Disney // 1988 // 74 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 3rd, 2009
Disney's paw-tapping, tail-wagging classic adventure.
"You gotta feel the rhythm, kid."
Oliver (Joseph Lawrence, Gimme a Break!) was the one unlucky kitten in the box. All of the other cats were adopted and taken to nice homes, but for some reason, nobody wanted Oliver. So, the poor little fellow was left to fend for himself on the streets. Life isn't easy for Oliver, but he manages to get by. One day, Oliver is conned by the artful Dodger (Billy Joel), a hip dog with a lot of street smarts. After a brief confrontation, Dodger takes pity on Oliver and offers him a home. Dodger and several other dogs reside with a destitute fellow named Fagan (Dom DeLuise, An American Tale). Life has never been particularly easy for Fagan, but he's hit rock bottom lately. He only has three days to try and scrounge up the money that he owes the villainous Sykes (Robert Loggia, The Sopranos). Will Dodger, Oliver, and the gang find a way to help the poor guy before he winds up six feet under?
Wow, it's all ready been 20 years since Oliver & Company was released? Time sure does fly. Disney has pulled the film out of the vault for this twentieth anniversary release, giving the latest batch of young kids the opportunity to discover the film for the first time. The film still holds up as a reasonably satisfactory viewing experience, but I must admit that the years haven't exactly been kind to Oliver & Company. The film has dated in many ways, and has the unfortunate position of being the last film released before "The Disney Renaissance" began with The Little Mermaid.
The makers of Oliver & Company claim that this is the first animated film to employ CGI effects, though it's hard to spot any significant evidence of that. In fact, the animation here feels fairly sub-par for Disney, feeling like a visual marriage of The Fox and the Hound and the Don Bluth animated features being released around that same time (the Bluth vibe may also come from the fact that Dom DeLuise plays the role of Fagan). I re-watched The Little Mermaid recently, and the leap in animation over the course of just one year from this film to that one is pretty astonishing. Even so, there are still a few sequences (particularly Bette Midler's big musical number) that manage to impress on a visual level.
Perhaps it's appropriate the this film concluded the Disney dry spell of the '70s and '80s, as it feels very much like a potpourri of elements from older, better animated flicks from the House of Mouse. There are moments here that feel very much like yearning, low-budget attempts to achieve the heights of Cinderella, Pinocchio, 101 Dalmatians, and so many others. Oliver & Company will never be regarded as a great film, but it tries so hard that it manages to be a pretty good film.
In case you didn't figure it out by reading the plot description, the film is a variation on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. It's a loose adaptation, but an adaptation nonetheless. Dom DeLuise makes an amusingly desperate Fagan, a man who always seems just one wheeze or two from passing away. Even more impressive is Robert Loggia's Sykes, a genuinely intimidating figure who has a knack for standing in creepy shadows at all times. In films such as this, a person's personality extends to their pets, so Fagan's dogs are scruffy and flea-bitten mutts while Skyes' canines are poised and violent attack dogs. Billy Joel manages to pull his share of the voice work load with satisfactory confidence and New York cool, while Bette Midler is quite enthusiastic as a diva poodle. The biggest laughs come from some of the smaller characters: Cheech Marin as mangy Chihuahua and Roscoe Lee Browne as a high-culture bulldog. Oliver himself isn't so much a character as an observer; a cuddly hero who is dragged along by the plot until he reaches a happy ending.
As with most animated Disney films, this one is a musical. The film is a very mixed bag in this department, as the songs are quite hit-and-miss. Billy Joel's energetic "Why Should I Worry?" is easily the most memorable of the bunch, while Bette Midler's "Perfect Isn't Easy" holds up well due to its traditional broadway arrangement (courtesy of none other than Barry Manilow!). The other tunes sound like unfortunate relics of the 1980s, banal attempts at providing a modern vibe that date the film rather badly.
The film has supposedly been remastered, but I must admit that I was pretty disappointed in this transfer. The film looks like it could be a good decade older than it actually is. Grain ranges from medium to heavy throughout, and there are notable scratches and flecks here and there (though many of these have evidently been removed). Colors are pretty vibrant, though there is a bit of bleeding at times. The film sounds pretty solid and clear, if not quite dynamic. At times the music sounds just a bit tinny, but it's not too bad. All of the elements are well-balanced throughout.
There aren't many new additions in the extras department. In fact, the only unique addition to this release is a for-kids-only interactive game. We also get a perfectly respectable vintage making-of featurette, and the songs are available in sing-a-long format. The best supplements are two vintage short films featuring everyone's favorite dog, Pluto: the Academy-award nominated "Lend a Paw" and the equally charming "Puss Café." Not a particularly substantial batch of features for a special edition release, but charming stuff nonetheless.
I know it may seem as if I've been moaning a bit much about Oliver & Company, but it really is a reasonably charming little film. As a Disney film, it's merely an average entry, but it still stands above much of what kids are being offered these days. It's recommended, with the note that this 20th Anniversary Edition really should have brought more to the table.
Absotively posilutely not guilty, cat!
Review content copyright © 2009 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 74 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Vintage Shorts
* Sing-Along Songs
* Interactive Game