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Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Monday, November 22, 2010

“Hey Man, If This is Torture, Chain Me to the Wall”

            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. 

It could be because I’m a huge Billy Joel fan, but I’ve always loved “Why Should I Worry?”  It’s definitely a song that’s received a lot of play on my iPod.  I do enjoy watching the song sequence in the film.  The animation definitely creates a charismatic character in Dodger, and his interactions with the Manhattan landscape are memorable and creative.  I especially like his piano playing; it’s a very Billy moment. The two girl dogs that join in (“Everything goes, everything fits”) are fun to watch as they bounce into the rhythm.  In the great tradition of the Disney dog film, the scene includes cameos from other famous Disney dogs including Pongo, Peg, Jock, and Trusty.

It’s important to discuss the songs in Oliver & Company because the studio looked at this film as a dry run for musicals.  They hadn’t done a full musical since The Fox and the Hound (though I never really thought of that film as a musical) back in ’81, and they wanted to see how audiences would react to a musical revival from Disney, since they were one year away from releasing The Little Mermaid upon the world.    “Why Should I Worry?” is most definitely the standout song of the film, but Bette Midler’s “Perfect Isn’t Easy” is the more traditional Broadway musical number that would become the standard in later Disney films.  The song goes above and beyond the call of duty in establishing Georgette as a character and the accompanying animation is over the top and grand to watch.
I actually really enjoyed Georgette.  Vain, embodies negative female stereotypes, conniving, jealous, but at the same time kind of fun.  Not exactly a new kind of character for Midler to play, but she played it well as always.  Some of my favorite moments from the film featured Georgette not saying anything at all.  Her doing leg lifts while eating a box of chocolates was really cute (and scarily similar to the way I exercise).  I definitely laughed at her facial expression during the big climactic chase.

          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. 
            Dodger is one of the film’s better characters and was more than adequately voiced by Billy Joel.  Though I suspect he was cast as the character to add a massive draw for audiences, Joel proved himself in his first and surprisingly his only acting role.  Granted he was probably just playing himself more than anything, but he still managed to play the film’s more dramatic moments convincingly.  Oliver and Dodger’s interactions are partly the heart of the emotional core of the film.
            I say partly because Oliver’s dilemma is made the more difficult when he meets Jenny.  Voiced by Natalie Gregory (her other most famous role was as Alice in a 1985 TV movie of Alice in Wonderland), Jenny would not seem that interesting since at face value she is the typical sweet but lonely girl.  Does she seem at all similar to another sweet but lonely girl that we’ve met at an earlier date?  If you said, “Well, she kind of reminds me of Penny from The Rescuers,” then know that there’s a reason for that.  In the early development of Oliver & Company, this film was actually planned as a Rescuers sequel.  Penny… Jenny?  The fact that Jenny comes across as an older version of Penny makes sense now, doesn’t it?  That said, Jenny’s interactions with Oliver are incredibly sugary sweet, and are affective at making the audience understand why Oliver’s reasons for not wanting to return to Fagin’s gang are not shallow.
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.
Not surprisingly, the film’s funniest bits involve Fagin (DeLuise’s character) and Tito (Marin’s work).  When I was younger, I laughed the loudest at Tito’s antics (“Whatcho call my woman, man?”).  Granted, a Mexican character in the form of a Chihuahua is not a new concept to Disney, an idea that dates all the way back to Lady and the Tramp.  His worries about being “barbecued” are still some of the biggest crack up moments.  Now when I watch the film I find myself laughing a bit more at Fagin.   
There’s a lot of DeLuise’s shtick in this film.  Due to his bumbling words and clumsy self-conscious actions, he manages to make his rather scary and tense scenes with Sykes somewhat humorous on his end.  The film never out rightly states why Fagin borrowed money from Sykes in the first place, and that was something that used to drive me crazy as a kid.  But the scene where he and Winston watch the fight together makes me think that Fagin has a bit of a gambling problem.
On the subject of Sykes, he was a different sort of villain for Disney, wasn’t he?  Voiced by Robert Loggia (the best actor in Independence Day), Sykes is not a sorcerer bent on committing acts of unspeakable evil, or a bumbling comedic figure, or a barely human tyrant bent on world domination.  He’s a loan shark who drives around in a big scary limo with two bloodthirsty Dobermans.  He carries a handgun and all he cares about is getting the money people owe him.  If you don’t pay up, with a snap of his fingers, Sykes will make you a Doberman meal.  Sykes is the kind of villain that we know exists in real life, which only adds to his intimidation and scary factor.  It’s no wonder that Fagin was shaking just upon seeing the man’s limo.
That same limo plays such in an integral role in the film’s climax.  If it weren’t scary before, just imagine waves of sparks shooting off behind it and it becomes scarier.  Of course, Sykes learns that chasing a motor scooter on a subway track in a huge vehicle is a bad idea when he meets up with the business end of a train.  The fates of Disney villains vary from film to film, but when they actually bite it on screen, it’s done in a manner with a great amount of finality.  I have to add Sykes’ limo getting mowed over by a train in a fiery collision to the list of gruesome Disney villain deaths.
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.


  1. I too never saw it until the re-release. I remember I was in kindergarten when it came out though, and they ads for it. This is definitely the grittiest Disney movie ever and screams "Look at us! We're contemporary!" It's darker than Black Cauldron at times. Fagin is almost choked to death in a power window (which bothered Gene Siskel immensely since it could be imitated by children). Dogs are fried by the third rail and they guy's hit by a train. There's mention made of broken fingers, and this is one of the only modern Disney films to show guns.

    I like Jenny a lot. Even though her outfit is so 80s that it makes no sense (a belt that does nothing and leg warmers). I like her hair, she's well voiced. I think the "Good Company" sequence is one of the most underrated in the film; it's a very nice song and one of my favorites. Fagin is great and of course Billy Joel as Dodger.

    I like "Why Should I Worry", but I kinda feel like the verses don't quite go with the chorus. I really like "Once Upon a Time in New York City". It's a fabulous opening song for this piece, and I wish it would be recognized as a great Disney song.

    My biggest problems with the film lie in it as an adaptation of Oliver Twist. It mostly works, but elements get lost for me. Who is Georgette supposed to be then? Does she have an analog? She's funny, but she doesn't serve much of a purpose. Indeed, this is the biggest problem; the female characters are short-shrifted. Why is Rita even there? The gang dynamic is mostly understandable, but some are underdeveloped. Tito gets a lot of screen time, but I'm never sure why the even HAVE Rita. She does nothing of value, says nothing of value, and sings the worst song in the movie. It feels like they wanted another female in there and didn't know how to do it.

    Oliver & Company is an interesting artifact that's sometimes better than I remember it. It annoys me that the vocals sound like they were recorded in tin cans, with all that annoying echoing. But at times a fun movie. "Winston! Bark! Bark!"

  2. This is another Disney movie I haven't seen since I was little. The only issue I can find with it is that I worry that future generations won't really get the whole 80's style.

    In between the years that I've seen this, I've become a big Billy Joel fan so I was super excited when I heard his voice. It was also very pleasant to hear the beginnings of Joey Lawrence's career.

    Though I'm pretty sure my favorite character is Tito. He's such a yappy little dog and he's always got something to say.

    The music in this is very enjoyable as well. I'm pretty sure that "Good Company" is my favorite because it's fun to sing. Closely followed by "Once Upon a Time in New York City." I also love "Why Should I Worry?" because it has that Billy Joel style to it. (Which makes sense.)

    I didn't realize that it was originally planned as a sequel to The Rescuers, and knowing that and thinking back on the movie makes a lot of sense. If that would have happened, then I would state that Penny sure has a knack for getting into trouble.

    I haven't read Oliver Twist, but I know the basic plot, so I can see the similarities. It definitely starts up the pattern Disney had during the 90s of taking classic stories and giving them a fresh coat of paint. It's too bad that this movie tends to fall to the wayside because of all the stellar movies to follow.

  3. Ooh, '80s New York. So many memories (well, in my case, late '80s and early '90s New York). Beautiful? No. Colorful? Yes. Cinematic? You bet, in a gritty sort of way. It's not the kind of place for a fairy tale, but Oliver's a comedy, so it works, really.

    Not for anything, but did anyone else wonder why Children's Services wasn't tracking down Jenny's mom and dad? I mean, their little girl goes galavanting all over the city (a dangerous place back then), gets kidnapped and held for ransom by a dangerous loanshark and participates in a high-speed chase before settling back into her everyday routine with her only company, the family manservant. Poor kid, no wonder she took to Oliver so quickly.

    Want to know something funny? The thing that really 'got' me in the end wasn't that Jenny and Fagin somehow managed to learn each other's names via some sort of unspoken telepathy. That never crossed my mind. Chalk it up to the thrill of the chase.

    No, what got me was the fact that Sykes' towncar was hit head-on by a subway train (or, perhaps more accurately, a subway/El train) running on the Brooklyn Bridge! There hasn't been a subway line on the iconic Brooklyn Bridge since the '40s! I don't think any of our characters were even old enough to remember the last time a train went over the Brooklyn Bridge, but I guess it's just cooler-looking than the neighborning Manhattan Bridge (which does have train service--I think it served the B, D, N and Q, much like today, even though my dad says that one set of tracks or the other was closed for repairs throughout the late '80s and early '90s). I don't know, that just kind of got to me...did anyone else notice that? Oh, well...at least he got his in the end. Sykes always scared the crap out of me because he was precisely the kind of guy your parents would warn you to watch out for. I was all kinds of wary about taking out student loans when the time came to start college because (now that I'm paying them back, penny by penny) even though Sallie Mae doesn't come calling with Roscoe and DeSoto in tow, baying for blood, it's not for lack of trying.

    On that note, I'm off...my minutes are numbered at the moment, and their number is three.