Disney had set a few films in the year that they were made by the time 1988 rolled around. But it’s important to note that even though a film like One Hundred and One Dalmatians was obviously set in the 1960s, it still had a timeless feel to it so that audiences watching it forty years later could have just as easily believed that the story happened yesterday. This is not the case with Oliver & Company. When watching the film, there is no question that this film takes place in 1988.
The clothes that the human characters wear are unquestionably products of the late 80’s. The soundtrack includes songs by Huey Lewis, Ruth Pointer (of the Pointer Sisters “I’m So Excited” fame), Better Midler, and Billy Joel. The vocal cast includes the likes of Cheech Marin and Dom DeLuise. Providing the voice for Oliver was one of Joey Lawrence’s first roles. And did you see the hairstyle they gave Rita? Does this mean the film is bad? Not at all, but if you haven’t seen it before, consider watching it on the same night you decide to watch Sixteen Candles or Footloose, then you can make it a theme night.
Truth is that I didn’t get to see Oliver & Company during its original theatrical run. I was barely three at the time after all. It didn’t see a home video release until 1996 (as was the case with many pre-1989 Disney films), which was accompanied by a reissued theatrical run. So I did get to see Oliver & Company in theatres for the first time, six years after its initial release.
Oliver & Company falls right into that period of time where a lot of forgotten Disney movies lie. Not helping this is the fact that this was the film released right before The Little Mermaid. What’s surprising is that practically no one ever brings up this film when it was actually a success at the time it was released. It made $53.2 million during its original run (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oliver_%26_Company). It was such a success that just prior to the release of The Little Mermaid, Jeffrey Katzenberg told the studio to be prepared for The Little Mermaid to not be as successful as Oliver & Company because Oliver & Company was a boy movie and The Little Mermaid is a girl movie. And that is precisely why I don’t assign gender roles to Disney films.
Actually, there’s even more of a connection to The Little Mermaid here. This film is the first time Howard Ashman collaborated with Disney. He wrote the song “Once Upon a Time in New York City,” the song that opens the film, performed by Huey Lewis. It’s a decent song, but it’s definitely overshadowed by his later work with Disney.
We need to talk about the big chase scene. The studio had been dabbling in using computers to assist the animation since The Black Cauldron, but Oliver & Company was the first film to have its own department created for the sole purpose of computer generated animation. Several of the inanimate objects in the film were created with computers, but the most noticeably computer-y objects were definitely the cars and other like vehicles. Though its use is noticeable for today’s standards, the cars are what make the big climax as exciting as it is.
Sure, the scene where they break Jenny out of Sykes’ place of business is tense and suspenseful. But from the moment where Fagin breaks through the window on his scooter to the final confrontation on the Brooklyn Bridge, Disney gave us an over the top car chase scene on par with Jerry Bruckheimer’s finest. Is it realistic and feasible? Feh, no. It does culminate in a Chihuahua managing to maneuver a very crowded scooter up the top of the Brooklyn Bridge, which I think would be very cool to see in real life but kind of hard to pull off successfully. Does it make for an exciting cinematic showcase? Indeed it does.
There are some story issues though that I have trouble ignoring. For one thing, both Fagin and Jenny call each other by name during the more tense moments, but they never exchanged names during their brief conversation. I mean, the dogs and Oliver knew their names, but in this film’s continuity, animals can only vocally communicate with each other, not people. Aside from that, I enjoy this film tremendously each time I watch it.
The character work in this film is incredibly strong. Oliver is definitely sympathetic and cute to watch. His plight in “Why Should I Worry?” is almost more entertaining than watching Dodger sing to the dogs of Manhattan. I laugh every time they cut to Oliver after he makes his way across the air grate; who doesn’t think that a statically charged fluffy cat is funny? Joey Lawrence also manages to play Oliver as an innocent yet street hardened kid. I especially loved his line reading when he is trying to get back his hot dogs from Dodger; the way he screamed, “Half of those are mine!” was so convincingly a scorned child.
The two characters Oliver mainly interacts with are both handled extremely well. First off is the man himself, Dodger. Charismatic, street wise, tricky, brave, and unwillingly fond of Oliver, Dodger is a complicated man. He was willing to dupe Oliver into achieving his own means when they first meet, but adopts him as a younger brother figure when Oliver joins their gang. He cares about Oliver more than he would care to admit: he’s angry with Tito when Oliver is taken in the limo, he organizes an elaborate plan to get Oliver out of the house, is downright angry and hurt when Oliver reveals that he wanted to stay with Jenny, and risks his own life to save Oliver from Sykes’ maniac Dobermans.
Fagin’s gang is kind of awesome. Rita (Sheryl Lee Ralph) is the tough voice of reason. Einstein (Richard Mulligan) is the dimwitted but lovable and loyal Great Dane. Let’s pause on Frankie… sorry, I mean Francis. His voice was supplied by Roscoe Lee Browne, who passed away back in 2007. Does his voice sound familiar? Well, taking a peek at his IMDB page (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001975/_ will tell you why. The man had lent his distinct, noble pipes to a number of films dating all the way back to 1962. Some of the works that I recognized him from include Logan’s Run (“Fish, plankton, sea greens... protein from the sea!”), the narrator in Babe, and in a return to Disney, Mr. Arrow in Treasure Planet. A pretty epic voice, if you ask me.
Of course, that moment would not have been as portentous as it was had it not been for the filmmakers making full use of the Brooklyn Bridge backdrop. It’s not often that Disney sets a film in America, but when they do, they make it a mission to show off how beautiful and unique their chosen location within America is. In this case, it’s dirty 1980’s era Manhattan. Oliver & Company was the final film to use line overlay to make the backdrops look more in sync with the Xerox characters (it was first used for One Hundred and One Dalmatians). The result is a gritty vision of New York City that’s so palpable you can almost smell the asphalt. There are even real world advertisements decorating Times Square, the first time Disney would advertise within a film.
Oliver & Company is an ode to all corners of the Big Apple and the people (and pets!) that fall in between. It’s an entertaining, funny film that often falls in between the cracks in favor of the films that followed it (* cough * Little Mermaid * cough *). It also serves as a point in the history of the Disney Company when the films were becoming very aware of the Disney canon. Fagin wears a Mickey Mouse watch, and Tito sings a rendition of “Heigh Ho” before going off to be barbecued. Fittingly, Oliver & Company was the first showing of what was to come from Disney: a savvy comedy that took classic stories and reinterpreted them with modern sensibilities with some awesome music and memorable characters thrown into the mix. Oliver & Company would prove to be the start of many good things for the Company, films that would leave their mark on Disney forever.