I n 1988 the Walt Disney Company released an animated feature length film called Oliver & Company that was based on the Charles Dickens classic, “Oliver Twist.” If you already knew this, chances are you’re around 30 years old and have a somewhat unhealthy relationship with pop culture (in which case, send us an email; we’re looking for writers)! If you have little to no idea what Oliver & Company is, you’re in good company, as nearly anyone I’ve ever broached the subject to tends to stare at me with a glassy haze over their eyeballs. Fortunately for you, I’m here to tell you all about this major motion picture that seems to have been swept right under the carpet.
I said major motion picture and I do mean major motion picture. Oliver & Company had celebrity voices, pop stars on the soundtrack, the whole Disney five star treatment. This wasn’t some half-hearted, straight to VHS endeavor (Disney hadn’t started pumping out sequels/prequels and diluting its own brand at that point). There were McDonalds Happy Meal toys and stuffed animals based on the characters in the movie. Two of the songs that appear in the movie are featured on volume six of the Disney Sing-Along Songs VHS series that were incredibly popular in the late 80s and early 90s. This was a tent pole film for Disney back in 1988 and to this day not many people would even know what you’re talking about when you mention Oliver & Company, much less recognize it as a Disney production. So what went wrong?
“When you measure this film to the company’s legacy of classics, it doesn’t match up.”
– Gene Siskel
For starters, this was an attempt to pull the company’s feature animation division out of the box office nosedive it had been enduring in the years following its last real hit, 1981’s The Fox and the Hound. Disney had been toying around with mostly live-action films in the early 80s to generally positive critical reception but consistently less than desired box office returns. In order to compete with the darker animated films from rival Don Bluth Productions (the successful new animated studio started by former Disney animator Don Bluth that had enjoyed victories over Disney’s last two animated films), Disney began releasing more mature and adult oriented films like Something Wicked This Way Comes, Return to Oz, and the Margot Kidder starring vehicle Trenchcoat failed to capture the imaginations of audiences (which is hard to believe since it’s a well-known fact that children and adults alike adore Margot Kidder). Even when the company went back to the drawing board with the animated The Black Cauldron in 1985 it was with the same dark tone of the films that had preceded it. Audiences weren’t having it and barring the very mild success of 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective and 1987’s The Brave Little Toaster, Disney hadn’t had a true hit in almost a decade. This reliance on mature themed films wasn’t working and something had to change.
“Oliver Twist with dogs,” is the fabled pitch that got the ball rolling on Oliver & Company according to every Disneyphile site I visited in preparation for this piece (I can’t verify the quote or its speaker but that’s a pretty spot on description of Oliver & Company so let’s not dwell on this little bit of lazy journalism and plow forward)! Disney was looking to try its hand at making their animated features into musicals, a fresh and innovative approach that made the company hundreds of millions of dollars from 1937 until 1981 when they inexplicably stopped… doing… that. Okay, so maybe change isn’t what was going to happen. Maybe swallowing their pride, standing up straight, doing an about-face and marching right back toward their original starting point was what would get those bank dollars rolling in.
Disney opened up their check book and enlisted the voice talents of Billy Joel, Cheech Marin and Bette Midler in a bit of stunt casting that would eventually become a marketing strategy over decade later when studios tried to cash in on animated features done on the cheap with computers (like the appallingly dreadful Shark Tale and Foodfight! among far too many others). They also brought in Huey Louis to sing the opening credit song, “Once Upon a Time in New York City,” written by the great Howard Ashman (who would go on to pen much more memorable music for Disney in Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin). Say what you will about the cultural relevancy of this celebrity cast today, but at the time they were A-list stars that would appeal to the parents spending their money on movie tickets. Disney even poached talent from Don Bluth Productions by casting Dom Deluise (the voice of Tiger in An American Tail) in the role of Fagan, the human leader of Billy Joel’s dog pack of pick-pockets with benevolent motivations. A young, then-unknown Joey Lawrence was cast as our kitten protagonist Oliver, long before he “Whoa’d” his way into our hearts.
It all sounded good on paper and ended up being a smart move for Disney as Oliver & Company opened at the number 4 box office position, but good word of mouth actually brought it up the following week to the number 3 position, a feat almost unheard of today. Oliver & Company managed to stay in the top 10 for an astounding 10 weeks, amazingly moving up yet again during Christmas holiday from number 7 to number 4! I know I’m throwing a lot of numbers around, but this constant underdog coming from behind performance was exactly what Disney was banking on. Oliver & Company had seemingly struck a nerve with audiences partially because of a star-studded cast that worked surprisingly well together but mainly because this was a true return to the animated musical that parents in the 80s grew up with. Rather than just shoehorning a theme song in at the opening and closing credits, Oliver & Company’s narrative was driven by infectious musical numbers, making it a film that families could have fun watching together as opposed to leaving the theater with existential dilemmas.
With all this box office success the question still remains: what went wrong? Why isn’t Oliver & Company part of the conversation when talk of modern day Disney classics comes up? You could point a finger at the lukewarm critical reception. Film critic Leonard Maltin said in his review, “Disney’s grittiest (grungiest?) animated feature is no classic, but it’s likable enough.” Siskel & Ebert didn’t have many kinder words either with Siskel writing, “When you measure this film to the company’s legacy of classics, it doesn’t match up” and Ebert giving up his ringing endorsement by calling the film, “Harmless, inoffensive.” Ouch.
The truth is that despite a return to the spirit of Disney’s earlier films, Oliver & Company was still a lesser entry in the company’s catalog. The songs, while infectious and fun, are hardly the stuff hits are made of. Billy Joel’s “Why Should I Worry” is really the only memorable song in the whole film and one gets the feeling that Disney knew this, as it’s reprised with the entire cast joining in at the end. You could defend that choice by claiming that that’s how they do it in stage musicals, and that’s true, but I doubt the filmmakers didn’t know the musical numbers in their first return to the format were a bit lackluster. When you have a hit, why not get as much mileage as you can out of it?
A very reasonable solution to problem with the songbook would be to sit back down at the piano and write some newer, better music. Unfortunately, Disney didn’t have time on their side. They needed to get this film out the door and into theaters in order to compete with Don Bluth Productions’ The Land Before Time (which went on to dominate at the box office anyway). This whole experiment with going back to the musical had to be done with an emphasis on deadlines and that explains a lot of Oliver & Company’s issues.
Aside from a mediocre soundtrack, the animation in this film looks cheap (for lack of a better word). During the intro we get a bird’s eye view of New York City in which there are cars making their way down busy streets. At least that’s what I assume they are since they appear to just be moving rectangles. This could be an homage to Dickens’ era illustrations, but no. It’s not. It’s just a still pencil sketch of the New York skyline with moving rectangles in there to make you think you’re seeing something better than what is actually on screen. Also, go ahead and have an ice cold Coca-Cola while you watch that gif.
Moving on from that intro, we actually get into the animation style that the rest of the film will be presented in and man, oh man, we are cutting corners left and right. There are actually times when you can see pencil marks appear and disappear. Additionally, these characters look like rough drafts, every one of them. Pencil marks aside, everything has the feel of being drawn on a sheet of paper that has been erased over and over again. The color palette is dull and lifeless and fights tooth and nail to bring this lively cast of characters right down into the mud. Fortunately, at least in my opinion and contrary to Roger Ebert’s, the cast and story are strong enough to keep the film’s head above water, but man is it an uphill battle when you’re dealing with an art style of such dreariness. The human characters fare no better; Dom Deluise’s Fagan looks as though he was originally supposed to be a dog of some sort and halfway through designing the character they decided to change gears and make him a man. Our main villain Sykes (voiced by every kid’s favorite character actor, Robert Loggia) appears to be nothing more than a broad pair of shoulders smoking a cigar. The animation throughout the entire film is ponderous, especially when you learn that this was the first time Disney heavily utilized computers to aid in their animation process. It’s clear that the kinks were still being worked out considering the sequences that computer animation are among the most disjointed and awkward looking parts of the film.
Poor animation, weak songs and a mediocre critical response didn’t keep Oliver & Company from being a box office success and it probably doesn’t have a whole lot to do with it being completely forgotten in the annals of Disney film history. Its real issue lies in its own successful performance at the box office.
Oliver & Company had an unfortunate cross to bear. It needed to get people into the theater to see a Disney film after years of weak animated offerings and live action duds while in the same breath get them excited to see what Disney would deliver next. The fact is, the film not only succeeded at both these challenges, it broke the backboard, shattering glass all over the court. Audiences were so smitten with what Disney had presented to them with Oliver & Company that their very next animated feature, The Little Mermaid, ushered in what is now referred to as “The Disney Renaissance” – a 10 year period where Disney dominated the animated world until newer studios Dreamworks and Pixar came into the fold (but that’s an entirely different editorial altogether).
Sandwiched in between the muck of the 80s and the golden era of the 90s, Oliver & Company finds itself in a lonely positions as being the proverbial isthmus of Disney. A little sliver of film history that gets overlooked simply because it’s completely covered in the footprints of Disney executives, animators and songwriters as they followed the gold rush of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King, et al. But all is not lost! In 2009 Disney released a 20th anniversary edition of Oliver & Company on Blu-Ray and DVD that featured many extras including interviews with the cast, conceptual art, and a making-of featurette. By at least acknowledging its existence, Disney may be trying to right some wrongs and make younger fans aware that there’s more to classic animation than the Disney Princess films.