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Toon Talk: Oliver & Company Special Edition DVD
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Disney Film & Video Reviews by Kirby C. Holt
Oliver & Company
Special Edition DVD
Reviewing the Situation
A quick search on the Internet Movie Database pulls up over twenty filmed versions (both for theatrical release and made-for-television) of Charles Dickens classic tale of the poor orphan boy Oliver Twist. And thats not even counting myriad stage adaptations, such as the Tony-winning musical Oliver!, and movies that strayed from the original title, such as the Oscar-winning movie version of said Oliver! and Disneys own animated twist (there, I got that out of the way) on the tale, Oliver and Company.
What possessed the Disney animation department in the late Eighties to take on yet another animalized reconstruction of a famed English literary work (after previous tries with Robin Hood and The Great Mouse Detective) was a puzzlement then as now, especially considering how often this particular story had been told before (and, in retrospect, since).
As anyone familiar with the history of the Disney Company at that time knows, confidence in the animation department had been eroding for years. They were in desperate need of a hit to reinvigorate the studio and replace the luster on animated features that had dimmed since the death of Walt Disney himself almost two decades prior. And with new CEO Michael Eisner scrutinizing every move made and every penny spent, they needed it fast.
So with the 27th animated feature, Disney animators took something old, the talking animal movie, and added a little something new, namely a more contemporary feel: for the story, the music and even the look of the animation itself. One of the few Disney animated features to be unquestionably set in the modern time of its release, Oliver and Company would try something that no other film since The Jungle Book was fully successful at doing: to attract a wide audience, not just the obvious family film sect.
And to achieve that, animators, story men and directors (who would go on to become the greatest of the modern era) were enlisted for this film, including Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Ruben Aquino, Ron Husband, Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale and Roger Allers. For many of them, Oliver was their first significant contributions to feature films. And, for the very first time in a Disney feature film, a dedicated computer animation department was established, to create some of the more complex designs needed for the film. Also recruited to sing and/or act in the film were such hot contemporary recording artists of the day as Billy Joel, Bette Midler, Huey Lewis and Ruth Pointer of the Pointer Sisters (yeah, they may not seem so hot now, but remember this was Disney and this was 1988).
Updating the story from turn-of-the-century London to modern day New York City, Oliver and Company casts a spunky little kitten as the orphaned Oliver (voiced by future teen heartthrob Joey Lawrence), lost and unwanted in the alleys of the Big Apple. He quickly hooks up with a street-wise mutt named Dodger (Billy Joel, in his acting debut) and his flea-bitten crew of pickpocket pooches, including sassy Rita (Sheryl Lee Ralph), dim Einstein (Richard Mulligan), drama queen Francis (Roscoe Lee Brown) and hyperactive Chihuahua Ignacio Alonzo Julio Frederico de Tito (Cheech Marin), or just Tito for short.
These pups enlist Oliver in their petty larceny to aid their hapless master, Fagin (Dom DeLuise), who is in need of fast cash to pay off the hulking loan shark Sykes (Robert Loggia). When a scam goes awry, Oliver ends up in the posh digs of poor little rich girl Jenny (Natalie Gregory), much to the chagrin of her 5th Avenue prized poodle Georgette (a perfectly cast Bette Midler). When Olivers past and present collide, putting his beloved new owner in jeopardy, its up to Oliver and company to come to the rescue.