RELEASE DATE: Friday 18th November 1988
Loosely based on Charles Dickens's book "Oliver Twist," this Disney version of the tale has Oliver being an adorable little orange kitten in New York City. The gang of orphans becomes a pack of dogs, Fagin is a penniless bum, and Bill Sykes is now a viscous loan shark.
Oliver & Company was one of the first new ideas that came out of the major regime change in the Disney company through the 1980s. (Other ideas pitched at the same time were "The Little Mermaid" and "Treasure Island In Space," both of which - eventually - came to fruition)
Originally it was also supposed to be a semi-sequel to The Rescuers. We would get to see what happened to Penny after she was adopted. While this idea was eventually thrown out so as to focus more on the story of Oliver, you can't deny that Penny (from The Rescuers) and Jenny (from Oliver & Company) bear more than just a passing resemblence!
Setting the story in modern-day New York City gives the movie a very different feel to the "classic" Disneys. It was a gamble that paid off, as the film performed quite well at the box office, paving the way for the huge successes to come.
New York City. The modern(ish) day. (It's lovely to see that - in the late '80s, anyway - the Twin Towers still stand)
The first sequence in the film is a heart-breaking story of a little kitten who nobody wants. All of his brothers and sisters are given loving homes, while he is left out in the rain and cold.
Things are looking grim for the little kitty, until one day his luck changes when he bumps into a smart-mouthed dog named Dodger. (Dodger happens to be voiced by none other than Billy Joel!) The sneaky dog thinks he's cleverly scammed the kitten out of some sausages, but the kitten manages to tail him back to his hideout.
There we meet Dodger's friends, as well as the leader of the gang, Fagin.
Not only is Fagin pretty much hopeless, homeless and useless, he's in quite a bit of trouble with a powerful loan shark called Sykes. Fagin owes Sykes a lot of money, and he has no idea how he's going to get it. (I wonder what he did with the money Sykes loaned to him - perhaps he drunk or gambled it away?)
The kitten is accepted into the gang. It may not be the Grand Hyatt, but at least he has a home and a family.
The following day the dogs set out to somehow get the money that Fagin needs. They devise an elaborate plot where Francis the bulldog would pretend to be hit by a car. The plan goes accordingly until the little girl in the car - Jenny - discovers the kitten and instantly wants to adopt him.
It turns out this little girl is actually very rich. She lives in a big mansion, and her current pet is an incredibly spoiled poodle by the name of Georgette. (Georgette is voiced by the Divine Miss M herself, Bette Midler) This pampered pooch becomes horribly jealous of the kitten, and begins to plot his demise.
Meanwhile, Jenny takes the kitten under her wing, calls him Oliver, and the two become inseparable friends.
The dog gang concocts a plan to kidnap Oliver back, and when Georgette learns of this, she is happy to help them in their plot. She takes an instant disliking to Tito the chihuahua though, who finds her irresistible.
When Oliver returns - upset at his friends for taking him away from his comfortable and loving home - Fagin comes up with a clever plan. He can ransom the kitten and get the money he needs to pay back Sykes! Little does he know that Jenny's parents are away, and the only money she has access to is whatever's in her piggy bank.
In the middle of the night, Jenny goes down to the docks and meets with Fagin, whose heart melts when he sees how upset she is. He hands her back her kitten, but it's too late. Sykes is involved now, and he kidnaps Jenny and ties her up. SHE is the new ransom now!
Fagin and his gang now stage a daring rescue, saving Jenny from the clutches of the evil loan shark.
Sykes meets a messy end when his car is hit by a train on a bridge. Then we have Annoying Disney Trope Number One: The Jesus Trope. "The main character is assumed dead. Everybody mourns. Children cry. Then miraculously, with no reasoning at all, the character comes back to life and everybody is happy." I think perhaps Gurgi might have been the first Disney character to do this. Oliver joins the club. And there are more to come...
Some time later, it is Jenny's birthday. She has apparently dressed up like Little Orphan Annie for the occasion. Oliver stays with her, but promises to visit Fagin and the gang. And they all live happily ever after or something.
The story in Oliver & Company works, in that it makes sense from Point A to Point B, but I've never found it particularly engaging. Perhaps it's because of a lack of empathy for any of the characters. The opening sequence is horribly sad, and I think everyone watching it would want to take the little kitten, cuddle him up and give him a home. He's so little and helpless! But you've got to admit, that's a pretty effective opening. Grab the audience by the heartstrings right from the start! As soon as he opens his mouth though, the kitten doesn't seem so helpless anymore. In fact, he seems like a bit of a smart alec... It almost seems like two different characters.
After this opening scene, I just don't find myself caring much about any of the characters. Jenny is a token sickly sweet little girl, Fagin is just kind of pathetic, and the supporting cast of dogs don't really get any character development.
The Disney artists went for a very specific look in Oliver & Company. It's made up on a very "drawn" quality, full of hard black lines. It never tries to look like anything other than a drawing. It's interesting, but I don't think it's particularly appealing compared to other Disney classics.
The use of C.G.I. was becoming more and more apparent by this film. All of the city's moving cars were computer generated.
The music in Oliver & Company is a real mixed bag, and I suppose that's largely because all of the songs were written (and performed) by different people. There doesn't seem to be any kind of coherence to the songs, although there are a few standouts.
The first song "Once Upon A Time In New York City," is sung by Huey Lewis. Interestingly, the lyrics of this song were written by Disney legend Howard Ashman. He would have a fairly large influence on the following film by Disney! It's a nice enough song, although Lewis's vocals can be a bit overbearing at times.
The second song - and easily the best - is "Why Should I Worry," performed by the amazing Billy Joel. This song demonstrates Dodger's carefree way of living; his "street savoir faire." It's a fun, catchy tune.
When the dogs take Oliver out on to the streets of New York to make some money, Rita (one of the dogs in Fagin's gang) sings "Streets of Gold." The real-life voice is Ruth Pointer of the Pointer Sisters. This is actually a fairly fun, VERY 80s pop song. But it's also fairly forgettable. It's like a B-side of one of the Pointer Sisters' best records.
"Perfect Isn't Easy" is Georgette's song. It does nothing to move the plot forward, but it does introduce the character. And hey, you couldn't have Bette Midler play a part in a Disney film without giving her a SONG! It's a chance for the character to get a few laughs, but ultimately disposable.
The last song is "Good Company" which is a saccharine-sweet song that Jenny sings to Oliver as she practises her piano lessons. I actually quite like it, but I can see how some might find it sickeningly adorable.
So basically, this whole film is "Not Bad." Like The Great Mouse Detective, I just find myself pretty much indifferent to Oliver & Company. I don't hate it, but it's not up there with the all-time classics. Its story, music and characters come across as a bit uneven, the attempts at comedy mostly fall flat, and although it takes its inspiration from Dickens's classic book, it doesn't really do the story justice.
MALEFICENT: I like it.
MALEFICENT: It's actually a lot better than I remember it as a kid. I think I only saw it once, I didn't like it, and I didn't remember anything at all.
PASCAL: It's horrible at the start, the poor little kitty!
WENDY: I don't see why they needed to move Oliver Twist to New York and have it acted out as animals. I think it works better in its original version.
IRVYNE: I think the weakest characters are the humans. Fagin's just annoying.
WENDY: And they were very lazy with designing Jenny. They just recycled Penny and put her in nice clothes.
MALEFICENT: Yes. Jenny is Annie and Penny.
IRVYNE: We call her "Panny."
WENDY: The character of Tito is possibly racist.
IRVYNE: Yeah. I don't know how sensitive Mexicans are to this kind of thing, but it did seem pretty stereotypical. And I know he's played by Cheech Marin, who made a living playing stereotypical Mexicans, but still...
MALEFICENT: I like the music.
WENDY: Billy Joel is awesome!
IRVYNE: He certainly fit that role perfectly. And as such a New York centred personality, it's a fitting movie for him to feature in. It's a shame they didn't employ him to WRITE the music. Then it might have been something amazing.
MALEFICENT: It's always great hearing Bette Midler's voice as well.
IRVYNE: Oliver & Company was released literally one month before Beaches, so it was a very busy time for Ms. Midler!
MALEFICENT: I don't understand the purpose of her character though. She doesn't represent any character from Oliver Twist.
IRVYNE: It's like they set her up to be a really great villain, but she ends up just being nice.
WENDY: Disney are just trying to distract us from the fact that there's no Nancy character.
IRVYNE: I think the dobermans are Nancy! Hehe! I can't see them without thinking of the Alpha dog from "Up" with his high squeaky voice.
MALEFICENT: Sykes is a good scary bad-guy. But I really don't care too much for his dogs.
IRVYNE: We found a few fun Disney cameos! There are the usual Lady & The Tramp and One Hundred And One Dalmations doggies, but Maleficent also noticed a very sneaky Aurora, somehow transported to the modern day, wandering the streets of New York! (The picture has been enlarged)
SHENZI: The style of animation seems very un-Disney.
WENDY: There are moments where the animation looks really rough and characters change their appearance from shot to shot. I like how they used early computer animation to make the cars though.
MALEFICENT: Did you notice in the scene near the end where they're being chased on the scooter-bike thing, one of the dobermans just suddenly pops out of existence for a few frames?
IRVYNE: I noticed that!
WENDY: I think I must have missed it.
IRVYNE: So. Oliver & Company. A reasonable film, but not a classic for the ages.
MALEFICENT: It's all right. I like it, but Basil is better.
WENDY: I love the character of New York. You don't often see Disney in a big city like this.