This post couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. It is 9/11/2014 and what do I see from this Disney movie?:
But I will push forward :) Let’s talk about Disney’s 27th animated classic, Oliver and Company.
For me watching Oliver and Company is like Christmas Eve. It’s fun and all but partly because I know what is coming!!! The Disney Renaissance is next up and Oliver and Company, while commonly considered a lesser Disney entry did make some contributions to the upcoming movement.
It’s interesting because when they first started Pixar they gathered the animators and had a retreat and brainstormed a list of ideas that led to Toy Story, Bugs Life, Finding Nemo, Wall-e etc. I have no doubt that John Lasseter got that idea from the Disney animators in the late 80s.
After the failure of Black Cauldron Michael Eisner and Jeffery Katzenberg had a similar retreat and came up with ideas like Little Mermaid, Aladdin and even as far reaching as Treasure Planet.
One of their ideas was a ‘Dog Oliver Twist’. This is funny because at the beginning of Ichabod and Mr Toad the narrator lists off the great characters from English literature and they include Oliver Twist and Arthur, both now part of Disney cannon.
This is perhaps a bit of a breakaway because you have to go way back to the package films to find source material which is adult turned into children’s entertainment. Great Mouse Detective was in a way but there was actually a series of books about Basil of Baker Street.
Oliver and Company is notable for four other reasons.
1. Land Before Time- It was released the same weekend as Land Before Time produced by the Bluth company. LBT had better reviews and did make more money $84 million to Oliver’s $74. LBT was also the last collaboration of Don Bluth with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, and aside from All Dogs Go to Heaven he would not have another big hit to challenge Disney’s renaissance.
I wanted to watch Land Before Time for this review because most everyone thinks it is the better film but I didn’t want to distract from this review or give a halfhearted review of LBT. Will have to go back and review the Bluth films (the good Bluth films) another time.
2. Computer animation- Oliver and Company used computer animation throughout the film not just in scenes as previous 2 films had done. It also marked the start of the computer animation division at Disney, which was crucial to Little Mermaid and especially Beauty and the Beast
3. Disney Broadway- In some ways Oliver and Company was an experiment to see what the public responded too. That’s probably why there is a little bit of everything- slapstick, drama, situational humor, celebrity voices, and music. Growing up Little Mermaid wiped Oliver and Company from my mind but I did remember the music. Seeing the soundtrack’s appeal Disney would go on to make musicals for the next 12 years aside from Rescuers Down Under.
4. Oliver did well enough Disney decided with the computer animation they could go from producing a film every 4 years to 1 a year and they would keep up that track record for the next 20 years, only missing a handful of years. Thank you Oliver for giving me a Disney film every year!!
I’m not a Dickens scholar but to say this is a loose translation of the classic novel is an understatement. Aside from character names and pickpockets briefly mentioned there is basically no resemblance in the stories. So, to enjoy the picture you kind of have to get rid of that expectation right away (want to see a true egregious translation to cartoon watch Gnomeo and Juliet…Sigh).
The opening segment with a song by Barry Mann and Howard Ashman (the latter went on to write for Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast). It is sung by 80s star Huey Lewis.
Like I said you get the New York skyline and the twin towers and as a lover of New York I loved this intro.
Through the song we meet Oliver an orphan who is forced to fend for himself. Right away he meets a quick talking dog name Dodger voiced by Billy Joel (huge fan of him) who teaches him how to steal hot dogs from a vendor.
Once they get the hotdogs Oliver wants to share but Dodger explains to his new friends the ways of the street animal. It is without a doubt one of the best Disney pop songs ever.
Even if you aren’t crazy about the movie I don’t know how you can argue it is a catchy tune. One of Billy Joel’s better vocal performances and like I said I am a huge fan. Saw him in concert a few years ago- amazing!
Eventually Dodger takes Oliver to meet the crew who works for Fagan. One thing I like about Oliver and company is how clearly diverse the voice cast is and the characters drawings show that. There are 2 in the troop, Rita and Francis that are voiced quite obviously by African-American actors and little Tito voiced by Cheece Marin (he’s a cliche but brings a lot of humor so I don’t think anyone will be offended by it?)
While none of the character animation feels original or artistic (seems pretty standard Saturday morning animation work) I liked some the characters and the feeling of family. In the world of Disney animal movies this just in design is probably at the bottom for me.
After a little more singing Dodger and the other dogs decide to teach Oliver the ways of the world and how to run scam on a limo driver who thinks he has run over Francis.
One of the occupants of the limo is a little girl named Jenny who’s parents don’t care for her and leave her alone with the butler (seems like such an 80s latch key kid cliche). I was not a big fan of the Jenny character. I thought she could have been replaced by a million other Saturday morning cartoon girls in both design and personality. This is random but she also has very short skirts and her hair changes colors dramatically throughout the film
.Oliver and Jenny quickly bond and she gives him a license, which if we remember Lady and the Tramp means you are part of the family.
This, however, is very bad news for Jenny’s pompous poodle named Georgette . She introduces herself in a delightful number. It’s a fun sequence and definitely seems to have that Broadway edge. The stairs at the end feel especially broadway and since I love broadway I enjoyed it. Plus, you’ve got to like Bette Middler!
Meanwhile Dodger and the group think Oliver is unhappy in the rich house and create a plan to get Oliver out- a plan which Georgette is only too eager to get behind.
Through some funny scenes, particularly with Tito, Oliver is put in a sack and taken back to the docks. I found this plot point to be a little odd. They are pickpockets . Wouldn’t they take stuff from the mansion? And they haven’t been the most selfless group up to this point (Dodger wouldn’t even give Oliver a hotdog) and yet all of a sudden they will risk life and limb to get him back? That didn’t make sense to me . A scheme where they got Oliver back and scored serious loot would have been more in keeping with the characters.
Unfortunately Fagan, the drifter who owns the pets, comes in and see’s Oliver’s license. He develops a scheme to extort money from Oliver’s owner by putting Oliver up for ransom. I actually not sure why they made Fagan likable? It’s a shame really because I think having a villain around the dogs more would have helped with pacing of this movie .
Speaking of villains, this movie’s version is super lame. His name is Sykes and most of the time he is in shadows and bullies Fagan about the money he has loaned him. He has no real personality and isn’t even on screen that much . His dogs are scarier looking to me, but again we don’t see them for long.
Jenny goes out searching for Oliver and somehow ends up down by the peer where she meets Fagan. She promises to pay for Oliver and gives him her piggybank. Not the ransom he was hoping for but touched Fagan gives Jenny her cat. Just then Sykes swoops in and nabs Jenny (stop with these little girl abductions please . At least this is brief).
The dogs then end up chasing Sykes down in a great segment in the Subway and on a train tracks. All of the characters including Tito and Georgette have moments which I liked. This isn’t like the Duchess who waits for others to rescue her. I liked Georgette!
Some of this subway scene is a little dated but considering it was so new to computer animation it is pretty impressive:
With Sykes gone all are reunited and we get a reprise of our favorite song
I have a friend who loves this movie. I can respect that. However, for me it has nice moments but doesn’t quite work as a whole narrative. I liked the music. I liked the backdrops of New York. I liked the Subway scene at the end. I loved the vocal performances but the story was weak, which is a crime since it starts with one of the great stories of English literature.
Some of their choices are odd. For example, why make Fagan so bland? He is voiced by Dom DeLuise (who is in almost all of Bluth’s films) and who is a brilliant voice actor and could have done interesting things with the character. As it is, he kind of mopes around fearing the worst. He doesn’t even have a strong bond with the animals. Fagan is a manipulative beast in the novel so why they turned him into such a bore here I will never know. I never felt any real tension in the hostage storyline and since Fagan is around the characters the most it would have worked better if he was the main villain like he is in the book.
When I say he was bland what I mean is there wasn’t enough growth or story happening to him. He just kind of observes and makes a few choices but no real drama, which left the movie feeling slow and a little boring.
The most interesting thing about the main villain Sykes is the way he dies. He felt like a standard 80’s cartoon villain, like Prof Claw in Inspector Gadget. Same thing with Jenny. Her animation felt sloppy and standard 80s Punky Brewster style little girl. She has some spunk going to find Oliver, but we don’t get to know her well enough to feel concern or care for her like we do with other Disney little girls in peril (how strange that is a category). Jenny does sing a rather bland song called Good Company (honestly I forgot about it when I was writing the earlier part of the review. Clearly forgettable!). As much as I dislike The Rescuers, the little girl, Penny, gets a whole backstory. We know her. She’s an interesting character. That’s what makes it hard for me to watch when she is treated so poorly. Jenny I didn’t feel that same connection too. She reminded me of the little kids in the Care Bears movie which is never a good thing.
That said, a lot of the characters I liked. I liked Dodger, Rita, Tito and Georgette. There is a nice diversity in the cast and the group feels like the pound sequence in Lady and the Tramp but with a little more edge. I enjoyed their family feel. Oliver is cute but kind of bland. Bette Middler hams it up in her song and scene and Billy Joel is great as Dodger. Tito is funny but it can get a little old at times.
And ‘Why Should I Worry’ is a great song. I can picture dancing with my nieces to it and having a ball . There is nothing offensive or problematic for small children; although older children might get a little bored with the story. It’s pretty predictable and slow.
So, in the end, Oliver and Company has good moments and I’m glad I watched it. I was entertained. The music is great. However, sections drag and there are too many bland characters with an especially bland villain which hurt the picture. A mixed bag for me.
Overall Grade- C-
Little Mermaid is coming!!!!!!!! I feel like I should host a sleepover or something!