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The AristoCats

I'll admit to some bias on this one, as The AristoCats was the first Disney movie that really seeped into my little kid consciousness. I still remember my anguish when my parents made me use my Berlioz-shaped soap at bathtime, thus ruining it as a collectible. And the first comic book that I read to myself was the Gold Key adaptation. For years, I wanted to try crème de la crème a la Edgar, despite its soporific qualities.

At the time of its release, though, adult critics weren't as kind as kids. The AristoCats was the first animated film with no involvement from the master himself -- the late Walt Disney, and comparing quality to Walt's vision, the movie does suffer. Yet in hindsight, it's still a pretty vibrant kids' movie even with some obvious cutting of corners where the animation is concerned.

The studio seemed to have a repertory cast - animation wasn't attracting the big name actors -- and The AristoCats utilizes its actors more effectively than in the later Robin Hood. Eva Gabor stars as the sophisticated white cat Duchess, but the movie really belongs to her kittens, Marie, Berlioz and Toulouse before Phil Harris (Baloo) steals it away as Thomas O'Malley the Alley Cat. For good measure, Sterling Holloway (Winnie the Pooh) appears as Disney's first French rat (take that, Remy), without adopting any discernible accent.

The plot itself isn't that far-fetched, nor actually all that unique for Disney. In 1910 Paris, a retired opera singer adjusts her will to bequeath everything to Duchess and the kittens, incurring the wrath of her butler Edgar. Consequently, he drugs them and dumps them out in the countryside, where they have wild misadventures trying to return home.

Perhaps most memorably, the cats fall in with a group of Bohemian felines, who teach the formerly uptight and staid kittens about jazz. Though "Everybody Wants to Be a Cat" may echo "I Wanna Be Like You," Scatman Crothers lifts to a whole different level - along with experimental lighting techniques from the studio, trying to make the scene very now and with it for 1970.

Some of those efforts work better than others. What had critics annoyed then was that the movie veers back and forth in quality, just like Edgar's escape cycle. In cityscapes, the art becomes two-dimensional, and throughout you can see stray pencil marks where either the animators were rushed and didn't clean up properly, or director Wolfgang Reitherman just didn't care. Perhaps it's part of the stylization, and it's not so much distracting as calling attention to these characters as drawings. Who's to say if that's something Disney himself would have approved?

Without getting the Platinum treatment, this movie still gets loaded with nice extras. Songwriter Richard M. Sherman digs out a "lost song," and it's always a treat to get a look into the archives for production art and discarded storyboards. Though Sherman may not understand why the number was cut, we can figure out it's because it calls for a level of human/feline interaction that the rest of the movie just doesn't have. Like 101 Dalmatians, The AristoCats keeps the line that humans do not understand animal speech.

The Shermans show up again in a little featurette of their own, along with a Walt-hosted show from the 1950's, "The Great Cat Family." Completely missing from disc descriptions but a cool surprise, the studio included a short featuring Figaro, the cat from Pinocchio. Until this, I didn't know they'd done any.

But it's not all looking into the past, trying to polish up history a bit. In perhaps the most fiendishly clever DVD extra Disney Home Video has devised, The AristoCats comes complete with a virtual kitten. While not quite as time-consuming as a Webkin or a Tamagochi, this cute little AristoKitten (you can choose from a couple of types) should soak up a lot of kids' attentions.

A word to the wise, though; set it up on your PC. Though the Virtual Kitten works on a regular DVD player, using it as a DVD-ROM provides extra functions, games and a printable cat license. It's hands-down the most fun use of DVD technology a Disney movie has had, and kudos to them for figuring it out.

So it's not the best movie the Disney Studio ever produced. I'm really glad to have it to show to my kids, and you should be, too.

The Aristocats (Special Edition)

Derek McCaw

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