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"Oliver and Company" 20th Anniversary DVD Is Better as History Than as Cinema

by on February 2, 2009

Good news, guys! In 5 years, this is going to be a Starbucks!Most Disney aficionados mark The Little Mermaid as the film that turned around American feature animation’s declining fortunes. Oliver and Company, though, was the first film made under the then-new Disney regime led by Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. That film, a very loose adaptation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist that turns the title character into an orphaned orange kitten, demonstrated many of the technical and storytelling fundamentals that would be deployed to better effect the following year in the Hans Christian Anderson adaptation, and I think a credible argument can be made that it, not its more famous successor, really started the renaissance in feature animation.

Disney has now re-released Oliver and Company to DVD in a new 20th Anniversary edition, and while the film is not without significant flaws, it is also not without its modest charms. If nothing else, the DVD at least has value as a historical document.

Despite Disney’s claims, the film borrows little from Oliver Twist other than some character names and general themes. The newborn kitten Oliver (voiced by Joey Lawrence) finds himself abandoned on the mean streets of 1980s New York City (rather than 1830s London) and falling in with a gang of street dogs, led by the rascally Dodger (Billy Joel), that is nominally owned by the sad sack Fagin (Dom DeLuise). To try and pay off his debt to the vicious gangster Mr. Sykes (Robert Loggia), Fagin and his pets engage in a life of petty thievery. However, before Oliver can join them in a life of crime, he is separated from the group and adopted by Jenny, a lonely little girl from a rich family who is more than happy to take the plucky little kitten home, much to the chagrin of her spoiled poodle, Georgette (Bette Midler). Oliver is soon forced to choose between his old friends and his new owner when Sykes discovers Jenny and hatches a plan to kidnap her for a sizeable ransom.

New York back when it was all Greek delis and overpriced mom & pop storesThe Disney animation studios had been in a creative slump since the passing of Walt Disney, suffering far more flops and stumbles than successes. Oliver and Company has its share of fumbles, but it’s not too hard to see the groundwork being laid in this movie for the breakout success of The Little Mermaid. It neatly mates the studio’s technical skills with a workable story and some occasionally daring creative choices, even if those riskier choices don’t always pay off as well as they might have. Like 101 Dalmatians, Oliver and Company was intended to be extremely contemporary to its time period. It lacks the visual flair that Walt Peregoy gave the earlier film, but it does do a remarkable job of re-creating the seedier, grittier New York of the era before it was (for lack of a better word) Disney-fied by chain store franchises and Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “Broken Windows” quality of life initiatives. Reportedly, the animators toured the city with cameras held 18-inches off the ground to get a dog’s eye view of things, and the resulting depiction is definitely one of the best things about the film.

Unfortunately, stories are like bread dough, turning tough and inedible when over-worked, and the story for Oliver and Company definitely feels like it was worked through a few too many story sessions. The plot is certainly more serviceable than films like The Fox and the Hound; it lopes along at a steady clip and never drags, but it also tries to pack a bit too much into its 74-minute running time. As a result, most of the characters and set pieces just don’t have enough time to develop for maximum emotional impact. Oliver himself is a curiously passive leading character who doesn’t drive events as much as he just reacts to them. Everyone else is pretty much a thin, barely sketched-in stereotype; and Georgette, though she gets one show-stopping musical number, proves entirely unnecessary. Only Dodger and Sykes managing to make much of an impression, oozing charm and menace, respectively, due to marvelous character animation and excellent performances by Joel and Loggia. The musical numbers are mostly functional 80’s pop tunes, charming and catchy but forgotten almost as soon as they’re finished. The exception, again, comes courtesy of Billy Joel, with his “Why Should I Worry?” number being the only one that has any real staying power. The opening song, “Once Upon a Time in New York City,” comes close, though, and it will come as little surprise to find that the lyrics’ creative turns of phrase come courtesy of Howard Ashman. Finally, it’s probably best if you don’t think too hard about the movie’s moral compass or any deeper social message about the haves vs. the have-nots. That way lies madness.

For some reason, he reminds me of one of the agents in 'One Froggy Evening' in this sceneAs one would expect, the animation in Oliver and Company is exceptionally well-done, from the creative Bob Fosse-inspired dance sequences to the terrific character animation. Sykes is introduced in a scene that is a marvel of understated animated acting, communicating volumes with very little movement. From a technical perspective, Oliver and Company was a swan song for some techniques and a brave new start for others. This was the second-to-last film to use xerography to do the animation—retaining scratchy ink lines and all—and also one of the last to use old-fashioned, physical ink and paint instead of the digital variety that would soon come. However, it was also the first Disney film to make large-scale use of computer animation. The results are surprisingly polished and well-integrated with the rest of the film. In fact, the CGI in Oliver and Company is better integrated with the hand-drawn animation than it is in some films made ten and even twenty years later. It is difficult, for instance, to tell that Fagin’s scooter is CGI, and only the subtlest touches give away the fact that Sykes’ car is a computer fabrication. A scene of Georgette descending a staircase at the end of her big musical number pulls off a camera movement that would be nearly impossible in hand-drawn animation, but it’s integrated so smoothly with the hand-drawn Georgette that it barely calls attention to its technical provenance. It’s also somewhat ironic to hear the brief “making of” featurette proudly extol the virtues of hand-drawn animation techniques as it assures viewers that the computers merely allow Disney animators to spend more time on story and characters. Finally, it’s fun to sit through the end-credits and read off names of artists who would soon be major movers and shakers at Disney and Pixar.

Do not attempt this at home. They are professionals.The Oliver and Company 20th Anniversary DVD is a one-disc edition, and it is as modestly well-done as the movie itself. Disney has said that the movie was remastered for this release, but the anamorphic widescreen image looks surprisingly dirty and grainy. However, the clips in the bonus materials are in even worse shape, suggesting that the movie always looked a little grittier and grainier than most Disney animated films due to a combination of aesthetic choice and the budgetary constraints the studio was working under at the time. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is peppy and bright and gives little to complain about; alternate 5.1 soundtracks are available in Spanish and French as well. The bonus features appear to be nearly indistinguishable from the earlier DVD release. The best is “The Making of Oliver and Company,” a five-minute featurette that covers a surprising amount of ground in a very short time. The next best extras are two classic short films, “Lend a Paw” and “Puss Cafe,” that, it must be said, tend to make Oliver and Company look bad by comparison. “Disney’s Animated Animals” is just a commercial for other Disney animated movies and is a waste of time. A variety of pre-production artwork dominates the scrapbook extra, and the publicity materials collect a variety of trailers and “Fun Film Facts” that are a few pages of trivia. The extras are rounded out by two sing-along songs and the usual Disney DVD game.

In the end, Oliver and Company turns out to be a movie that I appreciate more than I truly love, but its charms are non-trivial and it was a definite step up from many of the studio efforts that came before. One can argue whether it represents the low end of a rising curve or the high end of a creative bottom, but in the end the distinction is academic. Oliver and Company was still a step in the right direction, even if it doesn’t quite step far enough.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review inaccurately stated that Oliver and Company “was also the first Disney film to use computer animation.” The first Disney film that used CGI was The Great Mouse Detective (1986).

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