarily, if not an out and out comedy, leaving room only for a couple of spoken lines of this song in the completed version. Much like the reluctance to place a slow musical number in the later half of many recent Disney features, it was probably felt that a montage sequence and the reprise of the ballad would have ground things to a halt. Lucky for us, story sketches and original temp track demo recordings still exist, and these have been combined to present an idea of where and what this song moment and its reprise would have been like, running eight minutes in total.

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Music & More does little than play through the film’s four complete songs in full with optional sing-along lyrics, and the Virtual Kitten Game seems to be the most publicised new bonus, but there’s not much to do in either set-top or computer drive version apart from following the lead of the various icons (or “icaans” as the over enthusiastic host has them) and doing what the little (fairly ugly) kitties want to do. And if you don’t? Well they get bored, as did I. The Fun With Language Game fares a little better, not least for the fun educational value. Despite the odd title, the game centers on the title cats’ love of music, and the player must simply select the instrument called for. It’s aiming very young, of course, and the little notes could be more palpably applied to denote the instrument selected, but there are a handful of levels and it does what it does fairly enough.

The Sherman Brothers: The Aristocrats Of Disney Songs is a nice idea, but a little misplaced on this particular title, the truth being that the Shermans were in fact long gone from the Studio by the time The AristoCats hit screens, having left to seek work elsewhere after their champion Walt passed away. With the boys hard at work on other classic family musicals (Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang, of course, The Slipper And The Rose and the original animated Charlotte’s Web among others), they weren’t at the Studio to protect the songs they had written for The AristoCats and many fell by the wayside as the production twisted and turned through story development. The Bare Necessities’ Terry Gilkyson stepped in to again provide Phil Harris’ character builder, while the movie’s big hit, Ev’rybody Wants To Be A Cat, was penned by Floyd Huddleston and Al Rinker, who would stay at the Studio and provide other songs for other projects. But this is a nice tribute, and its short nature, at only four and a half minutes, isn’t really felt at all, as the Brothers are great value and pack in the anecdotes on their two full song contributions. It’s always a pleasure to sit in the company of the ever exuberant Richard Sherman, and even more of a thrill, perhaps the result of this piece having been shot several years ago, is having brother Robert sitting in too!

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Seemingly stretching for material to include (hey, how about Ken Anderson’s Disney Family Album!?), we’re next offered a 13-minute sequence from a 1956 Wonderful World Of Disney program, an excerpt from The Great Cat Family. While this has nothing to do with The AristoCats, there is fun value in seeing any vintage Walt material, especially when its dolled up with exclusive animation like this is. While the link to the movie is tenuous, it works, since Walt is expressing an interest in animated cats in general, and the lengthy cartoon sequence has fun in comically illustrating man’s fascination and long relationship with our feline friends. Think of this as the disc’s “Your Friend The Cat”, and that’s pretty much what you’ll get – some lovely, feature quality Disney animation rarely seen since its original broadcast. Pretty slinky!

Still stretching things is the inclusion of a Figaro cartoon, Bath Day – hey, it’s got a itty bitty kitty in it, right, and allows that Virtual Kitten thing to include a black cat amongst the ugly approximations of Berlioz, Marie and Toulouse. Again having not an ounce of a connection with the made-24 years later main feature, it must be admitted that it’s probably the best of the three solo shorts (previously all available in the second Pluto Treasures set) to feature Geppetto’s frisky little kitten, he does share the same feistiness as Berlioz or Toulouse, and he does have a run in with an orange alley cat’s layabout chums that might have been some inspiration for…oh, now I’m stretching too! Nevertheless, if the intent is to provide disc value, one can’t argue with this six and a half minute inclusion, and it’s always healthy to see the Studio doing things with their vintage material other than leaving it on a shelf.

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Finally, a fairly sizable 68-image AristoCats Scapbook showcases several of Ken Anderson’s Concept Art images that sold Walt on the animated film idea, and production drawings and stills taking us through Story Development, Character Design, Behind The Scenes, Publicity, Merchandise, the Premiere and even The AristoCats, or should that be the “Scat Cats”, characters at Disneyland. This is a FastPlay disc, of course, meaning that the video-based content should play through in babysitter mode if the disc doesn’t play up, running the usual Sneak Peek previews: the disc promotes Little Mermaid III, Tinker Bell, Twitches Too, One Hundred And One Dalmatians, WALL-E, Snow Buddies, Sleeping Beauty, the Disney Movie Rewards and a selection of Disney Channel and Playhouse Disney shows.

What’s Missing? Sadly, The AristoCats was never treated to any kind of deluxe edition even back in the LaserDisc days, the most unusual special feature to be found on that format was an additional Spanish track (what, no French!?) and the debut of the theatrical Stereo mix. The previous Gold Collection DVD – from almost ten years ago now – carried the same Spanish track, and added a French one (also both optional here), as well as a trivia game and a 1987 theatrical reissue trailer. So there are no great losses, except for the trailer, which could have easily been woven into the Scrapbook…another disappointment, though we should be used to it by now.

Case Study:

Rather than bringing anything extraordinarily new to their recent spate of reissues, the primary reason the Mouse House seems to be revisiting their back catalog on titles like these is to spring for new HD-ready transfers and bring their packaging ethos into line – this new AristoCats goes the recent route of placing the title in some kind of box slap bang in the center of the sleeve, with primary character faces on top and a handful of memorable faces or sequence moments down below. Although I’d still love a complete reissue of all 44 classically drawn Disney movies in unique, collectible theatrical artwork packaging, the combination here isn’t actually far off one of the film’s earlier posters, and it’s been quite sparingly laid out here, without too much clutter going on in the bottom half while still checking each of the main characters. Duchess perhaps blends in with the moon where it might have been better placed behind O’Malley, and of course, being Paris set, we even get the Eiffel Tower too, but this adheres to the usual dark blue and purple AristoCats coloring – nice!

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The middle-ground between being a true “Walt Disney” film and a “Walt Disney Pictures” title is reflected in the traditional signature logo: it assigns this release as neither, simply opting for a non-descript “Walt Disney” only. Even though some of Disney’s bigger hits or more recent releases don’t always get the slipcover treatment, the groovy art of The AristoCats gets its sleeve replicated in a glossy, embossed finish, though as with One Hundred And One Dalmatians’ title switch to the easier to read ADD moniker 101 Dalmatians, the title here seems to have been blanded out too, going for a straight “Aristocats” rather than how the original posters and indeed the actual titling within the film’s frames has it, with the capital C emphasizing the title’s pun (not to be confused, as Paul Reiser has done, with the joke in the hilariously filthy The Aristocrats comedians’ documentary)! Inside the white keepcase, there’s a 20-stop chapter index that mirrors the CAV LaserDisc release (and, one would imaging, the previous Gold DVD), a look at the bonuses, Disney Movie Rewards code and a generic promotions booklet that’s been doing the rounds of late in Disney’s animal-centric releases.

Ink And Paint:

I could bemoan the fact that we’ve always been treated to The AristoCats in it’s “original theatrical aspect” of 1.33:1, but now Disney wants us all to go 16×9 ready the “original theatrical aspect” now happens to be 1.75:1, so I will. I’m not against the basic cropping of these films to fill up widescreen sets, but the simple fact is that the Studio intentionally animated to a full frame negative ratio knowing that the future of these films was in television reproduction. Right, so the shape of TV screens has changed over the years, but we’ve also had to endure pointless “fullscreen” versions of much wider films, even as recently as a version of Underdog on that film’s DVD that essentially chopped off half of the intended image. Fine, I get that widescreen is the way to go, but when most titles – especially those from Disney – come with either screen format as options, I’m just asking as to why we still can’t have both on legitimate titles such as open matte animation?

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The artists animated to a full frame, they intended it to be seen in all future screenings, so why consistently crop them off simply because a new, lucrative format comes along that dictates a new screen shape? I’ve not seen the previous DVD edition of The AristoCats, so can not compare the print quality to that version, but those with the Gold Collection or indeed the deluxe CAV LaserDisc edition will want to hold on to those for the original aspect ratio dimensions, where comparing them makes it super-clear that both framings are valid – in fact, the 1.33 doesn’t lose some of the tops of heads that the tighter framing on the top and bottom of the 1.75 formatting doesn’t allow for. Apart from that, the mild gate weave and various nicks and scratches mean I wouldn’t call the transfer as “dazzling” as the front cover sticker might suggest, the new imaging brings out the Xerography of the artwork fairly and gives the colors a nice boost without the usual clinical over-wiping and saturation that washes everything out – they’re supposed to look subdued for the most part, jumping to life for Ev’rybody Wants To Be A Cat, and they do!

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Scratch Tracks:

The most recent previous LaserDisc release boasted a new Dolby Stereo soundtrack – the first time The AristoCats had been heard in this way since original theatrical engagements – and I must say that the track was pretty fun, even for the time. The score is among one of the most playful and layered in all of Disney, especially the detective work scenes of Napoleon and Lafayette, where composer George Bruns uses the kind of suspenseful orchestration that the likes of Lalo Schifrin was making a trademark on shows such as Mission: Impossible, and this new 5.1 mix brings it out very nicely. There were obviously good studio elements to work with and at times this track sounds much more modern than one would think. A very nice effort, and it’s especially fun to watch with the French track enabled, where the foreign counterparts actually often bring an extra layer of dimension to their characters, for that extra touch of authenticity!

Final Cut:

As you’ll be aware by now, I’m an AristoCats defendant! I think the film came about at a rough time for the Disney artists and they, in the face of losing their guiding light and with heaps of pressure on them, turned in a good-looking, entertaining and surprisingly contemporary feeling picture that was successful enough – especially hugely in France – to continue Disney Animation. That it was also one of the first Disney features I can remember seeing (originally as way back as from old 8mm excerpts!) probably has a part to play, but in recent years, I’m happy to see that home video has brought about a new recognition for the film. With its cute felines and crazy cats, it’s a rare animated family movie where there really is something for everyone to enjoy, from little Marie’s hissyfits, to Edgar’s twisted scheming and Duchess and O’Malley’s unexpectedly mature romance. The AristoCats deserves its place in the revered line up of Walt Disney’s final films. C’est magnifique!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

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