It’s hard to believe that an animated Disney feature would look to the grime of the streets to set up a film. A studio rooted in a tradition of making princesses sing and everything sparkle, Oliver and Company is the exact opposite. An animal spin on the Charles Dickens classic Oliver Twist, Oliver and Company may be far from classic but it is interesting to watch for its take on the pre-Disnified New York landscape following the company’s real estate foray into the iconic downtown core.
Oliver (voiced by Joey Lawrence) is an abandoned kitten who ends up befriending a gang of outcast dogs including Dodger (Billy Joel), the leader of the group. The dogs work for the human Fagin (Dom DeLuise), who is in deep trouble financially with a loan shark named Sykes (Robert Loggia). Fate intervenes and Oliver finds a home with Jenny, a rich girl dealing with abandonment issues of her own as her parents always seem to be away on business.
The protagonists in the film are all, in some way, have-nots. Money is a primary issue with everyone but Jenny, but she’s missing something bigger with no family around. This is a different approach than many Disney films where the protagonists often have it all already and can only lose things when threatened. It’s an interesting and somewhat refreshing spin however it never fully comes together.
Oliver and Company was a part of one of Disney animation’s biggest ruts. It followed The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective. Together the trio make up one of the company’s most ignored periods when it comes to marketing. There are few toys, books or other merchandise to be found. None of the characters from these films roam the streets of Disneyland, nor are there any rides named after them.
It’s not that Oliver and Company isn’t bad, it’s just not great either. A lot of time and energy is spent in the film on the characters. And although the plot is somewhat straightforward, it’s far too underdeveloped and feels like a rushed afterthought. It’s hard for a film to be great by focusing on either plot or character. Both are required to make something truly standout.
From an animated perspective, Oliver and Company offers some great moments but far more that show the film’s limited budget. On the not-so-good end is the background work. Most are cheaply done and static. New York plays an important part in the setting. It’s treated as one of the film’s characters. Yet these backgrounds give it no justice whatsoever. Instead of being dynamic, they’re stagnant. At the same time, there’s some sweeping action movements that look excellent for the era, particular when they’re held against the not-so-good parts of the animation. These action shots are limited in number but they make for a fluid and exciting change of angles but without the need for cuts.
Coming from a company with such a deep-rooted history in animation, Oliver and Company represents the low end of average as far as Disney cartoons go. It’s got a couple of interesting things going on but it doesn’t stand out when put together with the other great films from the company. It should come as a surprise to nobody as to why it is largely ignored two decades after its initial release while other Disney movies continue to standout more than 50 years after their debut.
Oliver and Company DVD Review
The 20th Anniversary DVD release of Oliver and Company is a solid package that mixes Oliver-centered bonus features with a couple of classic animated Disney shorts. The film is shown in a clean widescreen format (1.66:1 aspect ratio) that’s enhanced for 16×9 TVs. The English audio track pops with Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. Additional audio tracks are offered in Spanish and French. There’s also English, Spanish and French subtitles.
Variety is the key to the bonus features. Musical numbers “Why Should I Worry?” and “Streets of Gold” are offered as sing-alongs. “The Making of Oliver and Company” is an old featurette that has a very promotional feel to it. “Disney’s Animated Animals” is a less than two minute attempt to justify why Oliver and his pals belong amongst the great animated pets and wild things. Speaking of classic animals, Pluto stars in two animated shorts included on this DVD: “Lend a Paw” and “Puss Cafe.” Additional extras include a photo gallery of sketches and behind-the-scenes work, publicity materials, random facts and “Oliver’s Big City Challenge,” a new set-top game geared at kids.