Oliver and Company
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Oliver and Company

Some stories are so enduring that they are repeated time and time again. Stories such as this are remade so often because they deal with themes that transcend the decades. It is the responsibility for each generation to take them and make them into something that will represent their location and place in time. Just look at William Shakespeare’s timeless tale of star crossed lovers, ‘Romeo and Juliet’. It has withstood alterations placing it in inner city gangs to suburban privileged teens. People enjoy seeing a classic remade into something they can more readily identify with and emotional bond to. It provides a connection to a classic piece of literature that they might not have otherwise felt. The Walt Disney Company has always been at the forefront of taking stories that are familiar and turning them into films that the entire family can enjoy together. In 1988 they set their eyes on one of Charles Dickens best known novels ‘Oliver Twist’. This story was done in 1922 as a silent film and the definitive dramatic representation of the novel was released in 1948. In 1968 the story was set to music with the critically acclaimed and box office hit ‘Oliver!’ That brings us up to only two decades ago back in 1988 when the famous House of Mouse took their shot at the tale of an orphan pulled into a life of crime with ‘Oliver and Company’. Immediately upon its theatrical releases it took its place in the time honored canon of Disney animated films. While not up to the level of the early or even more recent Disney animated movies this one is not without its charm. It was first released to the home theater market in 2002 and that edition is still listed as current. In the usual modus operandi of the Disney Company they have come up with a sparkling new DVD release to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the movie. Many people who are just starting their own families now will remember seeing this movie in the theaters with their parents. Now is a fresh chance to continue a family tradition and introduce your little tykes to something that you loved as a kid.

If you watch the credits for writers associated with this film it looks as if they are listing the personal for a small army. There are no less than twenty one names associated with the story presented here and that is not counting Charles Dickens who does gets an inspired by credit. This appears to be a case of giving a screen credit to everyone that stuck their head in the conference room and shouted out an idea or two. If this was any other production company but Disney such a long list of names would spell certain doom for the movie as it is rare that such a large team could come up with something with a modicum of coherency. In the case of a Disney flick they are well versed in team work and collaboration such as shown here. You might not think that a story about a very young orphan pulled by a nefarious adult into common and petty street crime would make for proper family entertainment but in the hands of the Disney team it works out. They did take a heavy cue from the musical version twenty before and added the magical Disney touch. Here they replace the doleful orphan with a kitten. Who doesn’t love talking, animated kittens after all. This does take a lot of the hard edge off the original story and turns the crimes into high jinks instead of felonies which wouldn’t do for the target demographic. This was also a return for the wonderful world of Disney to the realm of musical animation. They invented the format but in time just before this movie they were starting to move away from it. This film would reinvent the format and it would continue with most of the subsequent animated films. As someone who grew up with the classic members of the Disney canon I have to admit I enjoyed seeing it back again. ‘Oliver and Company’ was very much a transitional film for Disney. The animators and other creative minds behind the golden age of Disney were retiring and a new, younger set of artist were taking their place. This movie was just before what has been called the second Disney Renaissance where the focus would go back to the roots of studio and fairy tales would drive the stories. The film would also represent another new trend for the studio; computer animation. Most of us remember the art and grace that only hand drawn animation can provide but it had become increasingly expensive. Disney had experimented with computer animation for some special effects and a few scenes incorporated in live action films. As such the artwork will be considered primitive by today’s standards and nowhere near what is achieved now that Pixar has joined the Disney family. With that said it does work here and is effective in creating the backdrop for the character to do their thing. The three writers who provided the screenplay were Tim Disney, Jim Cox and James Mangold. Disney is the great nephew of founding father Walt. This was the first script for all three of them but there was greatest on the horizon for a couple of them. Cox would go on to another Disney flick, ‘The Rescuers Down Under’. Mangold wrote the screenplay and direct a couple of Oscar wining films; ‘Girl, Interrupted’ and ‘Walk the Line’. Directing the film is a veteran of the Disney world, George Scribner, who would on to directing ‘The Prince and the Pauper’.

Oliver (voice of Joey Lawrence) is a little orange kitten alone in New York City. Hungry and desperate he makes a failed attempt to steal a hot dog from ma street vendor. His unsuccessful ploy is seen by a mangy dog, Dodger (voice of Billy Joel). He tries to take the food and run off but is impressed when the kitten keeps up with him. Dodger finally introduces the kitten to his gang. The human leader is Fagan (voice of Dom DeLuise) who plies his trade as a pickpocket. Soon Oliver has fit right in. Oliver’s cuteness is a great distraction and the gang comes to love him. They are upset when he gets adopted by a rich girl Jenny (voiced by Natalie Gregory) and try to get him back.

This edition of the DVD has several all new extras to keep the kids happy for hours after the film is over. There is a game ‘Oliver’s Big city Challenge’ as well as a sing alone section where the whole family can become a part of the musical numbers. The Backstage Disney featurette is a making of video covering the production. There are two animated shorts; the Academy Award wining ‘Lend a Paw’ and ‘Puss Café’. This may not be considered the best offering from Disney but it is delightful and full of fun for everyone.

Posted 01/24/09

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