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 and 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 great expectations than anything else. When a studio has a golden age of animation that spans more than a decade, followed by a decade of disappointment, it programs critics. And the retrospective view of “Oliver and Company” isn’t any brighter, since it had the misfortune of being followed by the film that many believe started another Disney golden age—”The Little Mermaid” (1989). So it’s easy to see where this movie could be shortchanged.
But boy, does Blu-ray breathe new life into it! The visual presentation is so strong that you can see details you never saw before and appreciate the backgrounds more.
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 and Company” are all better-than-average—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. While no one will ever mistake “Oliver and Company” for one of those golden Disney oldies, it’s still doggone entertaining.
“Oliver and Company” has a runtime of 74 minutes and is rated G.
All I can say is, WOW! Of all the Disney catalog titles, “Oliver and Company” got the biggest makeover. There’s still a thin layer of filmic grain on this 25th Anniversary release, but not that much, and it really is enough to make you look at the film in a different way. As I said, you notice things you never noticed before, and the animation and artwork are really quite stunning when you see them in high definition. Everything really “pops” now. Yet, the film still manages to retain its essential grittiness. If you upgrade from the DVD you’ll be amazed at the difference. “Oliver and Company” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is also a sweet upgrade, with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 really spreading the city noises across the whole sound field and bringing the music to life with concert-like clarity and power. Sometimes, however, the dialogue seems cramped around the center speaker. Additional audio options are in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
As with other catalog releases in this new-to-Blu wave, there’s not much that’s new. Disney seems to have spent the budget on the film’s restoration rather than on creating new content. Aside from a short featurette on “Disney’s Animated Animals” all we get are recycled DVD features: two fun cartoon shorts (“Puss Café,” starring Pluto and friends, and “Pluto Rescues a Kitten and Saves the Day”), a six-minute “Making of Oliver & Company,” and a Sing-Along Mode that replaces a more restrictive sing-along option.
Like ol’ Dodger, “Oliver and 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.