The first Disney movie with attitude.
That's the tagline for this 1988 animated feature, which draws its inspiration from Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. But instead of setting it in Dickens' Victorian London, writers Jim Cox, Tim Disney, and James Mangold plunked this one down in the middle of New York City in the Eighties. A soundtrack that includes songs by Huey Lewis, Billy Joel, and Bette Midler date "Oliver & Company" just as much as Dickens' stovepipe hats. But "Oliver & Company" never got a fair shake from the critics, and that's more a result of years of high expectations than anything else. When a studio has a golden age of animation that spans more than a decade, and that's followed by a decade of disappointment, it programs critics. And the retrospective view of "Oliver & Company" isn't any brighter, since it had the misfortune of being followed by the filim that many believe started another Disney golden age--"The Little Mermaid" (1989). So it's easy to see where this movie could be shortchanged.
Yes, there's something crude about the artwork and production design, but give the filmmakers a break--they were trying to transfer the squalor of Dickens' Hard Times to an equally gritty New York City. While I may be alone in saying so, I think that the animation, the characters, the story, and certainly the music in "Oliver & Company" are all better-than-average. With critics accustomed to seeing gold from Disney, that apparently makes it a failure. Even Disney may not appreciate it enough, since no Blu-ray was issued alongside this 20th Anniversary DVD. But in my book "Oliver & Company" is a solid 7 out of 10, with a great mix of tuneful songs, fun animal characters, poignant moments involving a little girl, and elements of peril with a pair of Dobermans and a crime boss.
Singer Billy Joel gives voice to Dodger, the cocky Tramp-like mongrel who's the main mutt in an animal thieving operation run by a bum named Fagin (Dom DeLuise). The "gang" includes a feisty Chihuahua named Tito (Cheech Marin), an elegantly mannered bulldog (Roscoe Lee Brown), and a not-so-bright Great Dane named Einstein (Richard Mulligan), with Bette Midler handling the voiceover for a poodle and Joey Lawrence giving voice to the title character, Oliver. In this film, Oliver is a kitten that was abandoned in a box on the mean streets, left to his own and struggling until Dodger comes to his rescue and makes him one of the gang. But during one of the gang's capers Oliver is separated from the group and meets a young girl named Jenny (Natalie Gregory), who takes in the cat and makes it her pet. Jenny is a girl of privilege and wealth, and so it's not long before Dodger and the gang "rescue" her and Fagin gets involved in a plan that will rob that rich family blind.
At just 73 minutes, "Oliver & Company" is one of the shortest full-length features from Disney, but there's a lot packed into it, and occasional director George Scribner does a good job moving things along while still allowing plenty of room in each scene for emotional content. He has a good sense of how the music, visuals, and storyline work together, and while no one will ever mistake "Oliver & Company" for one of those golden Disney oldies, it's still doggone entertaining.
I expected better, though, for a 20th Anniversary release. If this is remastered, it's not noticeable. A lot of scenes seem soft, and there's considerable graininess too (though some, I'm sure, was deliberate). But at least the colors are bright in the city scenes, and the drab waterfront scenes have enough backlighting to make the detail stand out rather than recede. I wouldn't presume to tell fans what to do, but if you already own "Oliver & Company," I'm not sure that you need to replace it with the new version. "Oliver & Company" is presented in 1.66:1 widescreen and "enhanced" for 16x9 televisions.
The audio is stronger, with an English Dolby Digital 5.1 driving the music (and a snappy bass, at that) and distortion-free dialogue. Spanish and French language tracks are also provided.
Not much here, really, except for a few fun cartoon shorts: "Puss Café," starring Pluto and friends, and "Pluto Rescues a Kitten and Saves the Day." Other than that, it's the same six-minute "Making of Oliver & Company" that was on a previous release, and the same two sing-along songs ("Why Should I worry?" and "Streets of Gold"). Other than that, the only all-new feature is Oliver's Big City Challenge Game. It's a multi-level game for small children that's not terribly difficult. On one level, for example, you have to count the hot dogs and select the correct number, while on another you have to watch a brief clip and then compare a new background with different things added/removed and use arrows to select those that are different.
Like ol' Dodger, "Oliver & Company" has gotten a bad rap. It's a better movie than people give it credit for, though when you compare it to "The Little Mermaid" which followed, it really pales.