OLIVER AND COMPANY – 20th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (1988)
Featuring the voices of Joey Lawrence, Billy Joel, Cheech Marin, Richard Mulligan, Roscoe Lee Browne, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Dom DeLuise, Taurean Blacque, Carl Weintraub, Robert Loggia, Natalie Gregory, William Glover, Bette Midler, Frank Welker and Jonathan Brandis.
Screenplay by Jim Cox & Timothy J. Disney & James Mangold.
Directed by George Scribner.
Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures. 74 minutes. Rated G.
Oliver and Company came along during a strange time for Disney’s legendary animation division. The cartoons were still coming out regularly enough, however there was a slapdash quality – the animations were not quite up to the studio’s legendary standards. That would change a mere year later when The Little Mermaid came out, leading to a hot streak of classics including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.
Oliver and Company was at the tail end of the down period – and in the finished product you can see both the problems which were tying Disney cartoons down and the enormous steps that the studio was taking to improve its rep. Looking back twenty years later, Oliver and Company is a better film than it ever really got credit for, but it is still a far cry from the highs which would come out of the Pen and Ink Building very soon afterwards.
On the plus side, there was obviously a lot of time and talent spent on the movie. Like the classics that were coming along (and a lot of past favorites), it was a newfangled loose variation of a classic story – in this case Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist. That is if you can picture Oliver as a cute kitten, Bill Sykes as a local mobster and The Artful Dodger as a streetwise mutt.
The lyrics were provided mostly by Howard Ashman – who would go on to do the music for Mermaid, Beauty and Aladdin before dying way too young. Some of the songs were performed by the then-huge Billy Joel – who also voiced the Artful Dodger – and the theme song was done by a similarly red-hot Huey Lewis. Barry Manilow, Bette Midler and Ruth Pointer (of the Pointer Sisters) all participated in the music, as well. The music is mostly good, but it does have a strong late-80s sound that makes it a little dated. There are no timeless tunes like “A Whole New World” or “Kiss the Girl” here.
Some real serious actors were pulled in to do the voices, including Joel, then-child star Joey Lawrence as Oliver, Dom DeLuise, Cheech Marin, Richard Mulligan, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Robert Loggia.
Also, one of the screenwriters was James Mangold – who would go on to be known as the writer/director of such esteemed films as Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, Cop Land and Girl, Interrupted.
On the negative side, the animation is shaky – to be charitable. The main character is adorable and most of the dogs are cute, too, but the human characters are rather poorly imagined. The New York City backgrounds are particularly sketchy, not capturing the magic or majesty of the city and backgrounds – in the way that would quickly become once again the standard for the Disney animators. The occasional drawings of the World Trade Center – even if not drawn all that well – still bring a lump in the throat, though for a tragic reason that has nothing to do with the film. Still, too much of this appears like it was done on the cheap – and it shows.
However, the basic storyline is a strong one – orphan kitty lost in the big city falls in with a rough and tumble group of dog street thieves and eventually finds the love of a rich and fabulous family. The voice work is very good, the writing is relatively interesting… and did I mention how cute the little cat at the heart of the story was? I know I did, but it bears repeating. Adorable, just adorable.
Oliver and Company is certainly not on a level of the Disney classics, but as a kid’s film it’s well worth the time.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 23, 2009.