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After the release of The Black Cauldron, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg invited animators to pitch ideas for a new animated feature film; it was known as the infamous ‘Gong Show’. John Musker and Ron Clements suggested Treasure Island in Space and The Little Mermaid (sound familiar?), while Pete Young brought up Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist with dogs. Jeffrey Katzenberg had been keen on the idea of a live action version of Oliver! the musical while working at Paramount so Young’s project was greenlit. At this stage Roy E. Disney was the new head of the animation division, George Scribner and Richard Rich were announced as the directors, while Pete Young was the story director.
The environment at Disney had severely changed during production for Oliver and Company – what used to be a very relaxed environment suddenly became an incredibly stressful pressure cooker. The staff were grieving for many reasons – Wolfgang Reitherman had died in a car accident in 1985, which was a huge shock – Reitherman had been such a prominent figure at Disney that the 1970s could even be referred to as the Reitherman years. That same summer, the animators were pushed out of their beloved historically significant studio at Burbank and into Glendale. The staff were working long hours. Management, still learning the ropes in animation themselves, were coming down even harder, and the longer they were there, the more opinionated they were becoming about the animated films, and the more wires would end up crossed. Job security was incredibly fragile and the staff were despondent. Richard Rich was let go, not only from the project, but from Disney altogether, along with many other members of staff. Pete Young worked really hard on Oliver and Company and tragically passed away at the age of 37 from ‘complications from flu’ (we will come back to Pete Young in the film’s legacy).
Oliver and Company as you can see clearly had a lot of ugliness and grief surrounding its production. However there was also a huge drive – Don Bluth’s An American Tail had been a huge commercial success and management at Disney were determined that Disney feature animation get back to being top dog, and this is where marketing comes in – with celebrity voices, product placement, a contemporary setting and dogs in sunglasses. The guns are out and a Western shoot out between Disney and Bluth is imminent.
(Special Note from Melissa: Or a perhaps a Parent Trap style war)
Disney are ready … with their ‘coolness’ … see SUNGLASSES ARE COOL RIGHT?
So what became of this film? And what do we think of it? Let’s find out, but first … Original Trailer Time!
- ‘For over fifty years Walt Disney has turned great stories into unforgettable animated motion pictures’ … fair point! Although there were a few ‘slips’ along the way
- Even though he drew attention to fifty years, the logo says sixty years … we know it’s referring to Mickey’s birthday, but … it’s just confused!
- Fun seeing Mickey’s development over time, and let’s throw in Tinkerbell for good measure
- Always a risk to remind us of previous classics, because there’s a chance … that this one won’t hold up in comparison (*spoiler alert*)
- ‘A new twist on the classic story of Oliver’ … hope you didn’t spend all day coming up with that one
- ‘Come on let’s eat him!’ – the story of how Oliver was eaten by a pack of losers
- ‘Fagin’ ‘The Dodger’ and … the rest
- ‘Out to take New York for all its worth’ followed by Fagin saying ‘It’s worthless’ … hahahahahaha
- Caricature of Peter Schneider in the Pawn Shop
- Oliver was ‘catapulted’ – stop with the puns … NOW!
- He was ‘catapulted into a whole new world’ … did it have a new fantastic point of view? Was it perchance a dazzling place he never knew?
- ‘Only to be rescued by his gang of friends’ … thanks for giving away the ending Original Trailer Man!
- ‘I just wanna go back’ ‘Back with his Uncle Tito! Mwah!’ NO!
- According to this trailer, both Huey Lewis and Ruth Pointer voice Oliver
- ‘Your family is cordially invited to meet our new family’ … hmm really? Our new family which unlike previous films is cooler and thus better
- ‘The vicious villain determined to destroy Oliver’ … did you even watch this film Original Trailer Man? Sykes doesn’t know who Oliver even is!
- Also Original Trailer Man you never once change your tone of voice – so whether you’re saying ‘Come meet our new family … with songs by Billy Joel … with Sykes the vicious villain’, it is all said in the same breezy upbeat tone
- The underscore of Good Company … is horrible
Oliver, voiced by Joey Lawrence, is the male ingénue of the film – orphaned and abandoned he endures a great deal of hardship within the first five minutes of the film alone. During the opening Once Upon A Time in New York City sequence, he has to confront rejection …
(Special Note from Both: Because why would you want an orange kitten when you can have a BLUE one instead!)
(Special Note from Melissa: What is with the 1980s and puppies/kittens being all the colours of the rainbow?)
Bet they were partly responsible
(Special Note from David: Also who is selling these kittens? Who is collecting the money? Who is changing the sign???)
(Special Note from Melissa: And what is wrong with these people? Who doesn’t stop to look at a cute kitten? If I see even a cat, I have to stop and gape at it for at least a few minutes)
Most realistic character in the film
He spends a night out on the streets where he encounters torrential rain and a pack of scary attack dogs.
Welcome to New York Oliver!
It’s as if Disney is foreshadowing a film that would be released nearly 20 years later … where New Yorkers are also not a pleasant bunch:
Giselle: You see I’ve been wandering very far and long tonight and I’m afraid nobody’s been very nice to me.
Robert: Yeah, well, welcome to New York!
Even though he encounters horrible people and scary beast dogs, Oliver remains a well-meaning character who doesn’t want to do wrong by anyone (like his Oliver Twist counterpart) – which results in characters like Georgette and Dodger exploiting his naiveté for their own ends. This innocence, coupled with the fact that he’s a small kitten makes the character sympathetic. However, he is also capable of standing up for himself, as demonstrated when he scratches and bites his attackers (incidentally this is very believable behaviour for a kitten).
We wonder if they could have made him a bit more of a naughty or scruffy-looking kitten. Perhaps a bit of a Marley-like Clearance Puppy? Or Clearance Kitty?!
In a similar fashion to Lady in Lady and the Tramp, Oliver doesn’t speak until seven minutes into the film. But unlike Lady, he actually says very little during the film’s running time. Despite being the main character (and his name being in the title), he feels a lot more like a member of the ensemble than the central focus of the film. His main goal in the film is to find a home and a family, and he actually achieves this objective very early on. After this there isn’t really much for him to do and the focus is placed on the other characters, thus unfortunately becoming a little redundant. During his first mission, he even pipes up, ‘What do I do?’
‘You go long’
‘… Until we start to look very small’
When he is found by lonely child, Jenny, he is truly happy – happy enough that there is a love montage of the time that they spend together – all less than 24 hours of it. The sad situation is that he was so desperate to find ‘family’ that he clung onto a mangy gang of outlaw dogs and their dirty hobo master, that as soon as they accepted him into their roost, he immediately finds a much better opportunity, and Dodger makes him feel guilty for wanting to take it.
(Special Note from Both: Sounds like your first job!)
Overall as a protagonist, Oliver is … fine. He is cutely animated (he is a kitten after all!), he is not annoying (as we discussed before some child characters can be), and is willing to stand up for himself. But unfortunately he does feel very sidelined, especially when you consider how prominent and central previous child protagonists have been in the past, e.g. Pinocchio, Snow White, Arthur, and Mowgli. His best moment is probably when he admits to the gang that he was happy living with Jenny. Child characters of a similar ilk to Oliver tend to be in the supporting role rather than the leading role. We have come across a similar scenario before, in which the protagonist of a film actually speaks and features very little. Sleeping Beauty is a prime example of that. The difference is that in Sleeping Beauty there are supporting characters who really are, at heart, lead roles in ‘supporting role clothing’ – and they are really engaging and entertaining characters with a strong emotional anchor. This is why instead of jumping immediately to the ‘Antagonist’ section we’re going to speak next about supporting characters …
Dodger, voiced by Billy Joel (Steve Martin and Burt Reynolds were both considered for the role), is the laid-back, streetwise dog – who plays takes Oliver under his wing during the film, rather reminiscent of the Chief/Copper relationship from The Fox and the Hound.
(Special Note from Melissa: If Chief wore sunglasses … and didn’t have the voice of Pat Buttram)
Despite being the alleged ‘cool’ one from Fagin’s gang, he eventually shows a more sensitive nature and softer side where Oliver is concerned, which ultimately makes us connect it with Baloo and Mowgli. However while Baloo figuratively is Mowgli’s ‘fun uncle’ and Chief is Copper’s ‘grumpy mentor’, Dodger is Oliver’s ‘cool older brother’. Initially he cheats Oliver and enjoys himself at his expense during Why Should I Worry?, getting kicks out of making him look like a chump.
Despite how ‘cool’ Dodger makes himself out to be, he, like the rest of his gang, is a bit of a loser. He takes the ‘artful’ out of the ‘Artful Dodger’. If the character really was as cool as the writers want him to be, he wouldn’t have made up exaggerated stories about fighting off a ferocious beast in order to get sausages. He is appropriately shamefaced once his lie is revealed.
It’s obvious that Dodger was inspired by Lady and the Tramp’s Tramp, but Tramp is a much more appealing character because he has very significant growth, going from a free-wheeling, cocky ladies’ man to ‘Tramp the Married Man’ (to Shakespeare fans, ‘Benedick-style’). Dodger is loyal and does come through for his gang and for Oliver, but the character could have done with more development and less time spent on trying to make the character ‘hip’ and ‘what kids want’. Dodger is ‘playing’ cool, rather than being cool.
‘I’m a hip old doggie who can hip hop bebop dance til ya drop and yo yo, make a wicked cup of cocoa’
He is such a symbol of 1980s animation marketing gone wild in trying so hard to be cool and appeal to kids and teenagers that at times it’s cringe-worthy. Oliver and Company marketing is this girl:
It’s also this same mentality which is why characters like this exist:
He’s even called Cooler … LAME
Dodger is also guilty of a very irritating character trope – he gives Oliver the ANNOYING passive aggressive cold shoulder rather than being happy for him when he finds a home. He goes off into a sulk and guilt-trips the child, taking it so personally. The rest of the gang seem to be sympathetic and understanding towards Oliver’s circumstances, while Dodger throws an immature tantrum. Even Tito says ‘Lighten up’ …
(Special Note from Both: When Tito notices that you’re being annoying, it’s a bad sign!)
Speaking of the gang, this ragtag gang of misfit outlaws make up the majority of the supporting cast.
It seems that the animators were inspired by that one scene in the pound in Lady and the Tramp, and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if these characters had their own movie?’
(Special Note from David: Oh boy! That was my least favourite scene from Lady and the Tramp – all of the dogs were irritating stereotypes. The big difference being those characters only appeared in one scene – this time around they take up most of the film!)
Tito, voiced by comedian Cheech Marin, is another Disney misfire of Gurgi-like proportions (though really no one can be quite as terrible as Gurgi … surely … we hope not): the overly talkative comic relief character, surely intended by the studio executives to be the breakout character from whom the bulk of the merchandise will be based. The most alarming thing about the character is how prominently featured he is, ahead of all the other characters. It’s like the film is trying to find excuses to make him more annoying.
‘Tito I’m afraid you’re just too darn loud’
‘He’s very loud for such a small dog’
(Special Note from Both: It genuinely seems like he’s in the film more than everyone else – and that’s not a good thing!)
(Special Note from Melissa: There’s also this subplot in which he is pursuing Georgette even though she’s not interested … persistence on the verge of harassment … sounds like a 1980s movie. Plus he seems to be wearing a ‘buddy band’:)
Does he reach Scrappy Doo levels of annoying? Yes.
Einstein, voiced by Richard Mulligan, is big and stupid, and tends to disappear whenever the animators forget about him. Even we forgot he was in the film! We’re imagining someone coming up with the name Einstein for an intellectually challenged dog and giving themselves a real pat on the back … effort.
Francis, voiced by film, television and theatre actor, Roscoe Lee Browne, is a British bulldog, a lover of theatre and the arts, and thus did get a few laughs from us with his zingers. Patrick Stewart was apparently considered for the role of Francis.
(Special Note from Melissa: We’re involved in theatre, so it’s impossible not to be amused by those kinds of characters!)
Though that was a terrible line reading from Macbeth! Francis there’s a whole world of Shakespeare that you have not discovered yet
Rita, voiced by Sheryl Lee Ralph, is a tough, streetwise lady dog who gives Sykes’ Dobermans some sass, and gets a whole song to herself before completely fading into the background. But really they all (except Tito) fade into the background after their set up scene. They all get a really decent showcase in their first scene when they stand up to the dobermans and protect Oliver, and when they are very affectionate towards Fagin. But that’s it … the characters do not go anywhere after that. It’s as if they packed all that development in there, but then that’s it.
Fagin is the homeless owner of Dodger and the rest of the gang, a down-on-his-luck little Tramp.
But unlike this little Tramp, he lacks a certain je ne sais quoi …
He has gotten in too deep with a loan-shark. Despite the fact that the character is living outside the law and makes a living by foraging and (presumably) stealing, the film focuses on his sympathetic side. He is loved by all of his dogs, and they band together to cheer him up when he’s feeling at his lowest.
(Special Note from David: This leads to a very strange moment when they feed him a dog biscuit, which he very slowly eats)
‘When you wish upon a star …’
Dom DeLuise gives enough warmth and likeability to the character – although it could be argued (or stated outright) that he gives the exact same performance in numerous Don Bluth films. It’s interesting that they did not ‘take the bait’ and go for a Jewish performer, considering that the Dickens counterpart is one of the most famous Jewish characters in literature …
Speaking of literature, he reads Oliver and the dogs a really crap book about two characters suspiciously called Sparky and Bumper … subtle Disney, real subtle.
This is Chapter 7???
The character has our sympathy, primarily because he’s really quite a pathetic loser. Also … there’s no nice way of saying this, he is a very ugly man! His Dickens counterpart is described in the novel as ‘grotesque’, and he is a strong contender for the most grotesque character in the canon so far:
And he’s not left out of the Lady and the Tramp counterpart game:
His pathetic nature is particularly prevalent in the scene where he meets Jenny, and she indirectly accuses him of having done terrible things – to which he doesn’t have much of a counterargument. It is a very redeeming moment when he does do the right thing and gives Jenny back Oliver – especially since he feels so badly about it that he attempts to make it appear like he did not kidnap him – very sweet – and of course especially since he knows that at this point he’s a dead man.
Well I figured what the hell …
On a separate note, one has to wonder how much money he borrowed from Sykes, and also what he spent it on.
(Special Note from David: Dog biscuits? Top quality literature? A knock-off Super Mario oufit?)
During his first mission, Oliver is found and adopted by a rich little girl called Jenny … not Penny.
Penny – didn’t you get the memo?! We’re not doing a sequel to The Rescuers… yet … and even if we are, who says you’ll be in it?
OK we’ll think about it
Jenny, voiced by Natalie Gregory, is a lonely young girl in need of company. Despite living a rather lavish lifestyle (living in a mansion, being driven around in a limo and having a butler) she dresses plainly (but has a very 1980s hairdo with studs in her ears – a first!) and only has a small amount of money to her name, which she keeps in a piggy bank.
(Special Note from Melissa: Unless she spent all of her savings on Oliver’s collar and bowl …)
It is true that because Oliver and Company was originally going to be a sequel to The Rescuers, the little girl may have been Penny … Penny was adopted by a couple after she obtained media exposure from an incredibly valuable diamond. Remember this?
Maybe I can pawn this teddy too …
So now they are wealthy from Devil’s Eye riches and what do they do? Go on ‘business’ and leave her at home with the butler … we are so glad that this isn’t actually a sequel to The Rescuers because seriously how sad would that have been?!
(Special Note from Both: Seriously, this girl’s parents are terrible people. They do not seem to notice how upset their child is and they lavish obscene amounts of attention on their poodle. Who are the real villains of this film?)
The real Jenny is a sweet-natured girl, who takes an immediate shine to Oliver – and naturally she ends up adopting him. She is also an innocent victim of Fagin’s blundering, and finds herself kidnapped by Sykes as a result – so she is deserving of our sympathy. Although the ransom call to Winston certainly raises a few eyebrows.
Seriously, does she have any decent authority figures in her life?!
Good job idiot!
Not-willing-enough-to-pay-the-ransom Winston is just fat Edgar, who after nearly dying of suffocation from being locked in a box and shipped to Timbuktu, decided to atone for his past sins by treating animals with compassion: he now suppresses his anger by watching wrestling on television.
(Special Note from David: Well, this film was made in the late 80s, during the wrestling Boom period – so this isn’t completely unfounded)
(Special Note from Melissa: God this film is desperate – even the stuffy butler is endorsing a popular product of the 1980s)
Last of all Georgette – she is an overly pampered, and consequently incredibly conceited poodle, voiced by Bette Midler. She is a prize-winning show-dog into whom Jenny’s horrible absent parents have invested an excessive amount of money.
(Special Note from Both: This is particularly upsetting, especially when you consider that their daughter receives a lot less attention than their dog)
Also maybe we spoke too soon about Fagin …
Seriously TIME MAGAZINE???
She appears to be playing the role of antagonist for quite some time – jealous of Oliver, she refuses to allow him to live in the same house, and manipulates others in order to get rid of him. Conceited and selfish characters can be entertaining (such as Cruella de Vil and Madame Medusa) but Georgette is just IRRITATING, and rather than having sharp-tongued witty dialogue or amusing outbursts, she instead throws out groan-inducing clichés such as “I broke a nail!” – the laziest diva joke you can do! She also undergoes a very unconvincing switch from bad-guy to good-guy as she abruptly joins up with Fagin’s gang during the third act – although this doesn’t result in any changes to her character.
(Special Note from David: I was certain that she was just deceiving them, and was just waiting for the opportune moment to complete her heel-turn)
Sykes, voiced by Robert Loggia, is a very understated villain by Disney standards, maintaining a quiet sense of menace whenever he appears. Compared to Fagin he has a very imposing stature, and he is always flanked by his two Dobermans: Roscoe and DeSoto, who will viciously attack if he gives the command.
(Special Note from Both: Woah Roscoe and DeSoto you were really scary until you started talking)
All of his scenes take place at night, so he is always in dimly lit surroundings – he does get a very impressive entrance (despite his obvious CGI car) – he is a villain who is taken seriously by the animators and writers.
Although he does unwittingly have the best comic line in the whole film: the stoic, deadpan delivery of the ridiculous line, “Didn’t order any pizza”. We had to stop the film and rewind it we were laughing so much.
It’s comparable to this scene in Some Like It Hot:
My birthday? Why it ain’t for another 4 months
Sykes possesses many of the same characteristics as Cinderella’s Lady Tremaine, yet doesn’t succeed in being as effective. Sykes is a shady businessman without any familial connection to Fagin (or indeed any of the other characters) so there’s no psychological warfare going on. Instead he relies on physical intimidation, which isn’t quite as engaging, but can still be impactful. The problem with Sykes is that he is not very entertaining. The voice is not memorable, lacking the charm and charisma that previous threatening villains have had, and the design has a Saturday-morning-cartoon villain style rather than a film style. Disney have set such a high standard for memorable and entertaining villains, and he does feel below par, as beyond being threatening and calm, little effort has gone into giving him a solid personality. He is a suit with a head. A lone shark who seems to have no human beings to do any heavy lifting for him … Also why is a seemingly high-powered businessman dealing with such a hobo? That is clearly a foolish investment!
One thing that is very memorable about him is his death. While chasing Fagin’s gang across the Brooklyn Bridge, his car is hit head on by a train, killing him instantly …
If only he had been voiced by Pat Buttram he could have shrugged it off.
Pfft what a wimp
Then Sykes’s corpse fell through the Brooklyn Bridge’s portal bang splat into the middle of Kate and Leopold’s nuptials.
(Special Note from Both: Fagin and the gang manage to cheat death in the most ‘convenient’ and implausible way possible … the scooter just jumps out of the way … somehow)
It seems also that Roscoe and DeSoto don’t share Tito’s immunity to electrocution – they seemingly die from electrocution.
‘Tito you’re different from most dogs. All that happened was balloons kept sticking to you’
Fun fact: Marlon Brando was allegedly offered the role of Sykes personally by Eisner, but Brando turned it down, suspecting that the film would bomb …
Artwork and Imagery
One thing that is consistently jarring about the film is the artwork. From the opening establishing shots of New York, to the closing moments where the exact same shots are recycled (in reverse) the film looks cheap. It has Saturday-Morning-Cartoon written all over it. The patchiness and faded washed out colours makes it look like it has not had a great restoration – or worse maybe that was intentional.
New York: the City that Never Sleeps:
Maybe you should you look awful!
(Special Note from Melissa: For the first time I have really struggled to find striking imagery from a Disney animated film!)
Here is the best we could find:
The backgrounds often look unfinished, with details not filled in – and the general colour-scheme is unappealing, making New York look ugly most of the time. There are times within the film when it’s clearly the intention to make the setting look run-down and unattractive (such as Fagin’s run-down boat, or the alleyways in New York) highlighting the low financial status of the main characters, but these don’t always have the desired effect as the film generally looks ugly no matter what parts of New York are being discovered. Plus grotesque artwork can be just as striking and beautiful as pretty artwork – it’s no excuse.
When it was intended to be a sequel to The Rescuers, it would have made more sense, as it would be consistent with the artistic style of the original, but even that film looked better than this! Plans for a Rescuers sequel changed, and yet the artwork remained grimy and unappealing.
There have been many occasions when Disney have had to struggle with budgetary restraints, and consequently the artwork has looked sketchy in places, but they were usually able to creatively mask these issues so that they didn’t stick out so much. Oliver and Company just looks cheap and ugly throughout, not only in backgrounds, but in characters – especially background characters.
Oh God it’s painful
Also Rita and Georgette wear make-up … it’s weird – very very weird. Did the animators think that we wouldn’t be able to tell that they are female without it???
The most explicit element about the artwork is the appearance of product placement. It does add authenticity to the look of New York, but again … it’s very in your face and Disney marketing clearly sticking its nose right in there and marking its territory.
(Special Note from Melissa: They spent so much money on product placement that they couldn’t afford the rights to their own characters)
Check out this cheap Pongo knock off
Another explicit element is the use of CGI in the film. It is the first Disney animated film to have its own department set up for generating computer animation. Disney invested $15 million into the ground-breaking CAPS system (Computer Animation Production System) – the first digital ink and paint system in which backgrounds and characters can move independently. We have seen CGI before in Disney, but this is first time that it has been prominently used – it is used for buildings, as well as cars, scooters, trains, bikes, stairs … basically any means of getting around has CGI!
Except this school bus. Seriously who animated this??? Have they never seen a school bus before?
However because it is heavily used, it holds up a lot less than previous attempts such as in Basil, The Black Cauldron and The Fox and the Hound.
One of the strongest elements of the artwork is establishing a world from the perspective of cats and dogs, again very reminiscent of Lady and the Tramp. Animators shot photos of New York streets as reference, using cameras set high off the ground to get a cat’s and dog’s point of view, and that does work very well.
And let’s give the film credit – we applaud who ever drew Jenny’s birthday presents from the gang:
Pretty much sums it up
The score for Oliver and Company is a strange one, as technically there is nothing wrong with it. When heard in isolation there are some really nice orchestrations, and moments in which musical phrases from the songs are integrated into the arrangements. So what’s the problem? The problem is, as pleasant as it sounds, quite often the music doesn’t sound as though it was composed specifically for this film. Although a little reminiscent of the score from The Rescuers (adding further weight to the fact that originally this film was going to be a sequel), it does not express the personality of the film, but instead feels rather generic. It really makes Oliver and Company feel like a film that was thrown together from various existing components – rather than created with much care.
(Special Note from Both: J.A.C. Redford did the score and he has done orchestrations and conducted for many films with brilliant scores, such as Saving Mr Banks, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, and even .. Skyfall … suddenly feeling a The Rescuers flashback coming on)
‘Who will rescue me?’
Once Upon a Time in New York City is sung by Huey Lewis (it doesn’t get much more 80s than that!). It seems fitting that this song is the opening number, because the synthesisers, couples with Lewis’ familiar sounding voice, really encapsulate the time period the film is set in. With that in mind it does fall into the same trap as Tomorrow Is Another Day from The Rescuers as it sounds more like the opening theme tune to Oliver and Company: The Sitcom rather than the opening number for a feature film.
For the first time in ages we have a song that alludes to dreams! When was the last time we had a song about dreams? We attribute this to the arrival of Howard Ashman.
(Special Note from Melissa: While watching the film, I said that the song reminded me of Little Shop of Horrors … only to immediately discover that Howard Ashman co-wrote it!)
Yes Howard Ashman has made his first major appearance! Known at this point mainly for Liitle Shop of Horrors, he co-wrote this song with popular songwriter Barry Mann. Mann is the co-writer of Grammy-winning Somewhere Out There from An American Tail and would go on to co-write the songs for Muppet Treasure Island.
Were it not for the fact that the name Oliver is mentioned in the song, it could be applied to PRETTY MUCH ANYTHING set in New York
(Special Note from Both: Dub this song over the opening theme of any TV show set in New York, or any trailer from a film set in New York. Seriously anything! It’s a very entertaining game. Let us know if anything particularly fits well. Our particular favourites are: Watchmen, On the Town, You’ve Got Mail, Kate and Leopold (and any of the opening credits from Friends). We challenge you to find others! Mute the trailer and play MUSIC over it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIWn7SeGlUw. Post them in comments below)
The song, while enjoyable (and hilarious in dubbing games), it does eventually outstay its welcome. It initially works really well, but then the upbeat tone no longer fits. It is amusingly callous that Huey is singing an upbeat woohoo about New York City, while Oliver is in peril, being rejected and fleeing for his life in torrential rain from beast dogs.
‘So Oliver don’t be shy!’
Almost as callous as this:
‘This will be fun!’ shouted Milo
Alongside his callousness Huey Lewis is omniscient – he knows Oliver’s name before he has even been named!
Why Should I Worry is clearly the film’s intended pop hit that management were hungry for, with its hip hop happening 1980s beat. The chorus is fun and insanely catchy, with Billy Joel really giving it his all, but management’s desperation for a hit is so transparent that it’s amusing. The song makes Dodger sound like a cooler character than he actually is, likely because Billy Joel is naturally more comfortable and in his element with singing than acting. It sounds like a song that would be used in advertising and would not sound out of place in an advert for chewing gum or shower gel.
(Special Note from Melissa: As a child watching the trailer for Oliver and Company, I used to think the lyrics were ‘Wash should I worry’ likely because Dodger is washing himself at the same time … a child’s logic … I suppose the shower gel advert would have fitted in that case!)
Despite how chilled out this song is, Dodger acts like a massive tool to Oliver, endangering his life.
‘Screw that Consider Yourself crap. I consider Myself’
Streets of Gold is a bit of a confused number. One of the Pointer Sisters, Ruth Pointer sings the song, and it sounds like it could have easily been lifted from the cutting room floor of Fame … or an exercise video.
(Special Note from Melissa: On its own the song is very enjoyable in a get out those leg warmers, fluorescent leotards and buddy bands out, because it’s workout time real bitchin 1980s style woohoo!)
The song is better when you listen to it completely out of its context. In the film, it is severely cut down and placed in such a way that we barely even noticed that it was there. When listening to it on the soundtrack, Pointer’s singing sounds very soulful and lively, with a fun 1980s beat, but in the film, it is a drive-by song that is shoehorned in, with minimal bearing on the plot, because HITS. Furthermore Rita’s character becomes incredibly sidelined from this point on. It is also strange that Sheryl Lee Ralph did not sing Streets of Gold, considering that she was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in Dreamgirls in 1982. Plus Ruth Pointer and Sheryl Lee Ralph … really do not sound like each other. It is just bizarre – why did they not just get Ruth Pointer to voice the character or Sheryl Lee Ralph to sing the song? Of course dubbing the singing voice does frequently happen in Hollywood but considering that Bette Midler and Billy Joel both voice and sing for their characters, it is very peculiar.
Perfect Isn’t Easy is not only character number, but a Broadway diva number – this should be good. But it isn’t. It really, really isn’t. It’s a painful number that sounds like nails on a chalkboard, it has strange notes and is completely all over the place.
(Special Note from Melissa: This is not the best showcase for Bette Midler … or Barry Manilow … but this isn’t the first time he’ll co-write unsettling songs … just wait for 1994)
It also really doesn’t help that the song is full of weird and unpleasant imagery – weird and unpleasant imagery that is reminiscent of The Three Caballeros – yes THAT weird.
(Special Note from David: Jenny’s absentee parents have lavished so much affection upon this poodle that I wouldn’t be surprised that Georgette owns a villa in Bahia)
(Special Note from Melissa: Judging by this song, Georgette is probably what drove Jenny’s parents away for so long. They were going slowly insane.)
You drove them away with your NOISE
Good Company accompanies Jenny’s growing relationship with Oliver. They spend all day together and have what can only be described as a date.
Rowing in Central Park
Taking a stroll in Central Park (Oh God was A Troll in Central Park wordplay?)
Sharing an ice cream
Going on a horse and carriage ride
Buying him jewellery
‘We want to keep out of the whole area of actually being in love with the cat’
But the song itself? OK there is absolutely nothing wrong with the little girl’s voice – it sounds like a normal little girl singing (and Natalie Gregory was dubbed). Also Disney have proven before that they can take very simple lyrics and make it into something touching and affectionate. But this song is unforgivably generic, bland and one drone of a tune. It has lazy written all over it, like it was written in a day, and even that seems too much!
(Special Note from Both: Although uncredited, we figured out who really wrote this song)
‘It looks like you’re writing a song. Would you like some help?’
It is intriguing that straight after Basil the Great Mouse Detective, an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, Disney chose to greenlight another British adaptation. When you consider how sniffy marketing were about the ‘too British sounding’ Basil of Baker Street, it’s no wonder that they decided to relocate the 19th century English Oliver Twist to 1980s New York. Oliver and Company seemed to be in development hell story-wise for a while. Originally called Oliver and the Dodger, it was going to be a revenge story opening with the Dobermans murdering Oliver’s parents Batman-style. Originally all dogs, George Scribner suggested that Oliver be a kitten and Fagin be a human. He also had this idea that Oliver be a rare breed of cat and that’s how the ransom idea came about … it was not well-received. Roy E. Disney also had an idea that Fagin tries to steal a panda from the zoo … it was likewise not well-received.
(Special Note from Both: This reminded us of Walt’s idea that The Rescuers involve saving a polar bear called Willie … that Disney family and their madcap ideas!)
We imagine the production meetings went something like this
Indeed Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg tore it to shreds in a storyboard meeting. In fact the further away the story got from Dickens, the more they criticised.
There are ultimately several strands to the story in Oliver and Company. Primarily the story is about Oliver, the orphaned kitten attempting to find a home inspired by its Oliver Twist roots, but this then becomes the story of Fagin’s plight – to pay off a debt within three days (or as Sykes puts it 3 sunrises, 3 sunsets, 3 days … specific) or get killed, and finally it becomes the story of Fagin and his gang of dogs rescuing a young girl from Sykes’ clutches. These storylines do intertwine and come to a resolution, but the problem is that Oliver himself gets lost in the shuffle to the extent that it hardly even feels like his story by the end.
(Special Note from David: It’s supposed to be Oliver’s story, but his group of exhibitionist friends can’t help but steal his spotlight – in a similar way to selfish actors who are determined to get themselves noticed at another’s expense)
When you think about it, the film actually does a reasonable job of adapting the story of Oliver Twist, at least as far as the story structure for the protagonist is concerned. Unfortunately this isn’t completely followed through, and the film instead falls back on some less admirable tropes – pointless musical numbers that don’t further the plot, an over-reliance on the supporting cast, and the comic-relief characters compromising the tension during the finale – this will not be the last time that they do this …
(Special Note from Both: Quite often a Disney film knows to get rid of the comic characters during particularly dramatic scenes – but not here!)
Oliver and Company is a mess of a film. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of unified thought going on as a part of its production process. The studio pressure to appeal a contemporary audience through the use of modern pop songs is at odds with the dark tones of the story – which in-turn are at odds with the goofy humour of the scenes involving the antics of the gang (especially Tito). Disney had clearly been rattled by the success of Don Bluth, and seem to be adopting his style whenever the film takes a foray into more serious territory. It’s also very unusual to have Bluth-Golden-Boy Dom DeLuise in the cast. The result is a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be; by trying to broaden the appeal to wider audiences the end result doesn’t really feel like a Disney film.
In addition the film doesn’t look very good. It would seem that the animators were so excited about the developing use of computer-generated images, that the hand-drawn artwork received less attention. More often than not the film looks more like a Saturday Morning Cartoon than a feature film, and the title (which is rubbish, by the way) also sounds like a venture for the small screen.
To its credit the film has some positive attributes: Sykes, while not particularly entertaining, is an effectively sinister villain and his scenes are always taken seriously. The main animal characters are all animated very well, and there are some genuinely funny one-liners from Francis. I also enjoyed the songs “Once Upon a Time in New York City” and “Why Should I Worry” (which will get stuck in your head).
Unfortunately there’s not a huge amount that I can praise about this film, and even the positives have conditions attached. There’s not much that works about the film that Disney haven’t already done before – and done better.
I did not grow up with Oliver and Company at all so it is through The Disney Odyssey that I have watched this film for the first time. My only childhood memory of it is from a trailer on old Disney videos advertising its release ‘for the first time on video’ likely around 1996. I knew very little about the film other than the fact that it was based on Oliver Twist and set in New York with dogs and cats. My knowledge was really from this trailer:
The trailer is about 2 minutes in – ‘Chain me to the walllllll’ remained ingrained in my head for many years (funnily enough both of us said the same thing!)
While doing The Disney Odyssey, we often watch films more than once, because usually on the second viewing, we spot extra details. When we watched Alice and Wonderland, we hated it on the first viewing, but after having watched it a second time a few weeks later, we did appreciate it much more. Most of the films are better on the second viewing. In terms of Oliver and Company, it is the opposite. We were very easy on it on the first viewing, calling it ‘alright’ and ‘a bit of fun’, but after watching it again, we felt annoyed and exasperated by it. It’s not a horrible film as such. It reminds me more of a 1980s Saturday morning cartoon than a film – I’m surprised it was never made into one to be honest. Oliver and Company feels like such a precursor to the Dreamworks format with its product placement, pop cultural tone, celebrity voices and pop soundtrack. It is also clearly inspired by Lady and the Tramp, which is one of my favourites so far in the canon – however their styles are very different.
In my opinion, Oliver and Company’s artwork and imagery is very mediocre and below par from what we expect from Disney, and I genuinely struggled to find some really striking animation. Their use of CGI is ambitious, but unfortunately (unlike previous films which have used minimal computer animation) it does look incredibly dated and jarring. We have seen cheap looking artwork through films like Robin Hood, but the difference is that Robin Hood made up for its cheap appearance through charm, humour and an engaging hero-villain dynamic, which I’m sorry to say, Oliver and Company really lacks (I did get a few laughs from Francis however). I enjoyed a few of the catchy songs (the first three … I detest the other two), but I enjoy them more out of the film’s context, because while watching the film and these songs would randomly pop up (especially with Perfect Isn’t Easy and Streets of Gold), this kept going through my head:
I like the way in which Oliver is animated with his kitten mannerisms, but ultimately Oliver is placed in the shadows while the supporting cast are at the forefront, with irritating characters like Tito and Georgette chewing the scenery, and Dodger endlessly spewing out dialogue that someone clearly thought sounded ‘cool’. In fact that is my issue with the whole film; it thinks it’s being really cool, hip and ‘what kids want’ when really it … isn’t. This video sums up how Oliver and Company appears to me:
Overall, it is a very messy and confused film which tries so hard to appeal to a 1980s audience and especially to children/teenagers, that it completely lost sight of what’s important – making a good film with appealing characters, excellent artwork and a strong, engaging story.
Oliver and Company is a film that ignited a number of trends that are very familiar to us today. It was the first Disney animated feature film to include advertised products that exist in the real world. Although famous people have voiced characters in Disney films before, Oliver and Company’s approach had a very different feel – it was using celebrity voices and a pop soundtrack to market the film, like stunt casting. Can you believe that this is the same company who once didn’t even credit the actors let alone use them to market the film? Akin to An American Tail, Oliver and Company had a major promotional tie-in with Sears and McDonalds – marketing was on fire!
“Hey Dodge we make beautiful music together!”… oh God … plus it already sounds like the battery is dying in the advert
We don’t know which is worse …
The Happy Meal Disney contract had officially begun – running from 1988 to 2008 (Disney claim that from 2008 onwards they only want to associate their characters with ‘healthy’ food … burn).
It was the first animated feature film at Disney to have a separate computer department set up for production, which, as we know, will lead to computers becoming much more integrated into animation. Director, George Scribner said in The New York Times review, ‘Computers can’t do emotions and characters’ … how times will change George! Oliver and Company is also the last animated Disney feature film to use cel overlay – a technique used to make the background match the lines of the xeroxed objects in the film.
The film was nominated for a Young Artist Award for ‘Best Family Animation or Fantasy Motion Picture’, a Grammy Award for ‘Best Recording for Children’, a Golden Globe for ‘Best Original Song’ for Why Should I Worry. It won a Golden Reel Award for ‘Best Sound Editing’ at the Motion Picture Sound Editors Awards.
Despite its commercial success, Oliver and Company was not released on VHS until 1996 despite being highly requested. That same year it was re-released at the cinema, on the same day as All Dogs Go To Heaven 2.
(Special Note from Melissa: Calm down Disney Don Bluth did not even work on that one!)
Although the film financially did very well, Oliver and Company received very mixed reviews. On the Siskel & Ebert show, Siskel gave it a ‘thumbs down’ while Ebert gave it a ‘marginal thumbs up’. Our usual place to look for a Disney review since the beginning of The Disney Odyssey, The New York Times … does not give a review but instead a rundown of how things are going at Disney, written by John ‘Mr Snoops’ Culhane – he strangely avoids talking much about the film itself other than synopsising it.
However the financial success of Oliver and Company led to the executive decision and announcement that a Disney animated film would be released every year – a dream that goes back to the days of Walt Disney. Remember when Pinocchio and Fantasia came out in 1940, Dumbo in 1941 and Bambi in 1942? Disney toppled over into the Pit of Despair after that – the Package Film era – and never quite managed to achieve the pattern of one film a year again. Since Walt passed away, the future of Disney animation had been on incredibly rocky territory – the announcement that there would be an animated film released every year seemed groundbreaking, ambitious and risky. The last time this was attempted partly resulted in strikes … in a way the 1940s and the 1980s have a lot in common (including shoulderpads). In interviews, management seemed to be stressing that despite the extremely high financial costs of animation, they must carry on because that is what Disney is truly all about. We can imagine this conclusion came after many difficult conversations, considering that feature animation was close to becoming part of heritage rather than the future at one point in the early 1980s.
Remember the war between Disney and Bluth? How did it turn out with Oliver and Company and The Land Before Time being released on the same day?
At the domestic box office, Oliver and Company beat The Land Before Time. Oliver and Company made $53,279,055 at the domestic box office while The Land Before Time made $48,092,846.
Don’t get too cocky Disney – The Land Before Time beat Oliver and Company internationally.
Yes Oliver and Company made $74.2 worldwide, while The Land Before Time made $84.5. However Disney in a way was defeated by itself. Which film made $156,452,370 at the domestic box office, $351.5 worldwide and was the 2nd most financially successful film of 1988?
Next time everyone, next time!
Final note: We had said before that we would acknowledge Pete Young. He worked at Disney in the 1970s and 1980s, becoming a Story man and working his way up the ranks. He developed a short called The Small One, co-writing it with Vance Gerry. He worked on Story for The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, Basil the Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver and Company. He successfully pitched Basil along with Ron Clements, which was greenlit by Ron Miller, and later successfully pitched Oliver which was greenlit by Katzenberg and Eisner. From what we have read about him, he was a hard worker and incredibly passionate about storytelling. It is tragic that he passed away so young, and we wanted to acknowledge him because it is only through writing this review that we found out about Pete Young, and his impact and legacy really should be celebrated more.