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Oliver & Company (1988)
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 8/6/2013
All Ratings out of
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 8/18/2013
If you polled Disney animation enthusiasts and asked them what period was the low-point for the studio, I believe that most would say either the 1970s or the 1980s. While most of those movies from those times aren't necessarily bad (The Fox and the Hound and The Rescuers are pretty good), they simply don't measure up to the true classics from the early days and from the post 1989 renaissance. Yes, 1989's The Little Mermaid marked a turning point for the company. However, a year before, the studio reached a true nadir with Oliver & Company, a movie which doesn't come close to even the worst movies from Disney's golden age.
Set in modern-day New York City, Oliver & Company is an updating of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. Oliver (voiced by Joseph Lawrence) is a kitten who has been left to fend for himself on the streets. Searching for food, he meets a dog named Dodger (voiced by Billy Joel), who cheats him out of some hot dogs. Oliver follows Dodger back to his hideout, where he meets the rest of his gang -- Tito (voiced by Cheech Marin), Einstein (voiced by Richard Mulligan), Francis (voiced by Roscoe Lee Browne), and Rita (voiced by Sheryl Lee Ralph). This group of dogs work for a man named Fagin (voiced by Dom DeLuise). They steal things from the streets and bring them back to Fagin, who owes money to a man named Sykes (voiced by Robert Loggia). Oliver decides to join the gang and during his first mission, he is discovered by a girl named Jenny (voiced by Natalie Gregory), who adopts him. This doesn't sit well with Jenny's prize poodle, Georgette (voiced by Bette Midler).
By 1988, Disney had a long history of turning classic and well-known stories into animated movies. But, only once before had they taken a tale with human characters and replaced them with animals when Robin Hood became a fox in 1973's Robin Hood. (Some may mistakenly think that Basil in The Great Mouse Detective is Sherlock Holmes, but he isn't). That film had been a success, so why not try it again? Yes, I feel certain that Oliver & Company looked like a good idea on paper. Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist is a beloved classic tale and who can resist a story about lovable orphans? Turn those orphans into animals and you've got a can't miss hit, right?
Well, that idea works for the first few minutes. When Oliver is introduced, there's no doubt that he's incredibly cute and we feel sorry for this abandoned animal. Then, Dodger arrives and the whole movie goes down the drain. Yes, it's the characters who totally destroy this movie. Dodger's gang is full of stereotypical misfits and Dodger himself comes across as a jerk. And should we discuss the fact that Tito, the Latino dog, is the one who knows how to hotwire cars? That seems a bit racist. As if Dodger where bad enough, Fagin is the film's real downfall. This guy looks like a distant cousin of Homer Simpson and the movie is really requesting a lot when it asks us to side with this character. The Georgette character is incredibly one-dimensional and never rises above being the "jealous one". The only other likeable character is Jenny, but she's such as cardboard cut-out of a "cute little girl" character, they should have just reused Penny from The Rescuers.
The movie also doesn't get any help from its story. Again, the movie is based on Oliver Twist and follows that story pretty closely. But, even if you've never read Dickens, you'll have a good idea of where all of this is going...save for the finale. The last act suddenly gives the animals way too many human abilities and the finale of the big action scene prompted one of my kids to say, "This is for children?" In addition, the animation here, especially of humans, is pretty ugly and it wasn't surprising to learn that Director George Scribner had worked in Heavy Metal.
The Disney canon is full of ups and downs and Oliver & Company is decidedly a down. Even if the other Disney films didn't exist, this would still have to be considered a pretty bad movie. If the movie had solely been about Oliver and Jenny, it would have been cheesy, but at least we would have been spared all fo the other annoying characters. There is one good thing about Oliver & Company -- it marked the beginning and the ending of Billy Joel's acting career.
Oliver & Company deserves to be the last kitty in the box on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps. This is a very hit or miss transfer. On the plus side, in some scenes the colors look very good. The HD transfer is very detailed, but unfortunately, that level of detail has given the animation a weird look. The characters don't blend with the backgrounds -- They look as if they've been laid on top of them, like Colorforms. There is some mild grain here, and the animation shows very minor stuttering at times. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.1 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The songs, while below average, sound fine and we can pick out individual sounds in them. The stereo effects are nicely done, most notably when things cross the screen. However, I didn't not any significant surround or subwoofer effects.
The Oliver & Company Blu-ray Disc contains a selection of extras. "The Making of Oliver & Company" (6 minutes) is an archival piece from 1988 which plays more like an EPK. We get some brief comments from Director George Scribner and some footage of the voice actors at work. We also see how CG was used to enhance the animation. "Disney's Animated Animals" (90 seconds) is an odd commercial-like piece which was apparently used to promote the film's re-release at some point. "Lend a Paw" (8 minutes) and "Puss Cafe" (7 minutes) are both classic animated shorts, the former featuring Mickey Mouse, while the latter has Pluto. We get a TV SPOT for the film, as well as three TRAILERS, the original plus two re-release trailers.
Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2013.