Oliver & Company
Directed by George Scribner
Starring Billy Joel, Joey Lawrence, Bette Midler, Cheech Marin, Roscoe Lee Browne, Richard Mulligan, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Dom DeLuise and Robert Loggia
Walt Disney Home Entertainment
Release Date: August 6, 2013
Oliver & Company streets onto Blu-ray, bringing renewed interest to this often-overlooked feature with singing dogs on streetcars and a sinister smoking scoundrel. Not your average Disney film by any means, but not one to totally dismiss either. Here is my Blu-ray review of the 25th anniversary edition of Oliver & Company.
Spin Oliver Twist on its tail by replacing the orphan boy with a lone kitten, add in some canines, modern-world contemporary issues, and the Big Apple, and you have Oliver & Company.
The movie that preceded the start of the unofficial second renaissance in Disney animation may not have the spectacle of The Little Mermaid nor the pristine heart of Beauty and the Beast, but for what it represents, the film serves as fine entertainment. Though disjointed at times and somewhat clumsy in its transitions, Company lacks the dated feeling of animated movies set of that era. Perhaps 21st century children might wonder where the pop culture references are, but I appreciate how the movie is tied to a decade that resonates with viewers decades later.
What hinders Oliver & Company rests in its failure to juggle multiple storylines. There are arguably four: a rich little girl with distant parents seeking family; a street bum aiming to pay a loan shark; a lost kitten searching for stability; and a group of street-wise canines trying to stay alive in the face of threats around every corner. All of this must be resolved in 75 minutes. Game time! It’s not executed flawlessly, as some scenes, such as the climax, feel rushed and forced. Even some of the characters feel problematic. The villain lacks depth. He’s just an evil rich guy who smokes cigars, kidnaps children and possesses devilish Doberman lackeys. At least Ursula and Gaston had complexity.
Yet Company manages to hold some uniqueness in its awkward framework. Its grittiness, most palpable during the slightly-violent culmination, appears at odds with much of the movie. Its darkness contrasts with much of the cutesy kitten tale, but the New York City landscape feels appropriate to tell this story of finding a home in a bustling metropolis. The vocal talent and music, expanded on below, also work to Oliver’s favor. Many of the characters are engaging, if not particularly remarkable, and the modern style gives Company nice flavor.
Oliver’s voice acting is first-rate, from Bette Midler’s over-the-top and narcissistic poodle to Cheech Marin’s smitten, rascal Chihuahua. Disney relied on Midler for numerous productions and her vocal performance provides a cool, sarcastic and vain vibe to this good-natured movie. Her best scene arrives toward the middle of the movie, when she mimics an exercise infomercial personality working on her legs. Good stuff. Billy Joel‘s Dodger, Marin, and others do laudable work, too, and even a (very young) Joey Lawrence has a role as the voice of the title feline.
The music moves with a contemporary rhythm – well, what would have been considered contemporary 25 years ago – and I love its distinct tone. Joel’s “Why Should I Worry” stirs the New York City set-piece in a majestic blender, showcasing the architecture and lifestyle with an upbeat, can’t-get-this-fun-tune-out-of-your-head vibe. “Once Upon a Time in New York City,” sung by ’80s-contemporary Huey Lewis, has that melodic touch. “Streets of Gold” is a time capsule of pop jazz jive. Midler’s soulful Broadway-style showstopper “Perfect Isn’t Easy” makes you want to snap your fingers in a lounge, whereas the sweet “Good Company” screams sappy cuteness. Additionally, J.A.C. Redford’s stimulating and flashy instrumentation slides into the animation with ease, as does Howard Ashman’s fine lyrical work. This was Ashman’s first production for Disney before finding worldwide acclaim for his role on Mermaid.
Once again Disney has carried over bonus material from previous home releases, without providing film fans anything new. This trend has carried into many of its recent Blu-ray debuts of middle-of-the-road animated features, and it sure feels disappointing.
“The Making of Oliver & Company” gives viewers a feel of ’80s-style “film previews.” Wow does it overemphasize the word “contemporary” and the wonders of “computer animated imagery.” A nice trip into the past with some familiar Disney faces, including the late Roy Disney and newly-inducted Disney Legend Glen Keane.
“Disney’s Animated Animals,” also passé, premiered prior to its 1996 theatrical re-release. This brief piece uses stock footage to promote reasons why viewers should check out the film again.
“Lend A Paw Animated Short” shows the Oscar-winning Pluto short, much to the joy of this guy, a lover of everything Pluto. Unfortunately it lacks any restoration, still messy and shaky. Give this classic the digital treatment it deserves!
“Puss Café Animated Short” also adds some old Disney short bonus material, if unnecessary, to Oliver & Company.
“Publicity” contains a handful of promotional materials for the film, including a TV spot, standard trailers for each of its theatrical releases, and the schmaltzy “Return of a Classic” piece.
“Sing-Along with the Movie” affords children of the iPod era the chance to sing along with Huey Lewis and Billy Joel of the Walkman era.
The unevenness begins from the static title screen, only set to Company’s score for some zest. Oliver’s rough edges and realistic appearance gives it a style not seen in most Disney animated films, and that translates well to its presentation. While the colors don’t pop, as light shades dominate the scheme, most everything appears clear, if not intentionally subdued. Company’s Blu-ray presentation does not have the “wow” factor one would expect from Disney’s animated releases on this high-quality format. It’s adequate. The sound and visuals are solid, just not great.
Bonus Features: C
Overall Grade: B-
Oliver & Company can be described much like a cat. It’s erratic, delightful and inept at various times, loud, and sometimes even a little unexpectedly brutal, but at its heart, only seeks attention from anyone willing to watch. I was a little surprised by the extent to which I smiled watching this 1988 movie, and by how little I remembered from the last time I caught Oliver in its entirety, which was at least a decade ago. Perhaps Company is only worth a rental from those unfamiliar with the story, but for those who remember Dodger, Georgette and the clan, best head out on the street – or online – to purchase this second-rate, but still pleasing title.