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George Scribner
Joey Lawrence, Billy Joel, Cheech Marin, Richard Mulligan, Roscoe Lee Browne, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Dom DeLuise
Jim Cox, Roger Allers

The first Disney movie with attitude.

Rated G.

Widescreen 1.66:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish Dolby Surround
French Dolby Surround
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 74 min.
Price: $29.99
Release Date: 5/14/2002

• “The Making of Oliver & Company” Featurette
• “Disney’s Animated Animals”
• Still Gallery
• “Lend A Paw: Animated Short
• “Puss Café” Animated Short
• Trailers & TV Spot
• Fun Film Facts
• Two Sing-Along Songs
• Sneak Peeks

Music Soundtrack

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Oliver & Company (1988)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Based on public perception, one would think that 1988’s Oliver & Company was the last gasp from decades of malaise experienced by Disney animation. After all, Oliver was the studio’s last fully animated release prior to the revitalizing The Little Mermaid in 1989. Most regard that flick as the one that brought the studio back to both critical and financial success after a long string of failures.

However, those assumptions aren’t totally true. For one, Disney still had another middling release ahead of them: 1990’s Rescuers Down Under, a bland flick that felt more like a representative of their Seventies mediocrity. After that, however, the studio moved forward nicely with terrific successes 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, 1992’s Aladdin and 1994’s The Lion King

Another problem with the perception of Oliver relates to its financial success, or lack thereof. Mermaid remains one of Disney’s crown jewels, whereas Oliver seems largely forgotten by the public at large. So Mermaid must have blown away Oliver at the box office, right?

Wrong. During its initial theatrical release, Mermaid indeed took in more money than did Oliver, but the differences don’t appear vast. Mermaid made $84 million during its first theatrical run, while Oliver took home $73 million. That’s not exactly an enormous gap.

However, the perception of Mermaid as a classic that inaugurated a new era remains strong, despite the fiscal realities. Personally, I think there’s a good reason for that. While I don’t think Mermaid offers the absolutely best of Disney, it continues to hold up well and it certainly seems much stronger than other animated flicks Disney produced in the prior 20 years. That includes the relentlessly bland Oliver, a movie so flat that it continually reminded me what a significant achievement Mermaid really was.

Oliver provides an Eighties update on the Charles Dickens classic Oliver Twist. Additionally, it recasts many of the participants as animals. Oliver (voiced by Joey Lawrence) is a homeless kitten who struggles to survive in Manhattan. He meets a streetwise dog named Dodger (Billy Joel), and the two execute a scheme to rob some hotdogs from a vendor. When this works, Dodger gives the kid credit but no food; he hurries off with all the booty.

Naturally, this cheeses off Oliver, who tracks Dodger to the hideout he shares with a gang of strays. They work for human Fagin (Dom DeLuise), a fairly scuzzy and unsuccessful crook who owes lots of money to crime boss Sykes (Robert Loggia). Fagin uses the dogs to help raise capital, but they don’t produce at the necessary level.

Anyway, when Oliver arrives in the hideout, his moxie impresses the gang and they incorporate him. They soon embark on a mission to take in some loot, but this goes awry and Oliver gets trapped in a fancy car without his friends.

However, this works well for the kitty. He ends up with young Jenny (Natalie Gregory), a well-to-do little girl whose parents seem too busy with out-of-town business to spend much time with her. She happily embraces the new pet and introduces Oliver to a cushy new lifestyle. Unfortunately, this doesn’t sit well with the family’s current pet, spoiled champion poodle Georgette (Bette Midler). When the gang comes to “rescue” Oliver, she’s all too happy to help.

Fagin senses money in this, so he decides to hold Oliver for ransom. Things become more complicated when Sykes gets involved. Fagin’s too warm-hearted to be a serious bad guy, but Sykes seems more than happy to pick up that particular slack.

From there the movie plods to its inevitable happy ending, complete with the requisite action sequence in which Sykes and his cohorts get theirs. While I don’t want to spoil the ending, I must admit I was surprised by the violence of the film’s climax; some rather nasty occurrences take place.

Those felt out of place in a Disney flick. While the studio’s animation can present scenes of significant power and drama, they only occur when the movie earns them. The violence in The Lion King packed a punch and made sense within the movie’s context. That didn’t happen during Oliver, as nothing prepared us for the level of intensity we experienced.

Because of that, the film’s climax seemed disconnected to the rest of the movie. Not that I got anything from the prior hour or so, as Oliver almost totally lacked any character. It was a mistake to condense Dickens into a 74-minute picture. None of the characters receive more than the most rudimentary development, and it felt as though events flew by without much exploration. We quickly meet Oliver and his gang, we quickly see him with Jenny, and we quickly jump to the conclusion. The film includes no fat, but it also provides no nourishment; it’s a superficial piece.

That might seem more satisfying if at least the empty calories were tasty, but unfortunately Oliver appears stunningly bland. Much of the movie felt like a very forced attempt to make something “modern”. From the sappy pop songs to the involvement of Joel to the “gritty” urban setting, Oliver was supposed to be something current and new, but instead it simply appeared unnatural and awkward. It also is one of the more dated Disney movies, as it lacks the timeless quality found in so much of their best work; even the pop culture reference filled Aladdin has aged much better.

Frankly, Oliver & Company is one of my least-favorite Disney films, mainly because it’s so dull. Despite a good roster of voice talent, the characters seem bland and lifeless, and the movie rushes through the story without any attempts at development. A year later, Disney would break out of their malaise with a return to their fairy tale roots. The Little Mermaid represented a natural return to form, whereas Oliver showed the studio as they tried way too hard to create new life.

The DVD Grades: Picture C- / Audio B / Bonus C

Oliver & Company appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The picture of Oliver showed a mix of problems.

Sharpness looked erratic. Much of the film showed decent delineation, but more than a few shots looked a bit soft and ill-defined. Though these weren’t bit concerns, that made the product less satisfying than I’d like. Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no concerns, and I also witnessed no indications of edge enhancement.

However, print flaws were a different issue. Through the film, I noticed occasional examples of small marks and specks, and I also thought the image looked a little flickery at times. The movie’s biggest concern related to grain. That element became quite heavy during a lot of the film, and it was rather distracting at times.

Colors looked fairly good for the most part. At times I felt they seemed somewhat heavy, but the hues mostly came across as reasonably bold and vibrant. Black levels appeared nicely deep and rich, but shadow detail could be rather thick. Many of the film’s low-light scenes were too opaque, though this never became a terrible concern. Overall, Oliver & Company always remained watchable, but the image seemed problematic compared to most Disney animated offerings.

More consistently successful was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Oliver & Company. The film presented a surprisingly active and engaging soundfield. The movie used the front channels to good advantage, as I heard solid stereo presence for the music. Effects also spread nicely across the front, where they created a good sense of atmosphere. The surrounds contributed to that tone, and they came to life fairly well during a few louder sequences. For instance, thunderstorms demonstrated a fine level of involvement from all five channels. The material offered good localization and integration, and it provided a well balanced and smooth environment.

Audio quality also seemed positive. At times speech appeared a little thin, and I noticed an odd reverb effect on the voices of Joel and Midler. Lots of Eighties pop music vocals used a similar sound, and I got the impression no one thought to turn it when the singers spoke dialogue; most of the speech lacked this issue. In any case, most of the dialogue appeared acceptably natural and distinct, and I noticed no problems related to edginess or intelligibility.

Music showed nice fidelity. The songs and score presented good dynamics and seemed clear and bright. Effects also came across as realistic and reasonably vivid, and the whole track exhibited decent bass response. Low-end never appeared terribly strong, but the mix contributed some nice depth at times. Ultimately, the soundtrack of Oliver & Company seemed quite good for its age.

Oliver & Company tosses in a fairly long list of extras, but not many of them seem substantial. The Making of Oliver & Company presents a 1988 featurette about the film. It runs for five and a half minutes and offers a quick look at the film’s creation. Mostly it simply promotes the movie, but it also includes a few behind the scenes shots as well as brief statements from director George Scribner, Disney vice-chairman Roy E. Disney, and supervising animator Glen Keane. Nothing here offers much real information, but at least we get a few moderately interesting facts.

Disney’s Animated Animals lasts 88 seconds. It appeared to promote the 1996 re-release of the film, and essentially it acts as a glorified trailer. We hear a few words from Scribner - taken from the 1988 sessions seen earlier - but largely we just check out bits of the movie and learn that we should go see it.

In the Oliver & Company Scrapbook, we find a nice collection of stillframe materials. The thumbnailed domain includes 57 images that cover a variety of topics. We see concept art, character sketches, photos of actors and filmmakers, and advertising art. I love the thumbnailed presented, and this area provides a fair amount of interesting material.

When we examine Fun Film Facts, we discover some text production notes. I don’t know how “fun” they are, but this section offers a reasonably decent discussion of the film’s creation. It seems somewhat thin and perfunctory, but it does the job.

Inside Publicity Materials we locate a mix of ads. This area provides a TV spot as well as the movie’s original theatrical trailer and a reissue trailer. In addition, “Return of a Classic” touts the film’s mid-Nineties reissue and tries to tie it in with the hits that came out during the interim. The 118-second piece tries to convince us that Oliver was really the first megahit of that series. I didn’t buy it.

A staple of Disney DVDs, we get two Singalong Songs. We can croon along with “Why Should I Worry?” and “Streets of Gold”. Frankly, I think these offerings make little sense on DVDs; the format already offers subtitles, so I’ve always found the “Sing-along Songs” to seem somewhat pointless. However, if you dig them, there they are!

Lastly, the DVD includes two classic animated shorts, both of which star Pluto. From 1941 comes Lend A Paw, while Puss Café appeared in 1950. The first runs eight minutes and seven seconds and shows Pluto as he tries to deal with the presence of a kitten he inadvertently rescued from a river. It’s a cute offering that works fairly well.

”Puss Café” lasts seven minutes and nine seconds, and it really focuses more on some guest stars than it does Pluto. Two cats named Milton and Richard try to infiltrate Pluto’s yard to steal some grub, and he attempts to stop them. I don’t know if Disney wanted Milton and Richard to become new stars, but it didn’t happen; only one of them even showed up in another cartoon. This one’s decent, but the two cats weren’t very engaging, so since the short focused on them, it fell a little flat.

When you start the DVD, you’ll find the usual complement of advertisements. Here we get a preview of the upcoming theatrical release Lilo and Stitch as well as commercials for Snow Dogs and Beauty and the Beast. From the main menu, you’ll discover a Sneak Peeks area that includes all of these promos plus trailers for the upcoming DVD releases of Monsters, Inc., Return to Neverland, Max Keeble’s Big Move, Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch and Teamo Supremo.

While I can’t assert that Oliver & Company is the worst animated film ever produced by Disney, I think it falls close to that mark. The movie seems excessively bland and lifeless, as it fails to ever become engaging or winning. The DVD offers a mediocre transfer but it provides pretty solid sound. In addition, it includes a roster of fairly superficial extras. As a Disney completist, I’m happy to have Oliver on DVD, but I can’t imagine I’ll want to watch it too frequently. Leave this one for the die-hards.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.2448 Stars Number of Votes: 49
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