When Walt Disney was in charge, each Disney Studios animated feature was crafted and marketed with the care afforded an instant classic. But after Disney's death, the company struggled with how to keep impeccably detailed family entertainment viable in an era of acid rock and portable TVs. In 1970, in the thick of the lost years, the studio produced The Aristocats, an affable, no-big-deal feature-length cartoon. It was one of a string of Xerography-based films headed up by director Wolfgang Reitherman, whose run as the head of the animation department began in 1961 with 101 Dalmatians, and ended in 1977 with The Rescuers. The Aristocats splits the difference between those two. The story follows a dowager's cat and her three kittens as they're kidnapped by a jealous butler, then rescued by a handsome, lackadaisical alley cat and an erstwhile mouse detective. Nothing about The Aristocats is pitched at the level of "an unforgettable night at the movies for the whole family." It's a programmer, pure and simple.
That said, The Aristocats has elements that'll appeal to Disney aficionados. There's almost no plot, the pace drags, and the cost-cutting Xerography technique—which replaces full "in-between" drawings with slightly altered photocopies—looks too static. But Xerography's scratchy line has a lot of innate charm, and The Aristocats' emphasis on character interaction over story is a nice change of pace from most frenetic kid-flicks. Mostly though, The Aristocats ekes by on its voice cast: a mix of TV personalities like Pat Buttram, George Lindsey, and Eva Gabor, along with Disney staples like Sterling Holloway, Hermione Baddeley, and Phil Harris. If ever an entertainer was born to be a Disney character, it's Phil Harris, with his hip slang and yokel growl. While most of The Aristocats is negligible, the movie comes to life when Harris and Scatman Crothers sing "Ev'rybody Wants To Be A Cat," an exuberant number delivered with flashing colors and wanton racial stereotypes. For five minutes—and for five minutes only—The Aristocats becomes memorable.
Key features: Scant featurettes—most of them only tangentially related to the movie—speak to the company's indifference toward one of its lesser properties. (C'mon, where's the bit where an old Catskill comedian tells a joke that begins, "A family of cats walks into a talent office…"?)