The Screening Room
oliver and company
No one will mistake “Oliver and Company” as a Disney animated classic. Not by a long shot.

The 1988 animated feature is now available on DVD in a 20th anniversary edition.

Former Disney executive, Jeffrey Katzenberg, clearly had an imprint on this movie. Taking a simple idea, like the story of “Oliver Twist,” and combining it with an all-star cast, pop songs and pop references, he was essentially creating the template for future animated movies he’d oversee at DreamWorks. His alleged dislike for animation shows in “Oliver and Company.” The movie is flat and bleak, and it doesn’t have the charm of most Disney animated films. It’s almost as if outsiders invaded the Disney studios at the time, and in a sense, they did.

The movie was the first animated feature from the newly invented Disney Studios that reflected the new regime’s mindset. Make movies quickly, cheaply, and hire actors whose careers weren’t what they used to be. Disney did this with “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “Ruthless People,” and “Good Morning, Vietnam.” Most of the films did very well and were contemporary. Audiences loved the easy taglines, bouncy music on the soundtrack, and no-brainer entertainment. I was one of them and I made my way to the movie theater to see these movies. It was, for this moviegoer, an innocent time. Disney was back on the map, having re-invented itself.

When “Oliver and Company” was released, I was excited that Disney was trying to return to its animation roots. The last film the animation division made was “The Great Mouse Detective” (1986). Prior to that, the much maligned “The Black Cauldron” (1985) was considered weak on nearly level (I still think it’s a decent movie that should be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated).The story of an orphan kitten getting mixed up with a bunch of dogs worked in 1988, but has the film held up? In my humble movie opinion, nope.

I saw the film theatrically that year and thought it was cute, for lack of a better term. I thought it was better than Don Bluth’s “The Land Before Time” released that same year. There were some cute jokes by Cheech Marin like “Gang war!” At the time, I thought the animation was a fresh departure from the elaborate Disney animation palette. The use of contemporary singing artists like Huey Lewis and Billy Joel added some freshness to Disney’s reliance on more stable songs that would test time (“When You Wish Upon A Star”). But after leaving my local AMC theater complex, the movie was erased from my mind. I asked myself, “Was it really that good?” Once the movie hit home video in those days of VHS tape, I didn’t rush out to buy it like I would other Disney movies. It was one of those movies that I didn’t buy on LaserDisc to add to my Disney classics collection. It wasn’t even considered as a DVD purchase when my daughter was old enough to watch movies. And once she saw it, she could barely sit through it.

Disney had experiemented with all types of animation since the studio was founded. The limited and plain animation of “Oliver and Company” shouldn’t be put in the spotlight for the film’s weaknesses. But it should, because this is baseline animation that even Disney steered away from. At its best, it’s top flight television animation of the day. The animation is rough and doesn’t have the flow of even mediocre Disney titles like “The Fox and the Hound” (1981) or “The Aristocats” (1970). Disney’s “101 Dalmatians” (1961) purposely used a more limited and rough style, yet it still focused on making the characters, at the very least, have life and personality. The motion of the characters still flowed. The animation in “Oliver and Company” feels lifeless and too depressing.

Most of the character drawings aren’t very appealing. Georgette (Bette Midler) is one of the more frightening characters to fill the Disney line-up. It doesn’t help that I don’t like poodles, but that’s besides the point. When she sings and shows her cannine teeth, I grimaced. Marin’s character of “Tito” is actually funny and cute, but when you hear all of his stereotyped Latino lines, you wonder how the film got away without offending people. Billy Joel’s role as Dodger plays up on his New York vibe and attitude. I guess growing up in California and hearing cliches about Californians being tan, blonde and surfers is as cliché as Joel’s act. It gets tiresome hearing his streetwise lingo throughout this movie, just as much as if someone made a movie about surfing penguins…

The music in the film is forgettable, though admittedly, Joel’s “Why Should I Worry?” is bouncy enough to be entertaining. It sounds the same as some of the songs from his “An Innocent Man” LP. I come from the dark side of not really liking Joel’s music. He has produced a few songs that I’ve enjoyed over the years. But once you realize how much he’s taken from Bob Dylan and The Beatles, you appreciate Joel less.

The flatest song on the soundtrack is by Huey Lewis, “Once Upon A Time In New York City.” When Huey Lewis and the News was tearing up the music charts in the 1980s, I never quite understood why they were popular. I wasn’t old enough to go bars, but for some reason, they reminded me of bar bands I’d seen in movies. Lewis’ voice is flat and he sounds like a guy who picked up a microphone during a karooke shindig.

Disney animated films made prior to “Oliver and Company” usually had some good singers and songs. Maurice Chevalier had his charm on “The Aristocats.” Mary Costas could sing very well in “Sleeping Beauty.” Cliff Edwards lent his voice to Jiminy Cricket with so much charm in “Pinocchio.” Most of the songs and singing in “Oliver and Company” aren’t memorable, and it’s no surprise you don’t hear them piped over the P.A. system at the Disney theme parks.

The movie uses a grimy production design. The backgrounds of New York City are dark and the film itself is terribly grainy. Watching this supposedly happy rags-to-riches story, I certainly didn’t feel good once the end credits come up. It feels like you’re watching the movie through a dirty window.  

The word “classic” cannot be placed on this movie, no matter how much Disney’s home entertainment plasters it on the DVD cover. Despite my dislike of the movie, it is a time capsule of the era. Katzenberg eventually helped found DreamWorks. Disney would continue on making animated movies. And Don Bluth’s creation, “The Land Before Time,” would spawn endless video sequels. Was the era innocent? Maybe through rose colored glasses.

Bill Kallay

Special thanks to Click Communications

Photos: © BVHE. All rights reserved.
DVD Quick Glimpse



Dreary Disney animated movie that hasn't aged well

Director: George Scribner  

Cast: Billy Joel, Bette Midler, Cheech Marin  

"Making of" and vintage Pluto cartoons


Picture: Good
Sound: Good

Time capsule from the late-80s

Aspect Ratio (1.66.1)

Dolby Digital 5.1

February 3, 2009
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