20th Anniversary Edition
Studio: Walt Disney
US Rating: G - General Audiences.
Film Length: 74 Mins
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, French and Spanish Language Tracks
Subtitles: French and Spanish
Review Date: February 15, 2009
The Film - out of
Walt Disney’s 1988 animated musical Oliver & Company based on Charles Dickens’ interminable classic tale, Oliver Twist, has Oliver as an abandoned orange kitten, lost in the vastness of modern (late 80’s) New York City. Alone, he stumbles into a canine street gang led by the confident Dodger, a mongrel with considerable ‘street savoir-faire”. The gang is filled with eclectic, well-meaning thieves; there’s Tito, an energetic Chihuahua, Einstein a Great Dane with a distinct lack of great intelligence, Frankie, a theatrically minded, proud and civil British bulldog and Rita, a smooth Saluki. Their human owner is the poor pickpocket Fagin, a kind and simple fool in debt to a gruff, hulking loan shark, Sykes.
Fagin must repay Sykes for a loan within three days or suffer the consequences. When the gang of dogs, with their new orange kitten friend in tow, attempt a ruse on a limousine, things do not go smoothly and young Oliver is taken home by the rich young passenger, Jennie Foxworth. Oliver is treated to Jenny’s love and kindness, but. Mistakenly, his newfound gang friends ‘rescue’ him from the comfort of the Foxworth residence. This kicks off a sequence of events that involves kidnapping, ransom and danger to the entire street gang.
When Oliver & Company opened, it had been 7 years since Disney had released an animated theatrical feature with musical numbers, as they tried to adapt to the changing audience desires in that decade. They would eventually find the right balance into the 1990’s, but in all honesty, the 80’s were a tough decade for the kingdom of magic. Beyond their efforts to produce films that captured the imaginations of audiences, as they had done for decades before, they faced growing outward threats from others producing animated features. Don Bluth’s wonderful The Land Before Time even opened the same day as Oliver & Company in the United States (and handily out-grossed it. An American Tail had become a beloved film. Times were indeed tough, as was the competition.
Oliver & Company works okay as an ensemble of fun characters, but as a fun story peppered with Disney’s magic touch, it is missing several critical elements. Notably, the musical numbers are flat. Not just musically, but the animation that expresses them is uneven. For example, our introduction to the snobbish poodle, Georgette, despite having the voice talents of Bette Midler, lacks pizzazz. Only the final moment of that song, where the use of computer animation enhances Georgette’s proud strut down the spiral stairs, delivers the familiar fun and playfulness of which all musical numbers like this should be endowed. The dated, 1980’s soundtrack doesn’t help with its longevity either. But the most disappointing ingredient is the development of the Oliver character. When compared to Littlefoot from The Land Before Time and Fievel from An American Tail, young ones in similar dire situations who we empathize with closely and become emotionally invested in their struggle, Oliver just isn’t developed enough. We follow his woes in the big city at the movies opening, lost among the rain and fast moving feet and cars of the city, but don’t really feel for him. We see none of his sadness and feel none of his fears which robs us of our caring that much.
The main strength of this film comes from the voice talent. Joey Lawrence as young Oliver is exactly what you expect to find, cute and innocent. Billy Joel carries off the self-assured Dodger nicely and adds energy to several songs, particularly the Golden Globe nominated “Why Should I Worry?” Fagin is voiced by Dom DeLuise, though he isn’t given any great material to work with for his shtick. Cheech Marin stands out as the full of zip Ignacio Alonzo Julio Federico de Tito (Tito for short). He has the best lines and the best moments. Francis the Bulldog is voiced by the wonderful Roscoe Lee Browne, Einstein is voiced by the heavy bass talent of Richard Mulligan, Sheryl Lee Ralph as Rita, Natalie Gregory as the young Foxworth girl, Jenny and Robert Loggia as the vicious loan shark, Sykes. A good, solid cast of voice talents.
For this animated tale, Disney, after having experimented with computer generated imagery in certain sequences for both The Great Mouse Detective and The Black Cauldron, made more extensive use of it here. It’s particularly effective for Sykes’ car as the camera moves around the car at headlight level. The cabs and trucks of New York’s bustling streets along with the skyscrapers (outside of the background shots) are computer generated as well. The animation style, reminiscent of earlier works like Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians and others, is a strange bedfellow to the smoother CGI. But overall this was a positive sign for Disney dipping more than just its toes into computer animation realm.
Oliver & Company’s 20th Anniversary Edition is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio and is enhanced for widescreen televisions. This is a fussy transfer, with softness pervading throughout and noise in the image. It isn’t that great of a transfer, and one that is in serious need of a proper remastering. And to celebrate this 20th anniversary release, that would certainly have been in order here. Tiny dust and specks are noticeable in lighter colors onscreen and the black levels are a little murky, especially in the barge home of Fagan and his canine crew.
Colors aren’t as bright either, though Oliver’s orange and Jenny’s bright orange hair and outfits are quite prominent. It all seems drained, unimpressive which does not match the effort of other anniversary releases from Disney from the past few years and that makes it all disappointing.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound option is very front focused. There is little to be found by way of directional effects or the surrounding music that the ambient city sounds from the New York City setting is ripe for. Dodger’s voice has an echo to it that does not fit the settings his character is in at all times. The rest of the voices are fine, focused in the center channel and most of the rest of the audio comes from the front channels. This audio lacks the balance of good bass, noticeable during the musical numbers more than at any other time. But the tinny quality detracts from what should have been a rich and full audio track. Disappointing.
Games & Activities
All New! Oliver’s Big City Challenge Game - Complete three tasks, choosing a member of the street gang to help you, such as securing some hot dogs (by counting the number of hot dogs on the sidewalk) to win.
The Making of Oliver & Company – (5:31) An old feature made prior to Oliver & Company’s theatrical release. A dated promo piece.
Disney’s Animated Animals– (1:28) – Another dated featurette created prior to the films theatrical re-release. Quality is mostly poor and of very limited value.
Oliver & Company Scrapbook – Navigate through images, from concept art to story and character development. Select any of the images to enlarge them with you remote.
Publicity Materials – Check out trailers and TV spots:
- Original Theatrical Trailer (1988)
- TV Spot (1989)
- Rerelease Trailer (1996)
- “Return of a Classic”
Fun Film Facts – Page through 10 slides of written facts about the inspiration and making of Oliver & Company.
Academy Award-Winning “Lend A Paw” Animated Short - (8:08) – Pluto rescues a kitten and saves the day.
“Puss Cafe” Animated Short - (7:09) – Pluto and friends have an adventure.
Music & More
Sing-Along Songs - Sing along with “Why Should I Worry” and “Streets of Gold” from the film as the song plays and the lyrics appear onscreen.
Oliver & Company remains a middling entry in Disney’s animated feature library. It isn’t particularly exciting, doesn’t tug at the heart strings and doesn’t give you the ability to invest enough in the struggles and strife’s (and therefore the triumphs) of the characters. Individually, the characters that make up Fagin’s gang are interesting, even funny, but they are given too little to do and too modest an amount of time to excite as an ensemble of misfits. In the 20 years since this feature bowed, the animation landscape has gone through a revolution, but this effort, among the last set of traditional animation films, will not long be remembered as a favorite.