Original Release: November 18, 1988
Runtime: 73 Minutes
Directed By: George Scribner
Notable Actors: Joey Lawrence, Billy Joel, Cheech Marin and Bette Midler
There’s an old phrase which says that it is always darkest before the dawn. I think this phrase is very important to bring up when talking about Oliver & Company, the next film on our Vault Disney adventure. I recall liking this film as a child, even finding it quite funny. This was not the case on our rewatch. With animation that’s a bit awkward, a story which is a bit brutal in its depiction of death, and a bit fanciful in its depiction of homelessness in New York City, Oliver & Company seems to take every complaint I’ve had regarding different films in this series and shove them forcefully together. While there is some good deep within Oliver & Company, this easily stands as my least favorite film on our list so far. But before the slap fest begins, let’s take into account some history, shall we?
Production on Oliver & Company started in 1987, originally called Oliver and the Dodger. Essentially it was the result of a pitch by Pete Young during a meeting in which animators were invited to pitch their ideas. Among these idea was The Little Mermaid and Treasure Island in Space. Sounds like a pretty good meeting to me. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had wanted to produce a live action version of the musical Oliver! quickly approved the project and production began.
Apparently, the original version of the script was far darker, if you can believe this. It involved the two dobermans, De Soto and Roscoe, killing Oliver’s parents. It also included Mr. Sykes’ trying to kidnap a panda. This later was changed to have Oliver be an Asian cat worth a lot of money. This was later dropped and replaced with Tito in order to keep the high level of racism in the film. I’m only joking about that last part. Sort of. Oh, here’s something fun. The film was blocked out using real shots of city streets taken 18 inches off the ground in order to get a real dog’s eye view, a technique originally used in the production of Lady and the Tramp. Puppy cam all the way! Can I have the job? This film also marked the incorporation of even more computer imagery, which here feels quite a bit more seamless than in our past two films.
I wouldn’t fault you if you told me that Oliver & Company was your favorite Disney film. While I think there is a LOT of bad here, there’s also handful of very good peppered throughout. I quite like the music of this film. It’s been a while since we had a true Disney musical and the songs here are quite catchy and fun and get us in the spirit of New York. Given that this is the first film in the series to be set in modern day, it makes sense that it would have such a great new feel. “Why Should I Worry” might just be one of my favorite songs in any Disney film so far. I also quite like Georgette’s song about how it is important to be fabulous for the sake of humanity. I love me a good diva. The characters are all fairly likable and the animation, while critiqued by many, seemed very new and fresh to me and that’s always welcome.
However, for every step that Oliver & Company takes forward, it takes three giant leaps, a stumble and a face plant backwards. Let’s start with Tito. Oh Tito, where do I even begin? Should we talk about how this Latino dog’s part of the group is that he hotwires cars? Should we discuss his accent which, while I know is that of Cheech, feels pretty stereotypical and ridiculous. It’s concerning to me because this might just be the first Latino main character in a Disney film and, much like the Siamese cats, he feels like a cookie cutter of what white people will understand as Mexican. As if, were he not over the top, we might not know that he is supposed to be a Mexican Chihuahua. Seriously, we might just think he’s a normal Chihuahua and that wouldn’t do. I hate to pigeon hole Disney as being ‘racist’ as I know that so many critics out there like to throw that blame, but in this scenario, yes, racism, painful racism all the way.
Let’s move on. We can just move past that and, oh God, we have to talk about Fagin. Aw yes, a homeless man in New York City. Surely his only problem is that he can’t pay back his debts. If not for that pesky business he’d be happily living with his family of dogs. Yes, the life of the homeless is carefree and fun almost. You get to jump on cars. You get to steel hotdogs! Maybe I’m sensitive to this one as I actually live in New York City but the fact that Fagin is made such a poor pitiful character who never really gets any bump up or help in the world is pretty upsetting. He saves this family’s cat and then just goes right back to street living. He makes homelessness seem pretty manageable and I’m sorry, it’s just not. This is a character who we laugh at because he’s eating dog bones when that is literally all he can afford. I found it all extremely upsetting to say the least.
I’ve said before that I like when Disney goes dark but I feel as though this film crossed a bit of a line for me. First off, there’s the aspect of Sykes kidnapping young Jenny Foxworth. I know we’ve seen kids kidnapped before in The Rescuers but something about this one feels quite cold and ruthless. This happens as we overhear a conversation on the phone where Sykes is teaching someone on the other line how to torture another human being. Yeesh. Then there’s the issue of the final chase sequence which has us barreling down the tunnels of a subway. This results in Roscoe and De Soto being thrown to the tracks and being electrocuted to death. I don’t care how animated they are or how evil they were, I don’t particularly care to watch dogs get electrocuted on the subway tracks. I’m watching a Disney movie here, not House of Cards. Finally, Sykes is rolled over by a train in what may be the most brutal villain death to date. It’s all a tad morbid for my tastes.
I genuinely like Oliver and the Dodger as characters and I honestly wish the film had focused more on them. It starts off strong but by midway through it seems more like a film about Fagin and Jenny than anything else. Oliver and the Dodger get lost in the mix, present for the main plot points but rarely really contributing to them in any major way. It’s a shame because their friendship is what allows us to crawl into this city dwelling life.
There’s a ray of hope here though. One character which made me not hate the film entirely. Georgette is my kind of girl. She is hilarious and her facial expressions kill me. She’s a bit of a real housewife but for the doggy world. A Kardashian in the making. Her initial hatred and then sudden love for Tito is also endearing and while she hates Oliver and tries to get rid of him, I always found her to be a welcome addition to the cast. In one scene, where Jenny asks her to search for Oliver, she looks into a fish bowl and proclaims sarcastically. “He’s not here!” Hilarious. I’d take an entire film about her. That’s how much I liked this character.
Oliver & Company is sort of a violent racist mess, but even at its worst, its still better than most animated films. Amidst an array of sloppy storylines, subpar animation and car theft jokes, there is a peppering of good music, some very memorable characters and plenty of cute dogs. More importantly, this if the very first film in our series released in my lifetime so that’s at least a little special…right? We’re about to get into some big hitters and a resurgence for Disney, but for now we can take comfort in knowing that the Dodger has made it okay for us to not care about this movie. Why should I worry, Dodger? Why should I care? No reason? Great, moving on.
Next Up: The Little Mermaid
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NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head over HERE and check it out!