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Oliver & Company: 25th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray + DVD Review

Oliver & Company (1988) movie poster Oliver & Company

Theatrical Release: November 18, 1988 / Running Time: 74 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: George Scribner / Writers: Jim Cox, Timothy J. Disney, James Mangold (animation screenplay); Charles Dickens (novel Oliver Twist)

Voice Cast: Joey Lawrence (Oliver), Billy Joel (Dodger), Cheech Marin (Tito), Richard Mulligan (Einstein), Roscoe Lee Browne (Francis), Sheryl Lee Ralph (Rita), Dom DeLuise (Fagin), Taurean Blacque (Roscoe), Carl Weintraub (DeSoto), Robert Loggia (Sykes), Natalie Gregory (Jenny Foxworth), William Glover (Winston), Bette Midler (Georgette)

Songs: "Once Upon a Time in New York City", "Fast Lane", "Why Should I Worry?", "Buscando Guayaba", "Streets of Gold", "Perfect Isn't Easy", "Good Company"

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Those of us who know, revere, and frequently revisit the ever-growing canon of Disney Animation Studios almost always cherish at least one film that is generally considered mediocre or worse. For me, that movie is Oliver & Company.

The final film released before The Little Mermaid began a Renaissance for the storied division (an era whose works, minus The Rescuers Down Under, have come to be deemed sacrosanct), this 1988 release can be viewed as a transition film, moving Disney from the occasional modest performer increasingly rivaled by Don Bluth movies to quasi-annual artistic achievement that gave the studio dominance not only over animation but cinema at large and even stage and television off-shoots.

A retelling of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist involving animals in modern-day New York City, Oliver & Company was no huge triumph on its own merits. The film opened six days before Thanksgiving, going head to head with Bluth's The Land Before Time. Though the Steven Spielberg-produced dinosaur adventure debuted in first place (playing in 1.5 times as many theaters), the slowly-expanding Oliver would catch up by year's end and narrowly best franchise-starter Land in the end. Oliver also made significant gains over Disney's middling to lackluster previous animated debuts The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective. Oliver's $53.3 million domestic gross was barely a third of what Spielberg's Touchstone-bannered Who Framed Roger Rabbit earned the same year, but it was the more traditional dogs and cat 'toon on which The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin directly built.

Oliver marked a bit of change in Disney's production methods. Where Great Mouse Detective had slipped a few songs into its rodent variation of a Sherlock Holmes mystery, Oliver was a true musical, in which characters repeatedly broke out into song. Where Great Mouse had classic old actors like Vincent Price and "Mister Ed"'s Alan Young for its voice cast, Oliver enlisted contemporary celebrities like Billy Joel, Touchstone centerpiece Bette Midler, and Cheech Marin. Even the music, which included an opening song performed by Huey Lewis, was more suited to current tastes. While Disney's imminent ascent would come with a return to classic European fairy tales, it's easy to see similarities between Oliver's sense of humor and the kind of comedy housed in the Renaissance musicals.

Orphaned kitten Oliver befriends streetwise mutt Dodger in Disney's 1988 animated feature "Oliver & Company."

Oliver tells the story of an orphaned orange kitten (voiced by future TV star Joey Lawrence) who goes unadopted on the streets of New York City. Oliver encounters Dodger (Billy Joel), a mutt who shows him how to survive the big city with a little "street savoir-faire." Made an unwitting accomplice to theft, Oliver follows Dodger back to the dog's home, which he shares with a band of dogs and down and out squatter/pickpocket Fagin (Dom DeLuise), who has just three days to pay off his debts to the frightening, Doberman-protected loan shark Sykes (Robert Loggia).

Dodger's gang includes an assortment of canines, from the feisty little Chihuahua Tito (Cheech Marin) to the stuffy bulldog Francis (Roscoe Lee Browne). The pups do what they can to help out their sympathetic master Fagin, but the outlook on his repayment of Sykes is bleak. That changes when the dogs' car stunt ends with Oliver in the ritzy 5th Avenue home of Jenny (Natalie Gregory), a wealthy girl looked after by a butler while her worldly parents are away.

Desperate Fagin hatches a plan to kidnap Oliver and ransom his loaded new owners for a big payout, a plot that distresses both Jenny and Oliver, who have quickly warmed to each other despite the objections of Jenny's pampered show poodle Georgette (Bette Midler).

Oliver falls into the possession of 5th Avenue gal Jenny Foxworth, who curtsies at a passerby. A desperate Fagin resorts to ransoming Oliver.

My love of Oliver & Company cannot be explained in the most obvious way. I never saw it as a child, even though I was practically the perfect age for that. I first caught the film upon its May 2002 DVD debut, one of Disney's last animated features to hit the format without much fanfare. Then on the cusp of adulthood, I had been developing an appreciation for Disney Animation that was rather limited in childhood. I entered with no expectations and left highly entertained.

Deeper reflection reveals my considerable enjoyment to be consistent with my other tastes. I was and still am a fan of Charles Dickens' writings, but not enough to frown upon interpretations like this.
The Bill Murray comedy Scrooged, released just five days after Oliver and similarly updating a mid-19th century Dickens tale to modern Manhattan, has long been an all-time favorite of mine. I'm also a native New Yorker, who has spent plenty of time in the city in which Oliver & Company is set. Like most people my age, I have a fondness for 1980s entertainment, particularly Disney cartoons like Little Mermaid and "DuckTales." And it just so happens that not too long after first seeing this movie, I came to count an orange cat as one of my closest friends.

I'm pleased to find that this film has held up well for me on each subsequent viewing from immediate revisitation in the summer of 2002 to another look in July 2004 to a review of the tardy 20th Anniversary Edition DVD in early 2009 and, now at my most critical state to date, in the summer of 2013 when Oliver & Company makes its Blu-ray debut in a 25th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray + DVD combo pack alongside two of the studio's less esteemed, sequel-less "animated classics."

Oliver doesn't reach the lofty heights of the Disney masterpieces to come and the Pixar ones to follow. But it's an incredibly endearing film that achieves Disney's winning blend of humor, heart, music, and magic. Georgette and her song don't do all that much for me and the actiony subway station climax (that undoubtedly would earn a PG rating from today's stricter MPAA standards) isn't quite as riveting as intended. The rest of the film, however, is highly satisfying, finding common ground between the Victorian England Dickens wrote about with the pre-Giuliani, not yet Disneyfied New York City and seeing the rhythm, as the Oscar-winning Oliver! did, in the story. The rotten 44% score it holds on Rotten Tomatoes and unspectacular 6.5 average IMDb user rating fuel us fans to leap to the movie's defense and to see that it doesn't get overlooked as people continue to voice their appreciation for the '90s Disney Renaissance and the '80s Bluth boom.

Oliver & Company: 25th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray + DVD combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.85:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish, Russian), Dolby Surround 2.0 (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish; BD-only: English, Russian
DVD Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: August 6, 2013 / Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Two single-sided discs (BD-25 & DVD-9)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Still available as 20th Anniversary Edition DVD ($19.99 SRP; February 3, 2009) and on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as Special Edition DVD (May 14, 2002)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Knowing that Disney does not treat this film like one of its crown jewels, it's reasonable to worry that it won't live up to the studio's high picture quality standards. Fear not; Oliver & Company absotively posilutely looks its best on Blu-ray. The widescreen presentation (whose unlisted aspect ratio measures exactly to 1.85:1) is excellent. Though this is one of the studio's last productions before moving to the digital CAPS system, it hides its age remarkably well. Past the opening titles, grain is a non-issue, yet the clean picture doesn't feel overly scrubbed. Very few shots are soft or any less than perfect. Colors are vibrant, lines are bold and the not often celebrated animation looks pretty stellar (save for a few shots given less detail by animators than they could now use).

The big visual gains that high definition affords Oliver are even surpassed by the outstanding 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack. The film's New York City feels more alive than ever before, right from the start when pedestrian conversations and traffic noises envelop both the tiny protagonist and us. The winning songs are especially nicely presented, elevating the energy without lyrics getting drowned out. Disney even does the noble thing by also including a 2.0 Dolby Surround English that is truer to the original stereo theatrical soundtrack. That's useful, because the default track does have the feel of a remix that could rub sound purists the wrong way.

Still from Oliver & Company: 20th Anniversary Edition DVD (2009) - click to view screencap in full 720 x 480. Still from Oliver & Company: 25th Anniversary Edition DVD (2013) - click to view screencap in full 720 x 480.

Screencap from Oliver & Company's
1.66:1 20th Anniversary DVD (2009)

Screencap of same frame from Oliver & Company's
25th Anniversary combo pack's 1.85:1 DVD (2013)

Oliver & Company undergoes a slight aspect ratio change and more pronounced visual update.

It's worth noting that Oliver has undergone an aspect ratio change from the 1.66:1 of its two previous DVD releases. The new 1.85:1 ratio is likely truer to the theatrical dimensions and since the movie predated CAPS,
it's unlikely the movie was ever composed for 1.66:1, a ratio used in Europe that mainly existed as a compromise for Disney between VHS and theatrical ratios. While it seems doubtful that Disney consulted director George Scribner, who hasn't worked on a film since the 2003 theme park short Mickey's Philharmagic, to make this decision, I don't think it merits questioning or scorn. That's true even though the new ratio has been achieved by a fairly straightforward matting, with the new presentation gaining at most just a couple of lines of width (sometimes even losing a couple) while losing a more noticeable (but still not very significant) amount of frame height.

The new DVD makes use of the new aspect ratio and improved transfer, undergoing a slight bump in average bit rate from 6.78 to 6.88 Mb/s. Even comparing the new standard definition presentation to the old one reveals considerable improvement in the visuals, with the grain that once plagued the movie virtually eradicated.

First-time director George Scribner talks up the film in 1988's "The Making of 'Oliver & Company.'" Pluto keeps an open mind towards his shoulder devil's advice in the Oscar-winning 1941 cartoon short "Lend a Paw."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

On Blu-ray, Oliver & Company is joined by most of the same extras that accompanied it on both of its DVD editions. The list looks long, but the supplements (all still in standard definition, sadly) are quickly consumed and forgotten.

"The Making of Oliver & Company" (5:31) is a promotional short from the time of release. It talks up the voice cast, the musical talent,
the contemporary update of a classic story, and the mix of new and traditional techniques. It's a very dated piece, but that's what makes it so delightful.

"Disney's Animated Animals" (1:29) is a fluff piece produced for Oliver's forgettable 1996 theatrical reissue, which tries to link the film to the studio's other anthropomorphized creature characters.

Next up come two classic animated Disney shorts featuring Pluto and cats. The memorable 1941 Oscar winner Lend a Paw (8:08) has Pluto save a kitten's life, only to regret how the cat takes over his home turf. Puss Cafe (7:10), from 1950, has Pluto chase after two neighbor cats who disturb his hammock sleep.

In a rare move for Disney, original trailers from multiple "Oliver & Company" releases are preserved Dick Cook, then chairman of Disney, tries to connect "Oliver & Company" to other Disney hits in the 1996 promotional short "Return of a Classic."

Publicity Materials holds the following four marketing videos: a 30-second TV spot and 90-second full theatrical trailer from the film's original 1988 release, the 1996 reissue trailer (1:40), and the 1996 EPK short "Return of a Classic" (1:59) which exaggerates the film's significance, attempting to lump it in with Disney Animation's Renaissance.

It's interesting that most of this material is between 17 and 25 years old, as Disney has largely avoided supplying marketing materials for their animated films (especially the relatively modern ones). It's kind of nice and random that this movie bucks that unfortunate trend with its every release.

Finally, "Sing-Along with the Movie" simply applies plain, white song lyric subtitles over the entire film. It's a nice little touch we've all come to expect.

The Blu-ray opens with trailers for The Little Mermaid: Diamond Edition, Planes, Super Buddies, and Iron Man & Hulk: Heroes United, plus a Pinocchio-themed anti-smoking PSA. Before repeating those trailers, the menu's Sneak Peeks listing plays promos for Disney Movie Rewards, "Sofia the First", Broadway's Newsies, Disney Parks, The Muppet Movie: The Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray, and Return to Never Land: Special Edition Blu-ray.

Sketches of characters not in the final film are among the highlights of the DVD's 14-page Oliver & Company Scrapbook. This film fact may or may not meet your definition of fun, but you'll need to pop in the DVD to access it.

Unsurprisingly and to what should be no objections, the combo pack's FastPlay-enhanced DVD is mostly identical supplementally to the 20th Anniversary Edition that remains in print.

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The Sneak Peeks have been updated to match the Blu-ray's and the November 2008 files have been replaced by ones last modified June 2013. But otherwise, the platter remains the same and that allows this set to reproduce all the Blu-ray's extras as well as some bonus features deemed unworthy of the format.

Sing-along songs for "Why Should I Worry?" and "Streets of Gold" are simply the clips from the movie (utilizing the new print) with lyric subtitles over them, rendered unnecessary by the Blu-ray's "Sing-Along" full movie presentation and the scene selection menu. The two videos replaced more nostalgia-inducing ones lifted from old Sing Along Songs videos for the movie's original 2002 DVD.

More notable is the one bonus feature created for the 20th Anniversary release: the set-top game "Oliver's Big City Challenge." More elaborate than most of its kind, this has seven levels and requires you to choose one of the movie's five gang dogs as your assistant for each. There is only one right choice based on their skill, but their "help" gives no sign of their presence at all. The activities are all inspired by the film, which lends its old transfer's grainy imagery to them. Most, like counting hot dogs and repeating an entry code, are a breeze, but a couple (finding four things different in a scene change and navigating wires) will frustrate some younger players. There's no reward for all your efforts, which are largely the same on every visit.

Also only on the DVD is the 14-page Oliver & Company Scrapbook consisting of concept art (12 stills including some for an unused fantasy sequence), story development (5 storyboard stills), character development (20 stills of sketches and model sheets including some for deleted characters), behind-the-scenes photos (11 images), poster designs (5 stills), and merchandise (4 album and storybook covers).

The final DVD exclusive are nine text screens of "Fun Film Facts", a near-miraculous retention obviously dating back to the original 2002 DVD (reformatted in 2009 to fill 16:9 screens) that slightly overstates the movie's achievements.

Typical for these days, Oliver & Company's Blu-ray menu consists solely of this scored still. The new DVD's animated main menu, recycled from the 20th Anniversary Edition, shows more creativity.

The Blu-ray's menu plays an excerpt of end credits score over a static shot of Fagin and his crew scooting, with the title logo at least given a taxi cab checkered border. Sadly, Disney still refuses to author its catalog Blu-rays with bookmarks or resuming capabilities. The BD will remember where you were in the movie if you explore some bonus features, but once your player powers down, it forgets, forcing you to endure the automatically-played logos and previews all over again until you tell it otherwise. The DVD's more creative, recycled main menu animates Dodger coolly riding a taxi cab to score while Oliver pops up in the passenger seat from time to time.

In addition to the two plainly-labeled discs, the side-snapped standard Blu-ray keepcase holds a Disney Movie Rewards code and a Disney Movie Club ad. The case is topped by a cardboard slipcover repeating the recycled artwork below with embossed touches.

Every boulevard is a miracle mile for Dodger's gang dogs Francis, Rita, Einstein, and Tito.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Too few Disney fans and animation buffs will agree with me, but I maintain the belief that Oliver & Company is one of Disney Animation's stronger efforts. While it is a bit dated and not quite up there with the company's very best works, the film never fails to entertain me to a greater degree than many of the animated features between Walt's Golden Age and the imminent Eisner Era Renaissance.

The film's 25th Anniversary Blu-ray debut is another missed opportunity to add more substantial bonus features, but the promotional bits retained here continue to hold value and appeal. More importantly, though, the movie looks and sounds its very best with a restoration that seems almost as breathtaking as those given Disney's top tier 'toons. My estimation of the film is high enough to recommend an upgrade even if you're not working on a complete Disney Animation Blu-ray collection.

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Reviewed August 3, 2013.



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