Oliver and Company (1988)
Directed by George Scribner
In New York City, an orphaned kitten named Oliver finds himself on the street when he’s the only member of his litter not adopted. He befriends a dog named Dodger by helping him to steal some hot dogs from a food cart, and eventually joins his gang. Dodger and his fellow dogs work for Fagin, a pickpocket in heavy debt to a loan shark, Sykes. Sykes has given him three days to repay his debt, under threat of violence to him and his dogs.
While attempting a con to raise the money, Oliver accidentally gets trapped in the limo of a wealthy family. He’s adopted by the daughter Jenny, who takes him home to their townhouse on Fifth Avenue (much to chagrin of the show poodle who already lives there). Believing that he’s being held against his will, the other gang members “free” him and take him back to Fagin. Fagin decides to ransom Oliver back to Jenny for the money he needed.
When Fagin meets with Jenny and realizes he’s extorting a little girl, he decided to give Oliver back to her without the money. Unfortunately, Sykes has been watching, and kidnaps Jenny. Fagin and the gang attempt a rescue, leading to a car chase through the New York subway. Jenny is rescued, and Sykes is killed when his car is hit by a train. Oliver goes home to live with Jenny permanently, with a standing offer to hang out with the gang whenever he wants.
This was the first movie to go into production at Disney after Eisner and Katzenberg had taken over. The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective had already been well underway when they’d joined the company, so they held a pitch meeting with all of the animators to come up with the first project under their watch. Nicknamed the “Gong Show” by the animators, this famous meeting ended up leading to The Little Mermaid. But it also featured a pitch by story artist Pete Young for “Oliver Twist, but with dogs.”
Since Katzenberg had previously worked on a live-action remake of the Oliver! musical at a different studio, he was pretty enthusiastic about the pitch, and green-lit the project for development. Richard Rich was originally assigned to be co-director for the film, but he got fired after the Black Cauldron debacle. That left Oliver and Company as the first solo-directed animated movie from Disney since Robin Hood, 15 years earlier. Under Scribner, the movie moved away from the original dark and gritty plans, which had Sykes’s dogs murdering Oliver’s parents.
While Disney had avoided obvious stunt casting for a while, this movie ended up having quite a few big names attached to it. Scribner himself suggested Billy Joel for the part of Dodger, and they ended up casting Bette Midler, Cheech Marin, Robert Loggia and Dom DeLuise. Oliver was voiced by a ten-year-old Joey Lawrence, post-Gimme a Break but pre-Blossom. With Joel and Midler’s presence, the music ended up being much more pop-oriented than pretty much any previous Disney film. They leaned into it even more by getting Huey Lewis and Ruth Pointer of the Pointer Sisters to sing additional songs.
Still embarrassed by Don Bluth’s defection earlier in the decade, they decided to go head-to-head with him to prove that they were still the number one name in feature animation. Oliver and Company was released on the same day as Bluth’s The Land Before Time. While Oliver ended up grossing more than the Bluth film over its run, The Land Before Time had almost double its box office on opening weekend. Oliver opened in fourth place, giving it the impression of being another Disney flop. The middling reviews didn’t help, and it ended up taking eight years before Disney finally decided to release it on home video.
It’s been over a week now since I watched this (dang COVID making me lose track of time) and I still don’t know how I feel about it. On one hand, this is the first Disney movie that really feels modern to me. But on the other hand, the story is all kinds of a mess, and not much actually happens over the course of the movie. Plus, the movie tries really hard to make me feel sympathy for Fagin, without much success.
First, the good. Oliver and Company is set in a vibrant, modern (for the time) New York City. Previous Disney movies have taken place in big cities (The Rescuers in part, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Great Mouse Detective), but this is their first film to really feel like it’s taking place in an urban metropolis. Part of that might be the product placement. There are ads for recognizable products everywhere. In another film I might complain about that, but it wouldn’t feel like New York City without the Times Square billboards.
The quality of animation has gone another step up. I think the movie looks great, without any trace of the sketchiness of the 60s/70s anymore. I did notice quite a bit more rotoscoped CG this time around, especially on the cars. I also appreciated that most of the film seemed to be shot from a dog’s-eye view of the city, with low camera angles that emphasized the city as the main characters saw it.
The story, however…ugh. It’s pretty much an in-name-only adaption of Oliver Twist, which is honestly okay with me. It’s not like it’s any more inaccurate than all of the other major film adaptations of the Dickens novel. But it might be the thinnest adaptation I can think of. There’s probably half a dozen scenes of all the dogs (and cat) just hanging out while Fagin frets about not having anything to pay Sykes with. Until the big action sequence at the end, there’s precious little in the way of plot. The movie is an hour and 14 minutes long, and I think it might be possible to edit the whole thing down to fit into an hour-long TV time slot, complete with commercials, without losing much.
It doesn’t help that the film spends a lot of its time trying to convince us that Fagin is really just a nice guy stuck in a desperate situation. He’s apparently in large enough debt to Sykes that his life is in danger, but he doesn’t have anything to show for it. He lives in a shack by the docks, and doesn’t even go out to do his own thieving. His trained dogs do all the theft, and apparently all the grocery shopping as well. Pretty much every moment he’s on screen he’s moaning about how he doesn’t have any food or money for Sykes, and yet the first time he lifts a finger to actually do anything about it is attempting to ransom a cat that literally fell into his lap, about three quarters of the way through the film. His face turn and rescue attempt at the end is supposed to be a big moment, but I wasn’t feeling it at all.
With all the big name musical talents on board, Oliver and Company has a lot more songs than most of the other Disney movies of the last decade or so. It’s not quite a full musical, as there’s really only two songs sung by the characters themselves. But it’s a sign of much better things to come on that front, just one film later. I only wish that more of the music had been a bit more memorable. Joel’s big number, “Why Should I Worry,” is the main standout, and the rest are fairly forgettable.
Overall, I think this is fairly minor Disney. It’s not actively bad, but there’s not anything that’s really outstanding, either. The visuals are the best part, but even them are marred by some odd design decisions (the hot dog vendor, for example, looks like someone right out of a Ren & Stimpy cartoon). It’s…fine, I guess. But there’s much, much better right on the horizon.
Animation: A- (The animation quality has pretty much reached its Renaissance peak. I’m only docking it a little bit for the fairly obvious rotoscoping and some odd designs)
Main Characters: C (Oliver is the weakest main character we’ve had since Mowgli. Dodger is pretty much a co-lead, and is much more interesting. But I can’t give it a good grade overall)
Supporting Characters: B (All of the dogs had a lot of personality, though I really wish the movie had more for them to do)
Villains: D+ (Sykes is…a guy in a suit and a fancy car. His main claim to villainy before the climax seems to be threatening Fagin, who’s a character I didn’t really pity at all)
Music: B (There’s some good songs by famous 1980s recording artists, but nothing that’s a lasting home run)