Written by Hombre Divertido
When you discuss the animated films of the eighties, you may find that films such as An America Tale, The Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go To Heaven are mentioned before anything from Disney makes its way into the conversation. This was not a good decade for Disney until The Little Mermaid floated onto the screen in 1989. Prior to our introduction to Ariel, the Disney landscape in the eighties was spotted with The Fox and the Hound (1981), The Black Cauldron (1985), The Great Mouse Detective (1986), and Oliver and Company (1988).
On February 3rd 2009, Disney will release Oliver and Company – 20th Anniversary Edition on DVD. With a story based on the classic Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, an all-star cast featuring Bette Midler, Dom DeLuise, Cheech Marin, Billy Joel, Robert Loggia, Richard Mulligan, Joey Lawrence, and a soundtrack with songs from Midler, Joel, Huey Lewis, and Ruth Pointer, it is certainly tough to see where this could have gone wrong. Not that this is a bad film, but it should have been better.
Oliver (Lawrence) is a kitten that is abandoned in New York City circa 1988. Oliver is reluctantly befriended by Dodger (Joel, who auditioned for the role over the phone) and eventually accepted into the gang of dogs who have run of the city as they attempt to help their human friend Fagan (DeLuise) raise money to pay off his debt to the evil Sykes (voiced masterfully by Loggia). Oliver fits in with the gang but is eventually adopted by sweet, little Jenny (Natalie Gregory) before being reluctantly rescued by Dodger and friends, and subsequently kidnapped by Sykes
The story has some holes, but is generally fun, though the opening sequence of Oliver being abandoned and chased by vicious dogs may be a bit much for young children and turn them off before the film really gets started.
The cast is excellent but Marin steals the show as the other performers are hindered by a lack of character development.
Where this film really struggles is with the animation and music. In the bonus feature “The Making of Oliver and Company” the fact that this is the first Disney film to truly embrace the use of computer animation is touted. Unfortunately the result resembles a Saturday morning cartoon from the late seventies or early eighties. The background seems flat, and there are inconsistencies in the artwork.
The music does not quite work either. It had been some time since Disney had made an animated musical, and apparently it was deemed necessary at this point, whether the story supported it or not. The songs are fine, and certainly performed by top talent, but they just don’t seem to fit in the film and are sporadically placed.
Add the flat animation to the forced musical aspect, and it is tough to make it through this 74-minute outing without becoming distracted.
There is not a lot of bonus material that wasn’t included in the 2002 release, and what is here is weak at best, except for two bonus shorts from Disney’s animated library. Appropriately the two cartoons feature Pluto dealing with cats. Both are great fun, and actually surpass the main feature in animation and storytelling.
The other bonus features include the previously mentioned “Making of,” which is informative and entertaining but insultingly brief. The kids may enjoy the bonus sing-along sections and the “Oliver’s Big City Challenge Game,” but Disney could have included all the songs and the game will only appeal to the youngest of viewers. The featurette “Disney’s Animated Animals” is too short and a bit self-serving, but the “Oliver and Company Scrapbook,” “Fun Film Facts,” and Publicity materials are enjoyable to view.
Recommendation: This will appeal to an audience within a select age range. Not so young as to be disturbed by the emotional opening segment, and not too old to notice how the film fails in comparison to some of Disneys more recent classics. Adults will certainly appreciate the performance of Marin who gleans a smile with every line, and may enjoy trying to spot the homage to other classic Disney canines and some inconsistencies in the artwork. There are much worse ways for a family to spend an evening, but other Disney fare might be more fulfilling.