Friday, March 17, 2023

Oliver & Company


Following the financial failure of The Black Cauldron, Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg invited Disney animators to pitch ideas for future animated features. Among the many pitches, story artist Pete Young suggested “Oliver Twist with dogs”, which manifested in 1988 as Oliver & Company, the final film in Disney’s “Dark Age” of animation. Although critics had a divisive reaction on release, it still did very well enough at the box office, making an estimated $121 million against a budget of $31 million, enough that justified Katzenberg’s mandated yearly release schedule.

In the years since its original release, Oliver & Company has also gained a cult following, much like other overlooked Disney films like Treasure Planet or Atlantis: The Lost Empire. One key factor in this film receiving comparatively little attention, however, may be that it came out only one year before Disney’s take on The Little Mermaid, which kicked off the Disney Renaissance. Regardless, there are plenty of things to like about Oliver & Company that make it worth watching it today, even if the finished product is far from perfect.

On Fifth Avenue in New York City, several kittens are left in a box outside a shop, but an orange tabby, Oliver (Joey Lawrence), doesn’t get adopted. While forced to fend for himself, Oliver meets a laidback mongrel named Dodger (Billy Joel) who helps him steal food from a hotdog vendor. When Dodger reneges on their deal to split their bounty, Oliver follows him to a barge, where Dodger lives with a gang of other poverty-stricken dogs (Tito the chihuahua (Cheech Marin), Einstein the Great Dane (Richard Mulligan), Rita the Saluki (Sheryl Lee Ralph), and Francis the bulldog (Roscoe Lee Browne)). Oliver also learns that the dogs’ owner, a petty thief named Fagin (Dom DeLuise), is indebted to Sykes (Robert Loggia), a loan shark and criminal who presents an ultimatum. With only three days left for Fagin to pay off his debt, Oliver decides to help the dogs, but a wrench is thrown into their plans when he gets adopted by Jenny Foxworth (Natalie Gregory), a kind-hearted rich girl who takes a liking to him.

Oliver's (Joey Lawrence, right) life changes when he meets Dodger (Billy Joel, left).

As previously mentioned, Oliver & Company is based on the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Since I haven’t read the book myself or seen any of its numerous adaptations, I can’t speak to its accuracy in handling the source material. Conducting independent research for this review suggested that it deviated quite a bit in places, though that’s not really uncommon for a Disney film. For example, The Little Mermaid has a happier ending than the original story and Hercules deviates heavily from actual Greek mythology, playing out more like a superhero film.

Speaking on its own merits then, Oliver & Company certainly has its narrative flaws. Pretty much every character can feel flat, as none of them go through any significant change throughout the story apart from their circumstances. We never learn exactly why Fagin owes Sykes a lot of money or even the amount. It’s unclear how exactly Tito and Oliver were supposed to rob the Foxworth’s limo after stopping it. There may be more examples, but these stood out more.

Despite these flaws, however, the film is still very entertaining. By itself, the story is still pretty engaging and knows when to balance the more emotional moments with a good amount of humor. All of the animals have diverse, if perhaps one-note, personalities with humorous twists on their names and appearances, like the dim-witted Einstein or a thespian bulldog. Georgette (Bette Midler), Jenny’s pet poodle, nearly steals some of the scenes she’s in thanks to her hilariously vain self-image. Balancing this out is the human villain Sykes, who not only comes off very intimidating, but can also come off scarier with the knowledge that there are people out in the world who are just like him who will resort to any underhanded measure to get the results they seek. There’s even a very tense chase sequence near the end that quickly sets up the very real possibility of any of the characters dying.

Sykes (Robert Loggia) has an intimidating presence.

For the most part, Oliver & Company is pretty well-animated, if only for how well it maintains the smoothness and expressiveness that classic Disney films are known for. There are some flaws, like how the coloring of important characters looks flat at times in the mostly sunny setting, but it’s not so distracting that it would ruin the film on its own. Speaking of the setting, this was also the first animated Disney film to include real world brands, including (but no limited to) Coca-Cola, Yamaha and Kodak, but they are integrated very naturally and handled much better than, say, the McDonald’s scene in 2019’s Weathering With You. There’s also some use of CG that looks more obvious by today’s standards, but is blended in with the traditional elements much more naturally than in The Black Cauldron and clearly used as a tool.

I’d also like to mention that not only are the characters visually distinct with appealing designs, but Georgette is also an untapped reaction image goldmine. Additionally, Rita’s hair, atypical of an actual Saluki, is one of the few giveaways that the film originally came out in the 80s. The animators also clearly did their homework, as the dogs exhibit actual dog behavior.

A small sample of Georgette's expressiveness.

Unlike most other Disney projects, the music has a contemporary feel that fits the setting, enhanced by the presence of Billy Joel and Bette Midler. Though the film is a musical, even more so than the studio’s previous film, The Great Mouse Detective, there are only five original songs and any others that show up are reprises. Unfortunately, while the songs are well-crafted and sound great while watching, they don’t have a whole lot of staying power afterwards. That said, the voice acting is top-notch, as expected from a Disney film, with special mention to the perfect casting of Bette Midler as Georgette.

As an additional point of interest, one of the film's writers, James Mangold, would notably have a very successful Hollywood career, including writing and directing the Academy Award-nominated Logan, as well as directing and producing the Academy Award-nominated Ford v Ferrari.

Though largely forgotten by the timing of its release, Oliver & Company is worth watching at least once as the transitional film that it is. It’s certainly rough around the edges, but there’s still enough classic Disney charm that it’s still an entertaining watch.

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