Our review of Oliver & Company: 20th Anniversary Edition, published February 3rd, 2009, is also available.
The "purr"-fect kids movie!
Disney has always been known as the reigning king of cutting edge animation. Since the release of their first feature length animated film, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs in 1937, Disney has produced hit after hit after hit after hit (after hit). In the 1980s, the studio started to hit (after hit) a dry spell with mediocre movies like The Black Cauldron churning out of the slowly lumbering Mouse House. Disney finally got back on track in the late '80s with their hit The Little Mermaid, thus paving the way for mega money makers like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Aladdin. The year before The Little Mermaid hit theaters came the hip and happening Oliver & Company. Featuring the voice talents of Billy Joel (in his first acting role), Cheech Marin (Up in Smoke), Joey Lawrence (Blossom), Dom Deluise (Cannonball Run), Bette Midler (Beaches), Robert Loggia (Holy Man), and the late Richard Mulligan (TV's Empty Nest), Oliver & Company comes purring up on DVD care of Disney Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Oliver & Company is loosely based on the novel "Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens. In Disney's version, we follow the misadventures of a tiny kitten named Oliver (Lawrence) who is befriended by a pack of mangy dogs living in a run down shack in New York City. Their owner is Fagan (Deluise), a goofy con artist who's currently in deep dog doo-doo with the thuggish Mr. Sykes (Loggia). It seems that Fagan owes Mr. Sykes a great deal of money, so he uses his dogs to collect items off the street as payment to his boss. Fagan's dogs consist of the dim-bulb Great Dane Einstein (Mulligan), the hyperactive Chihuahua Tito (Marin), the proper Bulldog Francis (Roscoe Lee Brown, Dear God), and their cool and collected ring leader Dodger (Joel, complete with trademark sunglasses). When Oliver is mistakenly found in a NYC cab and given a home by the adorable Jenny, it's up to Oliver's friends to save the day and get their master out of the dog house with Sykes!
Oliver & Company is not going to go down in history as one of Disney's best animated feature length films. In fact, compared to today's animation Oliver & Company looks downright primitive. Missing are snazzy computer effects or dizzying camera angles so prevalent in movies like The Emperor's New Groove or Toy Story. Oliver & Company's storytelling and artwork comes from a different time, a simpler time when Disney movies were a little slower at reaching their $100 million dollar mark. While some may feel it's sub par when compared to their later and earlier efforts, I found Oliver & Company to be a cute and entertaining little yarn with some hip musical numbers (okay, hip for 1988) and a brisk pace of under an hour and fifteen minutes.
The story is a simplistic retelling of Charles Dickens "Oliver Twist": take a cute orphaned kitty, throw him in with some ruffian mutts and their owner who's in hot trouble, add a little love story for spice and voila, you've got yourself a mild crowd pleaser. While Oliver & Company isn't anything overtly special (the fact that singer Billy Joel supplies one of the character's voices was the highlight for me), it should entertain children and most of the adults within earshot. Joel's character of Dodger is the epitome of cool—the perfect type of character to take Oliver under his wings. Joel's first acting gig turns out to be a nice break into show business (even if he hasn't done anything since). The animated supporting cast is made up of hit or miss characters. Cheech Marin as a hyperactive Chihuahua is funny in spots, though his humor seems stifled by the film's G rating. Richard Mulligan as a boneheaded Great Dane isn't really given much to do. Better Midler plays a snotty poodle who…well, sounds and acts like Bette Midler (i.e., irritating). I think Oliver & Company is notable for being Dom Deluise's final movie appearance (well, voice appearance) that really counted for something; after this we'd see him in such crap like All Dogs Go To Heaven 2 and Robin Hood: Men In Tights. The great Robert Loggia briefly chews the scenery as Sykes, the movie's mean but unmemorable main villain.
Oliver & Company won't dazzle but it will entertain. It's fluffy entertainment with enough appeal to placate both Disney fans and tykes alike. One of the movie's highlights are the musical numbers performed by Joel, Midler and the ever popular Huey Lewis (oh Huey, Huey…where have thou art gone?). They sure beat some of the sugary sap fests that Elton John sang in The Lion King! Oliver & Company may not be the Mona Lisa by Disney standards, but as a fun little romp it works quite well.
Oliver & Company is presented in its original 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen version. Fans should be pleased with how nice this transfer comes off—with solid colors and vivid black levels, the image quality in Oliver & Company appears to be spot on. Of course, there are inherent flaws in an animated film from the 1980s, including some muted colors and a bit of murkiness/grain penetrating the image. However, these imperfections can be overlooked due to Disney's efforts at making sure this picture appears as clean as possible.
The audio is presented in a newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track (in English, French, and Spanish) and is much better than I anticipated. With a great range of effects coming from both the front and rear speakers, as well as a high level of fidelity and crispness, this soundtrack is a nice surprise. While this mix won't go down in 5.1 history, it does the job well with a minimal amount of distortion or hiss. No alternate subtitles or alternate soundtracks are included on this disc.
This first ever DVD of Oliver & Company is presented in a "Special Edition," though it may be argued that the supplements here are as fluffy as the animals that populate the film. Starting off the disc are a few featurettes: "The Making of Oliver and Company," "The History of Animals In Disney Films," and "Return of a Classic: A Look at the 1996 Re-Release of Oliver and Company." Aside of a few behind the scenes glances of the actors reading their lines, none of these featurettes offer much insight into the film's production history. "The History of Animals in Disney Films" lasts only a couple of minutes and takes a quick look at other animal kingdom citizens in Disney films. "Return of a Classic" is even shorter still as it takes us to the premiere of the film's re-opening at a theater in Westwood, California. Ho-hum. The very brief "Making of Oliver & Company" offers Billy Joel and Cheech Marin crooning their lines while various crew members briskly pontificate on the film.
Next up is "Lend a Paw," a 1941 animated short starring Pluto and Mickey Mouse which went on to win an Oscar. This very cute little piece should please Disney collector's who enjoyed the company's earlier animated efforts. Two karaoke style songs ("Why Should I Worry?" and "Streets of Gold") are here for those of you who want to pretend like you can belt out a tune.
Finally, there is an Oliver & Company scrapbook with promo drawings and concept art, a few theatrical trailers and TV spots, and some fun facts on the film (spread over a few pages of text).
While I really enjoyed Oliver & Company, I do have a nagging gripe: why put Billy Joel in the film and have him sing only one musical number? Could Disney at least have given him a few other tunes to belt out other than "Why Should I Worry?" Oh well. I highly recommend this movie to viewers with children and those with a young-at-heart attitude.
Acquitted on all charges and free to go!
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Scales of Justice
• "The Making of Oliver & Company"
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