“Once upon a time in New York City…”
Walt Disney might well have been the storyteller of more than one generation of kids. Is it any wonder that when we think of such characters as Winnie The Pooh or Peter Pan our minds conjure the images wrought by Disney animators and not necessarily the classic literature descriptions? That might not be the case with this Charles Dickens story, retold through Disney’s trademark animal point of view. Oliver & Company doesn’t appear to have had the staying power of films both before and after its time. After watching the film again, perhaps for the first time since its 20 years ago release, I can’t imagine why it has never quite caught on. From a popular culture standpoint the film has all of the elements that have led to other more beloved Disney classics. The Dickens story is a familiar one, read by most literature students as a matter of course. Many of the era’s biggest names lent their voice talents to the characters, including Billy Joel and Bette Midler. The songs are about as catchy as anyone might have hoped for. Just what was it that relegated this little seen Disney adventure to the bargain bin of animation classics?
I think it was the animation that led to this film’s more obscure fate. Disney would become one of the first studios to experiment with the use of computers in animation. Most of the characters and “props” were hand drawn in the traditional way, but the backgrounds were rendered using computers. It makes the film stand out for having an odd style. While the computers allowed the animators to mimic eccentric camera moves that were nearly impossible before, it never seems to sit right with our eyes. I found the animation unsettling. Certainly the scenes approached reality in ways never before seen, but I’m not sure that audiences were ready for that in 1988. The crazy camera moves were a distraction. Like any technology, computer animation had to start somewhere. Credit Disney for being one of the first animation houses to see the potential of these machines in their work. Unfortunately, technology usually has an awkward phase, and this film underscores that place in technology, perhaps better than any film before or since.
The story very loosely follows the Dickens classic. In this case Oliver (Lawrence) is a kitten relegated to the kitten’s version of an orphanage, the cardboard box with the “free kittens to good home” sign. Oliver, unlike his siblings, never finds a home and is left wondering the streets. Instead of Dickens’ trademark Victorian England, this is 1988’s New York City. Oliver soon falls under the care of carefree dog, Dodger (Joel). Dodger is part of a gang of thieving dogs that survive by their wits in the big city. Oliver follows Dodger home to the place he shares with a few other equally carefree pups, and their master, Fagin (Deluise). Now, Fagin is under pressure to pay back loan shark Sykes (Loggia) or else it’s curtains for them all. The next day Dodger and the gang take Oliver out for a day of stealing, when Oliver is trapped inside a car, trying to steal the stereo. A young girl falls in love with the kitty, and Oliver is taken back to their fancy home, where he’s introduced to the lap of luxury. Now, the gang fears Oliver has been kittynapped and stage a rescue. Meanwhile Oliver discovers that his new home has been ruled by the spoiled pup, Georgette (Midler) who controls everything “from the doorknob down”. Georgette is pleased when Oliver’s friends come to rescue him and is more than happy to help out. When Fagin sees how rich Oliver’s new family is, he decides to try and ransom Oliver back to them in order to pay off Sykes. Unfortunately, Fagin develops a conscience and can’t go through with it, but Sykes grabs the girl and decides to ransom her instead. Now Dodger and the gang have a real rescue to mount.
The members of the gang are the typical mix of eccentric and lovable Disney characters. Billy Joel voices and sings for the clever Dodger. Roscoe Lee Brown voices the Shakespearean pup Frankie… eh, I mean Francis. Cheech Marin steals the show as the manic pup Tito. It’s a dated affair, and unlikely to make a huge comeback through this re-release DVD. Still, you owe it to yourself to check it out, particularly if you’ve never seen the film before.
Oliver & Company is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Unfortunately this transfer is identical to the previous DVD release. It’s not a very good looking image at all. There is a ton of shimmer throughout. The bit rate is a relatively good 6 mbps, but it sure doesn’t show. There’s compression artifact galore. The print shows no effort to restore or even clean it up a bit. You’ll find plenty of dirt specks and scratches. Colors are muted for this kind of children’s effort. Animation lines are almost never clean, owing much to the computer experimental things going on here. If you already own it, don’t look for improvements here. Maybe eventually we’ll get a restored Blu-ray presentation, but I’m not holding my breath.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is about as mundane as I’ve heard. There is high end distortion on some of the music. No effort at all was given to improving even the musical numbers here. Again it’s identical to the previous DVD release. You can hear the dialog just fine, but there’s some scratchiness that makes the entire affair remarkably unimpressive.
Music and More: Sing-a-longs to the songs Why Should I Worry and Streets Of Gold.
The Making Of Oliver & Company: This 5 minute feature is merely a promotional effort made to hype the film’s original release. It’s a narrated collection of clips from the film. There are very short glimpses of the voice cast, but that’s about all. The piece talks about the computer tools being used here. It’s a bit ironic that the narrator attempts to assure us that the traditional hand drawn animation team isn’t going anywhere, but Disney has since closed its hand drawn animation department. A sad day, indeed.
Disney Animated Animals: Again this is a minute and a half pre-release promo piece that attempts to include this film into the Disney animation tradition of animals.
Oliver’s Big City Challenge: This is the only feature not found on the previous release. It’s a very simple interactive game that gives you tasks to complete so that Oliver can prove his mettle and become a member of the gang.
Fun Film Facts: A text based collection of trivia tidbits.
Gallery and Trailer finish out the meager extras.
I’m disappointed that Disney didn’t do more for this release. I know it’s a more obscure title, but this mundane release will do nothing to change that. The story is actually a pretty good one and would stand up to any of the Disney classics. A nice restoration would have gone a long way to help reintroduce this forgotten film. It serves as the “missing link” between Disney’s golden age and it’s reemergence in the 90’s with such films as The Lion King. The guys at Disney dropped the ball on this one. I guess I should consider it a “free lesson in street savoir faire”.