Aristocats: Special Edition, The (US - DVD R1)
Gabe Powers doesn't remember the Disney magic being this average...
When an eccentric millionairess wills her entire estate to her adorable high-society cats, her bumbling and greedy butler Edgar catnaps Duchess and her three mischievous kittens and abandons them in the French countryside. Lost and frightened the kitty family is soon rescued by a rough-and-tumble alley cat named Thomas O’Malley. O’Malley escorts the aristocats home, and saves them from the perils of Edgar the dopey butler.
There was a dark period in Disney animation following founder Walt's death in 1966. The last film he touched, The Jungle Book would mark the end of an era in more ways then one. The Aristocats, released in 1970, represents the beginning of a sort of 'silver' or 'Post-Walt' era that would see the animation studio spiral into near bankruptcy (thanks in no small part to the utter failure of The Black Hole, apparently). This era included such comparatively unsuccessful films as Robin Hood (1973), The Fox and the Hound (1981), The Black Cauldron (1985), The Great Mouse Detective (1986), and Oliver & Company (1988). Only The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) and The Rescuers (also 1977) have managed much of a positive rep with critics over the years (critics I happen to agree with, by the way), but even these efforts emanate a sense of rush and monetary constraints. This silver age came to an end in 1989, when The Little Mermaid blew the top off the box office.
For better or worse, The Aristocats was, is, and always will be Lady and the Tramp in Paris with cats. There is a touch of 101 Dalmatians considering the kitten murder plot, and a pinch of The Incredible Journey, but really, without hurting anyone’s feelings, this is what we watch when Lady and the Tramp isn’t around. This isn’t to say the story, characters, and songs aren’t charming as all get out, but there is no doubt that this is Disney at their most mediocre, comparatively speaking, of course.
Disney animation has always been sort of episodic, but the screen time spent on set pieces and song and dance numbers here is slightly ridiculous. The story itself is quite hectically paced, and the mixing of simplistic, ‘kid friendly’ elements and more sophisticated adult issues don’t mix. The Aristocats could’ve worked well as a short subject for children, but as an animated exploration of grown up themes it’s pretty iffy. There’s not a sense of suspense or danger, the villain is weak, and the heroes are arch even by Disney standards. The most interesting aspect of this particular story, from a grown-up’s P.O.V., is the fact that the human protagonist is quite obviously insane.
The animation is some of the sketchiest in Disney’s history. 101 Dalmatians wasn’t clean, but The Aristocats is downright dirty at times. It appears that the animators were quite rushed for time, which at this point in Disney history they most likely were. The Bill Peet inspired designs are well executed, they just don’t seem to have been finished in time for filming. The cast—filled out with Jungle Book, Rescuers and Robin Hood alumni—also reeks of budget constraints and rushed schedules. Despite this sort of shoelace approach the cast is sharp, and the dialogue is the film’s most charming element. Guest stars like the redneck car chasing dogs, or the wacky limey geese, are impossible to resist.
Based on this DVD I’d recommend that Disney doesn’t put The Aristocats on Blu-ray disc. The imperfections in the cheapish and uncleaned animation are quite blatant when digitally remastered to such a degree, and in high definition they’d probably be insufferable. The overall anamorphically enhanced print isn’t nearly as impeccably cleaned as the Platinum Edition releases. The image is pretty dark and grainy, though details are definitely sharper then previous video releases. Edge enhancement is not an issue, but compression noise is. Solid and bright colours dance with noise, though it seems to be an issue with inconsistence film rather then compression.
It says Dolby Digital 5.1 on the box, but even at its most lively this track would be lucky to be mistaken for even a 2.0 track. I noticed no discretion between the two rear channels, which are only noticeable during musical cues. The majority of the track is centred, with occasional stereo effects and a decent LFE channel. The soundtrack is clear and full without any noticeable distortion. Sometimes the dialogue is a little flat and canned, but there isn’t any crackling or scratches.
It seems that even the folks at Disney recognize The Aristocats as one of their lesser features, because this is probably the weakest Disney special edition DVD re-release I’ve ever seen. Both the kid and adult friendly extras have been whittled down to a minimal, barely earning the re-release at all. The kid friendly stuff includes a ‘Virtual Kitten’ game, and a ‘Fun with Language’ game. The ‘Virtual Kitten’ is basically a Tomagachi for your DVD player, and not particularly fun for an adult to play. The ‘Fun with Language’ game is a sort of reading game, and really dull if you already know what a clarinet is and how to read the word.
Kids can also enjoy a menu screen that takes them directly to any of the film’s many songs, complete with sing along subtitles. And if the cute kitties of the film weren’t enough for them, there’s also a classic Disney short included, staring Figaro the cat, who’s made pretty by Minnie Mouse and then teased by the neighbourhood’s alley cats.
On the adult side of things the ‘Backstage Disney’ section includes only a handful of extras. The first is a featurette concerning a song originally deleted from the film. The song was meant to be used twice, at different tempos, but didn’t find its way past the prototype phase. There are some very rough recordings and design sketches to give us an idea of what was intended. This is followed by a brief featurette concerning the Sherman Brothers, the masterminds behind the film’s music, and most of the studio’s music at the time. Rather then feature length documentaries about the film’s genesis viewers are forced to supply their own dialogue with a series of stills from the film’s development.
This rather minimalist series of extras is finished with an excerpt from a classic Disney television special about the history of cats, and a whole bunch of trailers.
The Aristocats is not a shining moment in the Disney animation repertoire. The film is not without its charm, and the little ones will probably still enjoy themselves, but there isn’t much here for a grown-up mind, familiar with the ins and outs of the studio’s more successful features, to chew on. Compared to recent ‘Platinum Edition’ DVD releases, this disc is negligible in the extras department, and the A/V leaves something to be desired. For collectors this is still a must, but the rest of us will want to wait for the upcoming 101 Dalmatians and Sleeping Beauty special editions before we get too excited about Disney ‘classics’ again.
Review by Gabriel Powers
All ages admitted
Release Date: 5th February 2008
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Spanish, Dolby Digital 2.0 French
Extras: Deleted Scene, Virtual Kitten Game, Fun with Language Game, The Great Cat Family, 'Bath Day' Short, Sherman Brothers Featurette, Stills, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Cast: Phil Harris, Eva Gabor, Liz English, Gary Dubin, Dean Clark (II)
Length: 79 minutes
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