Directed by the prolific Wolfgang Reitherman for Disney and released in 1970, The Aristocats has lost none of its charm in the forty-two years that it's been around. The humor still works, the story still grans you and the music still swings. With the film now released on Blu-ray for the first time, established fans of the picture can enjoy it in the best possible quality and hopefully the film will gain some new exposure to younger fans.
An aging and very eccentric millionaires named Adelaide Bonfamille lives in her stately villa in Paris with her cat Duchess and her three kittens Berlioz, Toulouse and Marie. So beloved are her cats that she decides that she will leave everything in her will to the four felines when she inevitably passes on, something that does not sit well with her supposedly loyal butler, Edgar. When he hears of this, he decides to take the cats out of the picture by kidnapping them. Things don't go as perfectly for Edgar as he had hoped, however, as due to the unusually convenient intervention of some dogs, his sidecar and motorcycle tips over way out in the country. Enter a sly stray cat named Thomas O'Malley who is kind enough to care for the cats and help them get back to their home in Paris. Edgar isn't going to let this go that easily, however, as he starts plotting a course to intercept them on their way back home and to once again try to do away with them before they can inherit all that he unjustly feels should be his. Thankfully for the cats, O'Malley and his jazz cat friends and a horse named Frou-Frou join forces with a mouse named Roquefort to save the cats from the fate Edgar would wish to befall them.
The Aristocats doesn't reinvent the Disney formula, but it does offer up pretty much everything you'd expect from the studio at this point in their history. We get a somewhat predictable but completely enjoyable storyline that doesn't really take us anywhere unexpected but which does offer up humor for kids of all ages, a few good morals for the youngsters and some good opportunity for musical numbers. The songs from the film are just as catchy know as they were at the time it was released and they've lost none of their charm, while the good characters are immensely likable and the villains completely hiss worthy. The film moves at a good pace and is never dull, interjecting some great comedy or some touching moments to pull you in any time it feels like it might be slowing down a bit. If this isn't the smashing success of something like Pinocchio, Snow White or Fantasia (among quite a few others, of course), it still manages to do pretty much everything right.
The voice work in the film is strong throughout. The highlight being Phil Harris as our protagonist tomcat O'Malley. Probably best known for providing the voice of Baloo in The Jungle Book and Little John in Robin Hood, Harris' work here is great. He injects a lot of character into O'Malley and makes him the likeable rogue we all know he's going to turn out to be. His interactions with the other alley cats that he hangs out with are a lot of fun and provide some of the most memorable moments in the film. Eva Gabor is pretty much instantly identifiable as Duchess in the film and her voice is completely appropriate for the character, providing the important mother cat role with the right amount of class but also some tenderness that plays into her maternal role. The voice actors who play the three kittens - Dean Clark as Berlioz, Gary Dubin as Toulouse and Liz English Marie are also great, as are Sterling Holloway as Roquefort and Nancy Kulp as Frou-Frou.
Additionally, the animation seen in the movie holds up really well. Lots of great line work do an excellent job of bringing the fun cast of characters to very fluid life, while the work in the design and illustration of the backgrounds and locations conjured up for the storyline to play over top of offer lots of great detail and quirky charm. At seventy-eight minutes in length the film never overstays its welcome and upon revisiting the picture it's easy to see why it's lasted and endured in popularity the way that it has. There's a legitimate sweetness to the picture that cannot be overstated and if it occasionally borders on sugary it never quite goes too far with it. The end result is a movie both sweet and entertaining, a completely endearing slice of vintage animation that has lost none of its considerable charm.
The Aristocats arrives on Blu-ray in an excellent 1.67.1 widescreen AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer from Disney. The colors are reproduced beautifully and look completely natural here while detail is probably about as good as the original animation is going to ever allow for on this format. There isn't any evidence of grain scrubbing but the source material used for the presentation here was obviously in excellent shape, as aside from pencil marks and other things like that associated with older hand drawn animation (which are part of the presentation and in this writers opinion should be left intact), the picture is clean. This really looks nice and film like, showing solid lines and nice, almost painted at times, movement throughout. There are no compression artifacts, there is no edge enhancement and there was no noticeable banding anywhere in the presentation. For its age, the movie looks excellent - no complaints here at all.
The main mix on this Blu-ray disc is a new English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, though lossy options are provided in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and in Portuguese Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Optional subtitles are provided in English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese as well. As far as that lossless track goes, however, once again the disc shapes up nicely. Where the lossless audio really benefits the movie is during the musical numbers that populate the film. Sure, the regular scenes showcase some nice, clear dialogue and there's plenty of great effects work noticeable in all channels throughout the movie but when the music kicks in, the soundtrack really flows beautifully. Bass is nice and strong and deep but never so much so that it buries the other instruments in the songs, all of which come through with very concise sounding clarity. Vocals are nicely balanced against the instrumentation throughout. The rowdier and more raucous stuff sounds nice and strong while the softer moments have a bit more fragility to them but still sound just as impressive. Fans should be pretty happy with the job Disney has done here, it sounds great, particularly Maurice Chevalier's opening theme song!
There are a few extras of note here, but this release isn't as packed as some previous Disney Blu-ray discs have been. Things kick off with a ten minute featurette entitled The Lost Open (9:31) in which songwriter Richard M. Sherman discusses a sequence involving a song and a character that didn't make the final cut of the movie. All that exists are a collection of storyboards so these are used to recreate as much of the scene as possible. It's interesting to see and a valuable addition to the disc. Also worth checking out is a short but sweet four minute documentary entitled The Sherman Brothers: The Aristocats Of Disney Songs (4:24) which gives a very basic but welcome look at the importance of the Sherman Brothers' songwriting abilities, specifically as they pertain to the feature. We also learn about their working methods, storyboarding technique s and writing processes. The eight minute long Deleted Song is a cut sequence for the number She Never Felt Alone (7:56) performed at the piano by Sherman while the two minute Music Video is a remix of the track Oui Our Marie (1:53) done by an artist named D!tto. We also get a thirteen minute long clip from a 1956 Special entitled The Great Cat Family (12:51) which is hosted by Walt Disney himself and which ties into the feature only in that it deals with cats. It's amusing enough to watch once but not likely something you'll need to watch time and time again, though fans will be happy to have the chance to have it here. The seven minute short film Bath Day (6:40) featuring Minnie Mouse and Figaro is fun and worth seeing for fans of classic animation and a nice inclusion here. Rounding out the extras on the disc is an option to watch the movie with on-screen lyrics should you decide you want to sing along with the musical numbers in the film and the option to choose any of the songs from the movie and go straight to the in sing-a-long mode. There's no trailer for the feature here but there are previews for other Disney titles included.
As this is a combo pack release a standard definition DVD is included inside the case which fits inside a nice slipcover. The DVD includes the same extras the Blu-ray disc but also includes a Disney Virtual Kitten game that lets you adopt and care for a cartoon kitten - younger viewers might have some fun with this. You can also print your own adoption license for your virtual kitten through a DVD-Rom program. There's also a game on here, again geared towards younger viewers, entitled The Aristocats Fun With Language Game that allows you to play along to learn names and sounds of different musical instruments used in some of the songs. The DVD also includes a still gallery called The Aristocats Scrapbook that isn't on the Blu-ray that lets you check out a bunch of concept art and related material.
While The Aristocats may not be the most revered of the Disney classics, it's a very solid family film with some great characters, a fun story, some catchy musical numbers and a lot of very effective humor. Disney's Blu-ray debut for the title is a good one and if it isn't a completely loaded with extra features as some other releases have been, there's a good bit of extra material here and both the audio and video quality is excellent. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.