Ranking Disney: #43 – Oliver and Company (1988)
I’m torn about this film. I like the idea of this film more than I like the actual film.
Typically, I’m a fan of Dickens adaptations. The books — not so much. They’re kind of a chore to read, even though they’re really dense and richly textured. But the films, they usually pare that stuff down and that makes the story always engaging. And “Oliver Twist” (along with “Great Expectations”) always seems to be the Dickens work that most easily translates into a good film. So Disney, doing it with cats and dogs on the streets of New York — all right. I’m there. Because hey — when they have source material to work with, it usually turns out okay.
But this film — it’s not there. I like parts of it, but the whole thing just feels very rushed. It speeds along with nothing really happening. To the point where it not only doesn’t resemble “Oliver Twist” but doesn’t really resemble much of anything. It’s like they decided to cut out ten minutes of characterization in favor of a shorter runtime. And the result is a complete misfire of a film that has nothing but good intentions. Which is a shame. They could have had something here.
The movie opens with Huey Lewis (always a great way start anything. Huey Lewis, Kenny Loggins or Tom Jones and you’re set) singing “Once Upon a Time in New York City,” and we meet Oliver, and orphaned kitten, who must survive a rainy night in the city.
He meets Dodger (obviously based on the Artful Dodger), a dog, voiced by Billy Joel (because of course he’s voiced by Billy Joel), who teaches him how to live on the streets. Instead of teaching Oliver how to pick pockets, he teaches him how to steal hot dogs so he can eat. Though he keeps them for himself afterward, calling it a “lesson in street savoir faire.”
Then he sings “Why Should I Worry,” because – well, just because. This leads to an elaborate musical number, which is fun. All the dogs since and dance through the streets of New York. Plus we get a Billy Joel song. So that’s good too.
Then, down on the waterfront, in an abandoned boat, much like in The Rescuers, lives a group of stray dogs, who are basically like Fagin’s gang of orphans. Oliver follows Dodger there. The group lives with Fagin, a petty thief who works for Sykes (one of those mobsters who stays in his town car, voiced by Robert Loggia, no less), paying off a debt. He has the dogs steal items from people, which he uses to help pay off the debt. Sykes gives Fagin three days to pay off the debt.
Fagin takes Oliver in, admiring his guts (he stood up to Syke’s hounds), and the next day they go out to help Fagin get his money. And they do another song and dance about what they have to do to survive. Basically it’s the same as Dodger’s song, only this one’s like, “You’re gonna see what it takes to survive,” instead of, “I’m great at this. I ain’t go no worries, since I know how to do this.”
The dogs (with Oliver), go to rob a limousine, but the plan backfires and Oliver is caught by a young girl, , who is being driven in the car by her butler. Jenny’s parents are rich and are off traveling the world, and she lives at home in a huge mansion. She’s terribly lonely, so she adopts Oliver. She quickly falls in love with him and decides they’re going to be together forever.
Meanwhile, Dodger and the other dogs find Oliver and decide to go and rescue him, not knowing he’s perfectly happy. Also, Jenny’s family’s poodle, Georgette (voiced by Bette Midler…I think this is their first all-star cast film, Disney. The Great Mouse Detective only had Vincent Price), who is very spoiled, can’t stand the attention Oliver gets and wants him gone. Of course the two interests coincide when the dogs sneak into the house, and Georgette helps the dogs kidnap Oliver back.
Oliver, naturally, is upset, since he finally had a home, and even though the other dogs told Dodger they shouldn’t have taken him back, Dodger is upset (because he himself harbors some desire to have a family), but of course this isn’t really developed at all, as everything has moved at a breakneck pace thus far.
Jenny returns home the next day, and sees that Oliver is gone. Jenny is heartbroken. Fagin, seeing the new collar Oliver has gotten, sends a ransom note for him. Jenny decides to come to get him back. She brings Georgette down to the docks to the location Fagin put on the ransom note.
Jenny encounters Fagin, and Fagin, hearing her story, feels terrible. He decides to give her back Oliver. Sykes, meanwhile, who was watching the whole encounter, kidnaps Jenny, planning to use her as ransom. He tells Fagin they’re square. Dodger and the other dogs, however, decide to help get Jenny back.
The dogs and Oliver go to Sykes’s warehouse, and lead an escape. Fagin even shows up to help them. And there’s a highway chase. And of course everything ends up all right, even though we think for a moment that Oliver has been killed. Standard Disney chase stuff.
And the film ends with Jenny at home, celebrating her birthday, with Fagin and all the dogs there. She thanks Fagin and he goes on his way. And Oliver and Dodger say goodbye, with Dodger singing “Why Should I Worry” again, this time with the rest of the dogs.
There’s really not much of a story here. The plot is very thin. It’s only 70 minutes, and they just rush through everything. That’s why it feels so much like a missed opportunity. There’s no motivation for anyone except Fagin. They barely flesh out Jenny’s loneliness, Oliver’s wanting a family, and all the potential depths of the Dodger character. Every time it feels like they’re gonna do it, they fade to another scene. It’s like they cut out all those moments. The whole thing is completely breakneck. Ten more minutes of character building could have made a world of difference. Without it — completely forgettable film whose only real redeeming qualities are Billy Joel, Huey Lewis and some interesting visuals (I love the shots of New York. They’re just gorgeous).
– – – – –
Official Disney Number: #27
Run Time: 73 minutes
Release Date: November 18, 1988
Box Office: $53.3 million originally, and after a 1996 reissue, $74.2 million
– – – – –
- “Once Upon a Time in New York City,” performed by Huey Lewis
- “Why Should I Worry?” performed by Billy Joel
- “Streets of Gold,” performed by Billy Joel and Ruth Pointer (as Rita)
- “Perfect Isn’t Easy,” performed by Bette Midler
- “Good Company,” performed by Myhanh Tran (as Jenny)
– – – – –
– – – – –
- This is Disney’s fifth film (the others being Dumbo, Bambi, One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Rescuers) that takes place in the present day. All the others before this were period pieces. Not something you think about everyday, is it?
- The original (or, working) title for this was “Oliver and the Dodger.” I actually like this one better.
- The last film before the Disney Renaissance.
- At one point, this was going to be a sequel to The Rescuers. Obviously that plan came to fruition differently. That’s why Jenny is so similar (visually and in name) to Penny. This was going to be what life was like with her new adoptive parents. Which paints a really interesting picture there, and if they’d added the scenes they were going to include (of her life with her parents and Georgette), it might have made the entire film a lot better. Though, obviously, it would have been a weird spin-off of The Rescuers and made The Rescuers Down Under very confusing.
- This was the first Disney film to use extensive CG. The others only used bits and pieces. It was also the first Disney film to have its own department specifically for CG animation.
- The dog’s dances were based on Bob Fosse’s choreography. (That’s hilarious to me.)
- Disney had abandoned musicals since the 70s. It was the first one since The Fox and the Hound from 1981, which I barely consider a musical anyway (even though it is one). After this, all Disney films for the next decade (save The Rescuers Down Under) would be musicals. And good ones, at that.
- This was the first Disney animated film to include product placement. (You kind of have to, with New York.)
- The characters of Peg, Jock and Trusty from Lady and the Tramp and Pongo from One Hundred and One Dalmatians make cameos in the “Why Should I Worry?” sequence. I really should have put a picture of that down in the motifs, but I don’t have one. But they are in there.
- And Ratigan from The Great Mouse Detective can also be seen as a photo in Georgette’s room. I missed this too when I watched. Don’t have a screenshot of it.
- And apparently (Jesus. Three?) Roger from One Hundred and One Dalmatians can be seen walking past Oliver at the beginning of the film when he’s hiding out on the truck tire during the rain. He’s wearing a blue shirt and blue pants.
- This film was released the same day as The Land Before Time. Ouch.
- The success of this film prompted Disney to announce they were going to release an animated movie every year. Which, with the exception of 1993 (between Aladdin and Lion King — not a bad gap to have) and 2006 (where Meet the Robinsons was shelved and drastically reedited), is a schedule they’ve kept to. (Also, they released two films in 1999, 2000 and 2002, so that more than makes up for the two consecutive years they missed.)
- Marlon Brando turned down the role of Sykes thinking the movie would bomb.
- Billy Joel got nominated for a Golden Globe for “Why Should I Worry?”, which makes sense, since the Globes will nominate any major music star who writes a song for a movie.
– – – – –
1. First, the opening shot of the film is the same shot that West Side Story begins with (and later, Gangs of New York. But it all begins with West Side Story).
2. The second shot of the film is another gorgeous shot of New York and also reminds me of bridge shots they’ve used in — Peter Pan for sure, and also I think Pocahontas has a similar shot.
3. Fagin has a Mickey Mouse watch. Always have to look out for the mouse. (Also, it’s so 80s.)
4. This shot of Jenny and Oliver is a favorite Disney shot. One Hundred and One Dalmatians uses this exact same shot, and other films use similar versions of it as well. If you know Disney, you’ve seen this shot a half dozen times at least.
5. Bette Midler gets her own musical number. I love how it begins. The curtains of her doggie bed rise like a Busby Berkeley number. It’s terrific. Anything Berkeley in a Disney movie I’m all over.
6. The Disney racism is back. I don’t have a shot of it, since I didn’t want to waste on on it when I could instead provide the shot I provided, but — Cheech Marin plays a horrifically stereotyped Meican chihuahua. It’s horrible. What the fuck, Disney? You already did it in Lady and the Tramp — did you really need a Mexican stereotype here, too?
7. And finally, aside from again mentioning the great shots of New York in this movie, let me mention this: during the “Why Should I Worry?” number, Oliver jumps along the roofs of cars. And the way they do it is to just track the camera right as he does it. I don’t know why, but I was really struck by the camera angle. The way it moves and is positioned — I really loved that shot. I just felt I should mention it.
8. Scratch that — not finally — Jenny in this film looks almost exactly like Penny from The Rescuers. The reason for this I found out in the trivia above — this was originally going to be a sequel to The Rescuers. Hence the similarities.