This week’s installment of Journeys in the Disney Vault is special because we are officially halfway through the entire Disney animated canon (there’s 53 movies – the last of which comes out this year – and I did round-up)! I’m proud of myself that I’ve gotten this far, and can’t wait to get into the movies that I identify and know the most about. With that, next week kicks off the official start of the Disney Renaissance but, before we get to that masterpiece, we gotta wade past the swampy moat…and that moat is Oliver & Company. I didn’t care for Disney’s take on Oliver Twist when it came out, and I still don’t care for it now. The root of the problem is that the movie is EXTREMELY dated; like shoulderpads and mousse dated. That, and the fact that the movie wants to make this the Billy Joel show creates an unbalanced tone for both kids and adults. I still don’t care for Robin Hood, but this is one of worst Disney films right next to it.
Disney does Dickens telling the story of orphan cat Oliver (voiced by Joey Lawrence) who is taken in by a gang of streetwise dogs led by Dodger (voiced by Billy Joel).
Oliver & Company was a box-office success upon release and actually did a lot of good for the company. It was Disney’s return to musicals since The Fox & The Hound, it employed an increased amount of CGI (to the point of needing its own department), and marked Disney’s now standard schedule of one animated film a year. However, it’s the last film before the Disney Renaissance, the storm before the dawn. It was went through a convoluted development process as it marched in a new group of animators after Disney’s original Nine Old Men had all retired. Animation geniuses Glen Keane, Ruben A. Aquino and others all cut their teeth on this before becoming the legends they are. In terms of story, this was originally intended to be a sequel to The Rescuers (the completed sequel would be released two years later) with Penny returning and detailing her new life in New York with her dog, Georgette. No matter what’s been said about that idea being shelved, I maintain they simply tweaked a few things and presented that original idea. Seriously, Penny in The Rescuers and Jenny in this (voiced by Natalie Gregory)…a little too close for comfort.
Jenny is a regurgitated Penny, continuously in trouble and having zero personality. Other things Disney utilized for the stock little girl: Annie (Oliver is the Annie to her Daddy Warbucks), and can someone explain to me the fascination with poor little rich girls that went on in animation during the 80s-90s? Jenny is wealthy and her parents aren’t around; its similar territory tread in other animated movies of the time, the one that immediately comes to mind is We’re Back! A Dinosaur Story (yes, I remember that movie). We also see the reused idea of a spoiled poodle, here voiced by Bette Midler. I will say that Georgette, Midler’s character, gets the one memorable song of the movie which hits all the high notes needed for a big Broadway showstopper. The songs would only get bigger, and more presentable to a future Broadway audience, from here on out. Oh, and just an aside, does anyone think the cover image for Oliver & Company is a slight reconfiguration of the All Dogs Go to Heaven poster? Think on that.
If you look back at all the Disney movies that came before, there’s no one particular quality that “dates” the film. Snow White takes place in a far off land, and outside of the animation it could be anytime in the past. Even The Rescuers didn’t have anything that would define a particular time period. Every inch of Oliver & Company screams 1980s; every…damn….thing. The animation is gritty, worn, and reminiscent of those cartoons that would tell kids to recycle or tell their parents if someone is being abused. It’s muted and unfinished in a way that’s worse than the xerography process of the 1960s (after The Little Mermaid, hand-inked/drawing would be replaced with computers entirely). The movements and expressions on the characters are stiff and delayed, a far cry from the fluid work of Disney in the 1930s-1940s! The opening theme song, the first from legendary composer Howard Ashman, sounds like easy listening music in an elevator. The two songs defining the movie, “Streets of Gold” and “Why Should I Worry” are as dated as it gets. The former sounds like any young girl in the 80s with that shout sound effect employed, and the latter is prime Billy Joel; both of them are filtered to sound like Michael Jackson. The problem with both songs is their so nondescript, either because the 80s just had all music utilizing the same basic beats and techniques, or because the composer believed people wanted stuff that sounded like what they listened to on the radio.
In terms of characterization, at only an hour and ten minutes there’s zero time to get into personality so all the characters are stereotyped to hell! Oliver and Jenny are milquetoast, Georgette and Rita (voiced by Sheryl Lee Ralph) are women – seriously that’s their characteristic, oh and one is spoiled the other isn’t – there’s two other dogs who aren’t particularly interesting at all, and there’s Tito (Cheech Marin). Ah yes, Tito, the stereotypical Mexican. Tito is an annoying pre-Jar Jar Binks character who encompasses the worst in stereotyping. He loves burritos, he calls Georgette “woman,” he’s voiced by Cheech Marin, and he listens to a sound that’s a discount version of “La Bamba,” and he’s a Chihuahua.
If Tito’s the character you hate, that makes Dodger the character you’re supposed to love; I mean he’s so cool in the book, right? No offense to Billy Joel, but he should stick to his day job. Dodger is meant to be hyper-cool, but for a 1980s movie he’s stuck in the 1950s. He has an affected accent and dialogue that sounds ripped from the pages of West Side Story. He truly reminded me of MC Scat Cat (look him up if you’re a late 90s kid)! And of course, the animators have to remind the audience that Joel is voicing the character, so the parents aren’t bored I guess, by having “sly” references to Joel’s previous work; we see Dodger playing a piano, and inducting Oliver into the “Uptown chapter” of the gang. Do I need to say dated again? I have always enjoyed Dom DeLuise‘s voice work, and his work as Fagin is no different from similar roles he’s voiced before. I think his role as Tiger in the Fievel series is a better take on the character. Wait, wasn’t he in All Dogs Go to Heaven, too?! Robert Loggia as Sykes is also great because he’s a real-world villain implanted within a children’s film. The one element of true darkness is within the Sykes character, and while it never works fully with the story that precedes it, he’s one of the better Disney villains and similar to George Sanders in Jungle Book.
Thankfully, Oliver & Company is only a passing blip before the epic reveal of the Disney Renaissance. On its own merits, the movie is a cheap quickie whose frugality is seen in the lackluster animation, and songs utilized to sound like everything else at the time. Its worst offense is how dated it is. Children today might be swayed by the cute animals, but I doubt they’ll be tempted to watch the entirety of the movie.
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.