A Study in Disney: ‘Oliver & Company’ (1988)

| January 4, 2022

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Wool and Wheel: Oliver & Company {1988}

As the decade of the 1980s neared its mid-point, one could not avoid the odd feeling that Disney’s legendary animation department was in a massive state of transition.  Things were so caustic that it looked like Disney was about to suffer its own modern-day version of the fall of Rome at the hands of a corporate raider.  Thankfully, new emperors would sweep in to help restore the House of Mouse to its former glory.

Newly installed Disney overlords Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted to get the creative juices flowing by instituting the now legendary “Gong Show Meetings”, a thrice annual meeting in which everyone from animators to secretaries could toss out potential ideas that would make for good feature films.  Early in Eisner and Katzenberg’s tenure, animators John Musker and Ron Clements had pitched two ideas, The Little Mermaid and something called “Treasure Island in Space” – which you know as Treasure PlanetMermaid was gonged because at this moment, the potential of a Splash sequel was still on the books, and the Treasure Planet idea was delayed while Musker and Clements were continually re-assigned to do other things like Aladdin and Hercules.  While The Little Mermaid and Treasure Planet were tarried in production hell, an animator named Pete Young suggested the idea tentatively known as “Oliver Twist with Dogs.” 

Oliver & Company wouldn’t exactly be the great booster rocket to get the animation department off the ground but it would help aim them in the right direction.  It was popular, it made a respectable box office, but it would take a further boost of inspiration to get them back on track (stay tuned).  Plus, when all was said and done, the release of the movie showed a trend that was potentially problematic.

In its 65-year-history up to this point, Disney Animation had never really faced stiff competition.  Oh, there were competitors out there – Warner Brothers and Fleisher and Hannah-Barbera, of course.  And television was dotted with animation studios like Ruby Spears, Sunbow, Filmation, Dic Entertainment, Jay Ward Productions and the myriad of Japanese animation houses including Toei, plus a newly-minted company that would eventually be procured by Disney called Studio Ghibli.  But no one in this area had really given Disney a run for its money.  

So, it is ironic that the first animation house that would best Disney at the box office was run by a man who, eight years earlier, had walked out on them in their darkest hour.  Don Bluth had resigned from the Disney company in 1979 after an embittered feud over the direction the company was taking.  Feeling that the management was letting the animated output fall into chaos and mediocrity, he staged a mutiny on September 12, 1979 (his 42nd birthday) when he turned in his resignation and took 11 animators with him – over time 25% of the animation department would take his lead.  He and financer Morris Sullivan partnered that year to form Sullivan Bluth Studios.

In the wake of Bluth’s exodus, Disney Animation entered it darkest chapter yet which culminated in The Black Cauldron, an expensive, over-produced and underwhelming chunk of indifference that would represent a pit from which the animators would be forced to crawl out.  Fortunately, their next picture was The Great Mouse Detective, a delightful outing that was a fun, but admittedly slight effort that never-the-less proved to Disney executives that animation could be a viable business.  This was important because it was released at a moment when those same executives were inches away from chloroforming the animation department all together.

Bluth would best Disney at the box office twice; first in 1986 when The Great Mouse Detective was overtaken at the box office by his own An American Tail – the Lets-Have-Russian-Jews-But-Keep-the-J-Word-Under-Your-Hat-Movie.  It made of $47,000,000 and became the highest grossing non-Disney animated feature up to that point.  Two years later, Bluth and company would strike again, this time with a much more honest movie, The Land Before Time which incidentally opened on the exact same day as Oliver & Company.  Bluth’s film would rocket to #1 while Disney’s film would open at #4 also behind Child’s Play and Ernest Saves Christmas, both in their second week.

Most agreed that this time Bluth put out the better product.  The Land Before Time had the magic and Disney’s Oliver & Company seemed much more conventional, a colorful song and dance extravaganza in which you can’t remember the songs and feel no urge to get up and dance.  Although the McDonald’s toys were nice.

Its not for nothing though.  Oliver & Company shows signs of greatness, particularly in its terrific opening scene in which the camera pushes in on a beautiful watercolor rendering of Manhattan Island – including The World Trade Center – and we find ourselves suddenly on its busy streets listening to Huey Lewis sing the melancholy strains of “Once Upon a Time in New York City” – the first song written for a Disney film by 38-year-old playwright and lyricist from Baltimore named Howard Ashman.  The scene finds a small group of people crowded around a cardboard box with a sign reading “Free Kittens.”  The kittens are taken away one by one until the day closes and a rain storm moves in.  There is one little guy left in the box but he escapes for better shelter and encounters the unfamiliarity and terrifying reality of the New York streets.

That sequence alone is one of the best that the Disney animators have come up with in this period.  It establishes tone and mood and tells a story completely without dialogue.  Unfortunately, the rest of the story is a pretty conventional kid’s movie with colorful characters, a scary villain and a chase in the third act.  The curiosity here is that the story is based on Oliver Twist except that characters are dogs and cats.  Oliver is a wayward kitten and The Artful Dodger is a mutt named Dodger voiced with a very “New Yawk” accent by Bronx native Billy Joel.  The other characters have been re-embodied into canines, but the traits remain the same.  The dogs steal for their very survival and there’s a wayward petty crook named Fagin (voiced by Dom DeLuise) who is their human friend.  He’s in debt to the movies’ villain, a loan shark named Sikes – who is voiced by Robert Loggia but, for some reason, looks like Sidney Lumet.

The movie follows the strands of Charles Dickens “Oliver Twist” but remains very light-hearted (it was not originally planned that way).  This could not have been an easy task.  The world of Charles Dickens doesn’t organically lend itself to musical numbers nor to the wonderful world of Disney.  His was a world of dreadful 19th century social dehumanization lorded over by comically repulsive characters.  So, an adaptation couldn’t have been much fun.  Primary to the problem is that Oliver Twist, in the book, isn’t a very interesting character.  He’s sort of a pawn to stand by while a fascinating circus of characters move in and out of his life making changes in his destiny. 

The best adaptation of this story remains the 1968 Oscar-winning film directed by Carol Reed.  That film had a great alteration to Oliver from the book, the stage musical and 1948 film adaptation in which the titular hero was given a bright personality, a measure of the breath of life that made him more than just a bystander in his own story.  The primary fulcrum of the story are the supporting characters: Fagin, Bill Sikes and The Artful Dodger.  The joy of the 1968 version was that it afforded Oliver a wealth of character to play off of, and also allowed him to have a heartbeat of his own.  It is impossible to say that Oliver & Company has any of that.  The characters are all pegs, placeholders for the action and the backgrounds.

Actually the backdrop of New York City is the best part of this movie.  Oliver & Company is very emblematic of a curious theme in American movies in the mid-to-late 80s – a celebration of New York as the cultural, artistic and economic center of the world.  This was the turnaround from the late 70s where the alarming crime rate had inspired films like Death Wish and The French Connection and a dozen imitators with a portrait of The Big Apple as a decaying crime-ridden hellhole that culminated in the sci-fi adventure Escape from New York – the movie where Manhattan island had been refitted as a Maximum-Security Prison.  By mid-decade, this was beginning to change.  Romancing the Stone, The Golden Child, Crocodile Dundee, Ghostbusters, Moonstruck, Coming to America, Working Girl, and even Disney’s own surprise hit Splash showed New York City as a Metropolis that was thriving.

Everything is in its proper place in this movie.  It looks great, it sounds great.  There are moments and flashes a brilliance.  The watercolor backgrounds of New York are beautiful, and some of the animation works too.  But the story and the characters fall short.  It begins by focusing in on the Oliver character and his lonely plight, but it keeps getting distracted and moving away to other things. 

Despite its flaws, Oliver & Company would be credited as the pre-show for The Disney Renaissance.  For the next decade, Disney’s animated output would not only give Disney’s animation legacy a new breath of life but would alter the culture and change the landscape of the animated feature into something that even Walt could not have imagined.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.