will mistake “Oliver and Company” as a Disney animated classic. Not by a
The 1988 animated feature is now available on DVD in a 20th
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
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
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.
Special thanks to Click Communications
Photos: © BVHE. All