BLU REVIEW: Disney’s Oliver & Company

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THE SET-UP
A homeless cat named Oliver (voice of Joseph Lawrence) teams up with a care-free mutt named Dodger (voice of Billy Joel) for a series of misadventures in New York City, in this modern take on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Also stars the voices of Better Midler, Dom DeLuise, Robert Loggia, Cheech Marin, Richard Mulligan, Roscoe Lee Browne, and Sheryl Lee Ralph.
Directed by George Scribner

THE DELIVERY
Released a year before The Little Mermaid, Oliver & Company doesn’t get nearly the critical acclaim of that Disney classic. It deserves more credit than it gets, however. It is an entertaining little movie with a distinct style and some good music. 

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Based on the Charles Dickens classic Oliver Twist, the film casts Oliver as a homeless kitten (voiced by Joseph Lawrence, although he went by Joey at the time) struggling to survive in 1980s New York City. The Artful Dodger is a mischievous terrier voiced by music icon Billy Joel, who gives the role the proper New York swagger.     

The art direction is reminiscent of Disney’s previous animated flicks of the era, including The Rescuers and The Great Mouse Detective, and it works well here, giving the New York urban landscape a somewhat stylized, slightly gritty feel. Computer graphics were used to enhance some of the animation (mostly cars, bridges, and other sets), and it was effective without being distracting. 

The characters are well-imagined, but not always well-executed. It isn’t because of the voice actors; they are all quite good and perfectly suited for their roles. The problem is the script doesn’t really pack a punch, and only Cheech Marin’s Tito (a talky chihuahua) manages to stand out with some truly funny and memorable lines. Lawrence is suitable as the young protagonist, and Billy Joel is surprisingly good as Dodger, in his first real acting role (not counting his music videos). The supporting cast includes Dom DeLuise as Fagin (although his best voice-over performance was as Jeremy the Crow in the classic Secret of NIMH), Richard Mulligan as Einstein the Great Dane, Roscoe Lee Browne as Francis the Bulldog, and Sheryl Lee Ralph as Rita. Bette Midler also appears as Georgette the Poodle, and if they were looking for a annoying personality to voice the character, they hit the nail on the head.

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To give the film a truly New York flavor, the filmmakers employed several musicians and singers with New York ties. Howard Ashman (LIttle Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast) wrote the lyrics for “Once Upon a Time in New York City,” the song performed by Huey Lewis that opens the film. Barry Manilow wrote and produced “Perfect Isn’t Easy,” the song performed by Bette Midler, who voiced Georgette the poodle. Even actor/singer Ruben Blades (Predator 2, Safe House) wrote and performed the Spanish themed song “Buscando Guayaba.” The standout song of the film, however, is the Golden Globe-nominated “Why Should I Worry?” which Billy Joel performs early in the film and in the finale. It’s catchy and perfectly suited for a singer like Joel.  

Some of the other music, however, doesn’t age well; it’s just a bit too 1980s for my taste. The film overall drags in places and doesn’t really connect emotionally like later Disney films managed to do. Even so, Oliver & Company has its moments, and at only 74 minutes, it moves along quickly. Despite the flaws, it does deliver when it should. The bad guys get an especially violent sendoff, so especially young kids might find it a bit much. Otherwise, the film manages to keep a light tone while sticking to the themes of the Dickens tale.    

Oliver & Company is a favorite in our family, and it’s great to finally own it on Blu-ray.  It may not be in the upper echelon of Disney classics, it has some winning elements that the studio perfected in the films that followed. You’ll even see some Simba inspirations in the Oliver character. 

Oliver & Company is entertaining in its own right, and a worthy diversion for child and Disney enthusiast alike.

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VIDEO AND AUDIO
The high-definition image for this 25th anniversary Blu-ray release is nothing short of fantastic. The video transfer is near-flawless, with no visible debris, incredible sharpness, and bold colors. It is head and shoulders above the DVD release, and is likely better than it looked in theaters. The audio is a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, and sounds crisp and deep, especially with the songs. If you really want to have some fun, check out the Russian 5.1 Dolby Digital track. The songs in particular will make you smile.  

SPECIAL FEATURES
Disney added several special features to the Blu-ray, and while only a couple of them actually relate to the film, they stick to the theme of Disney animals, which kids will enjoy. “The Making of Oliver & Company” is an older featurette presented in standard definition. It provides a short look at the animation process, including the use of computers for some of the film’s shots. Roy Disney also discusses the film. There’s also a short and completely disposable featurette called “Disney’s Animated Animals.”

A “Sing Along” option is also included, which allows the viewer to watch the film with the song lyrics on the screen. The DVD offers the option as well, but only for two songs, not the entire feature.

A number of Disney shorts are also included, a great addition to the Blu-ray. They aren’t remastered in high definition, so they do feature some dust and minor film grain. Included is the 1941 Oscar winner for Best Short Subject (Cartoon) “Lend a Paw.” It features Pluto saving a kitten stranded in the snow, who then becomes jealous when Mickey Mouse gives it more attention. “Puss Cafe” is the other short, and involves a couple of clueless cats cause trouble for Pluto.

A TV spot and original theatrical trailer from 1988 are also included. The 1996 re-release trailer is also included, as is a featurette from the time promoting the re-release. 

The DVD also includes special features not included on the Blu-ray, including an Oliver & Company game for kids, featuring some simple games and puzzles that use clips from the movie. There’s also a nice gallery of concept art for the film.

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THE BOTTOM LINE: BUY IT OR REDBOX IT?
Ratings (1-10 scale)

Movie: 6

Video: 10

Audio: 9

Extras: 7

Overall Score: 8

Oliver & Company isn’t one of Disney’s best, but it is entertaining, and kids will enjoy it. The technical presentation is a marvel, and the Pluto shorts are a nice touch. It is well worth a purchase to add to a Disney collection.

BLU-RAY AND DVD SPECS
Release Date: August 6, 2013

Running time: 74 minutes

Rating: G

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio ( Blu-ray only), English 2.0 Dolby Digital, French 5.1 Dolby Digital, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, Russian 5.1 Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Russian

Special Features: “The Making of Oliver & Company” featurette, “Disney’s Animated Animals” featurette, “Lend a Paw” animated short, “Puss Cafe” animated short, Sing-Along mode, Trailers, TV spots, Re-release featurette, Interactive Game (DVD only), and concept art gallery (DVD only).

Label: Walt Disney Home Entertainment

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