The history of feature animation at Disney involves a number of peaks and valleys. The greatest candidates for neglect, then, are often the movies on either side of those points: cartoons that don’t have the ongoing cultural cache of The Lion King or Snow White or the notoriety of The Black Cauldron or Home on the Range. But mid-range Disney makes up a lot of its feature film catalog, and as much as the company tries to make itself synonymous with quality feature animation (when not taking one of its periodic breaks to promote The Jungle Book II or Planes, that is), its long-term success with family audiences probably has just as much to do with the collective strength (and length) of that catalog as with the individual films themselves.
That family-pleasing legacy was certainly a primary selling point when Oliver and Company was released in 1988. Following the surprising if minor success of The Great Mouse Detective in 1986 but preceding the comeback story of The Little Mermaid in 1989, Oliver and Company entered entering an animation market that had begun to see competition, principally from former Disney employee Don Bluth. The vintage late ’80s making-of vignette and ads included on the new Blu-ray release promote the movie by stressing Disney’s rich history of entertaining family audiences, assuring viewers that Oliver and Company holds up that tradition while also speaking to modern 1988 audiences with its pop-star voices and songs (Billy Joel and Bette Midler are both featured) and even its “computer image technology” (early computer animation was used to create parts of some scenes).
To Disney’s credit, many of these elements did go on to become staples of family-oriented animation: songs that veer more pop than Broadway, celebrity voices, and computer animation are some of the most basic ingredients of the modern Disney and/or DreamWorks and/or Blue Sky Animation cartoons. But apart from those innovations, what’s most striking about Oliver and Company now is just how much it resembles, well, a Don Bluth cartoon: its New York City setting brings to mind An American Tail (which Bluth released to great success in 1986) and its mild but noticeable junkyard-dog grit recalls All Dogs Go to Heaven (which trailed Oliver and Company into theaters by a year; the Bluth picture matched up against Oliver for family dollars in 1988 was The Land Before Time, which admittedly bears little resemblance to Oliver and Company).
The movie also recalls late ’80s Bluth pictures in that its hero, orphan kitten Oliver, is more cute cipher than interesting character. In fact, Oliver does very little of any interest for the entire film; his most heroic moments find him lashing out against bad guys when cornered. Oliver, if you haven’t guessed by now, is a feline version of the Dickens character, because Oliver and Company is a G-rated cartoon musical version of Oliver Twist, in brave defiance of the fact that there was already a G-rated musical version of Oliver Twist that turned 20 the year of the Disney film’s release.
This version recasts hardscrabble street urchins as lovable talking dogs who live with the lovable bumbler Fagin (voiced, in another very Bluthian touch, by Dom DeLuise) and try to steal junk to pay off the menacing Sykes (voiced by Robert Loggia). Oliver falls in with this semi-bad crowd when he meets Dodger (Billy Joel); then he gets adopted by the poor little rich girl Jenny (Natalie Gregory), resented by her dog Georgette (Bette Midler), and re-embroiled with the dog-urchins when they realize he has access to great wealth.
This makes the movie sound perhaps more antic than it is; at 74 minutes, it’s all pretty slight, and a disproportionate amount of it is composed of cartoon animals strutting, which I guess is supposed to convey their New York cool. But the movie does have its charms: that New York setting is a nice change of pace from fantastical Disney (also a suitable companion to the London of The Great Mouse Detective), and the pre-Menken/Ashman songs are pretty good. The movie’s signature number “Why Should I Worry?” is vintage Billy Joel in that it deflects its own cheesiness with energy and catchiness. Your feeling may depend on how you take to the sight of a cartoon dog donning Joel-ish shades and even finding himself atop a grand piano at one point.
Oliver and Company looks bright and vivid in high definition, but the transfer also underlines the fact that the animation is less precise and detailed than the Disney movies that followed; in several scenes, Oliver’s size and proportion compared to various other characters even seems to vary. The movie and its techniques feel transitional all around. But don’t look to the Blu-ray for insight on how Disney staffers themselves think of Oliver; despite its “25th anniversary” label, the package offers no real perspective on the movie two and a half decades later. Its more interesting extras just look further back: the disc includes a couple of old Disney shorts about cats and dogs, including a Pluto cartoon, “Lend a Paw”, that bears some superficial resemblance to Georgette’s one-sided rivalry with Oliver. In other words: when pressed for specifics, the disc offers more of that Disney legacy.