The Aristocats is one of the better products of the post-Walt/pre-90’s-Renaissance Disney Animation Studios, carrying a featherweight story largely through charming performances (vocal and animated) and some bouncy, jazzy, catchy musical numbers. The movie was the recipient of a remastered DVD release in 2008, and is one of a slate of films that has just gotten re-released on Blu-ray disc. The movie definitely takes advantage of the high-definition format, and the new release also adds a little more bonus material over the last release. Even so, I’m not quite sure that the movie is good enough to warrant a double-dip from the DVD unless you’re an extremely serious fan of the film.
In Paris, 1910, the kind but elderly Madame Bonfamille provides a sumptuous and pampered home for her cat Duchess (Eva Gabor) and Duchess’ three kittens Tolouse, Berlioz, and Marie. When the Madame leaves her estate to her cats, stipulating that it pass to her faithful butler Edgar after the cats’ lifetimes, the prospect of riches overcomes Edgar’s loyalty. He kidnaps the family and spirits them out of Paris by night, but whatever plans he had for them are interrupted by the timely intervention of two dim but territorial hound dogs (Disney stalwarts Pat Buttram and George Lindsey), who drive Edgar back to the city after his feline package is bounced out of his motorcycle. The cats awaken in the morning with no idea where they are, but are soon found by Thomas O’Malley (Phil Harris), a roguish tomcat. Before long, they’re all on their way back to Paris and their home as romance blossoms between Duchess and O’Malley and Edgar tries to cover his tracks and finish what he started.
The Aristocats is mostly a remixed re-hash of the wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance of Lady and the Tramp and the imperiled-family-unit drama of 101 Dalmatians, with cats replacing the dogs of the earlier two movies. Phil Harris’ performance makes O’Malley extremely charming, defined both by his free spirit and his fundamental decency. I was also rather taken with Eva Gabor’s performance as Duchess, as she swings easily between a concerned maternal tone for her kittens and a certain teasing worldliness that can give almost as well it gets from O’Malley, all delivered with an upper-crust tone that never sounds snobby. That worldliness is what separates her from Lady in Lady in the Tramp, since Duchess never seems as lost or bewildered when she finds herself outside her cushy comfort zone. She’s surprisingly but credibly unflappable, constantly showing more curiosity and fascination than fear of this new world and the characters in it. This makes the romance a bit more plausible between her and O’Malley, since the hints at her depth mean he can be drawn to something more than just chasing tail. The Aristocats also has several great musical numbers, including the title track sung by Maurice Chevalier (even if he flubs the song’s first rhyme by mispronouncing “Paris,” of all things), O’Malley’s jaunty introductory theme song, and the show-stopping jazz extravaganza “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat,” led by Scatman Crothers channeling Louis Armstrong (who was to play the part in the film before pulling out of the project without explanation).
Despite its more successful elements, The Aristocats still feels incredibly slight and rather padded in the end. There’s not a whole lot of sense of drama or suspense to anything, since Edgar makes an ineffectual antagonist and the romance between O’Malley and Duchess seems like an unusually foregone conclusion. The combination makes the movie feel much more perfunctory and by-the-numbers than it should, and the fact that almost all of the plot elements in this movie are recycled from Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians certainly doesn’t help. A lot of the Disney films from this time period also feel like the character animators had really taken over the zoo, resulting in lots of scenes that are filled with lots of beautifully rendered “business,” almost none of which are important to the plot. They’re entertaining and beautifully animated, but they’re all just stalling for time to pad out the movie’s 78-minutes. All these sharp character moments are wasted without a strong story to support them. Even if these sequences do a good job in establishing character (as with the two upper-class twit geese that the cats meet in the middle of the movie), it’s all ultimately for nothing because the story is so generic that it could be played out by nearly anyone.
As with all their Blu-ray re-releases so far, The Aristocats looks and sounds great in high-definition. The image is visibly brighter and sharper from the DVD release (which certainly gave little to complain about). The film grain that was just visible on the last DVD transfer seems to have been smoothed out as well, making the film look surprisingly new and contemporary at the expense of a little bit of its history. The one scene that seems to have fared worse in the transfer is the tail end of the scene when the cats and the geese start making their way to Paris. The original film seemed to have a slight shimmer or halo around a lot of the characters as they moved, but the high-def transfer makes this flaw glaringly visible. The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack stays mostly in the center channel with occasional bumps to the sub-woofer, but it definitely presents the music beautifully. Any double-dip re-release raises a concern whether all the bonus features from earlier releases will be on the new one, which Disney addresses first by including almost all the bonuses on the Blu-ray and by packing in a copy of the original DVD (although the DVD has updated trailers). Carried over from the 2008 DVD release are the short featurette on the Sherman Brothers (where the two talk about music for the film, including the story of how they convinced Maurice Chevalier to come out of retirement for the film and his last professional recording session); the excerpt from “The Great Cat Family” that chronicles the history of the domestic cat; the “She Never Felt Alone” deleted song; and the “Bath Day” classic short film. Disney even sprung for high-definition transfers for each of these bonuses. The only bonuses missing from the DVD are the “Virtual Kitten” games, which are not missed. There are also two new bonus features on the Blu-ray: a discarded alternate opening (narrated by Richard M. Sherman, as is the “She Never Felt Alone” featurette); and a new music video that cuts scenes from the film over processed electronica (help yourself).
While I don’t think The Aristocats is as good or as beloved a film to warrant a Diamond Edition release, I’m glad that Disney didn’t skimp on this Blu-ray when they could have. The Aristocats is not a bad movie, and if you didn’t take advantage of the 2008 DVD release, then this Blu-ray version ought to be the home video version of choice.
NOTE: Stills are taken from the DVD copy of the movie and do not represent the Blu-ray image quality.