Oliver & Company (1988)

My wife and I recently adopted a kitten. He was 12 weeks old when we got him and he’s such a sweet and sprightly little thing. Bless her patient heart, my wife allowed me to name the kitten. Well, the little guy was orange, so what else could I have named the cutie but “Oliver”?

To make it even better, one of our dogs, Molly, is a kooikerhondje, a medium-sized dog that is mostly white with light brown spots, has folded-over ears, and – because of her age – a gray muzzle. OMG, guys, she needs needs NEEDS a red neckerchief, a pair of sunglasses, and a set of link sausages around her neck. I need to set up a photo op with these two like, yesterday. And holy smoo, I just realized I own a chihuahua, too. THIS IS WHAT INSTAGRAM WAS MADE FOR, PEOPLE! THIS IS NOT A DRILL!!

Michael Eisner and Frank Wells came to the Walt Disney company in 1984, when The Black Cauldron was about as done as it was gonna get and The Great Mouse Detective was well underway. While the latter turned out to be only the turning point of what would become the renaissance of the nineties, it still had some old-world qualities to it. Eisner was largely responsible at this time for trying to modernize Disney, and help them get with the times. This meant not being afraid to use newer technology, using more recent trends to be reflected in the films, and using star power to sell a movie. The Great Mouse Detective had the late, great Vincent Price, but the next movie would utilize the talents of Billy Joel, Bette Midler, Ruth Pointer, Robert Loggia, Roscoe Lee Browne, Cheech Marin, Richard Mulligan, and Huey Lewis. And in the tradition of great Disney movies, they borrowed from literature great Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist…but instead of 1830’s London, it was set in 1988 New York City. And instead of boring ol’ humans, it stars Disney’s favorite animal, dogs.

The film turned out to be a hit, and much like Who Framed Roger Rabbit earlier that year, it became a celebrated film in the Disney canon before a mermaid, a beast, a street rat, and a lion would drown out their fame. It also would further warn Don Bluth Studios – since after a string of successful films trying to beat Disney at their own game – that Disney was back. In fact, Oliver & Company was released the same day as one of their most beloved films, The Land Before Time. True, Bluth’s movie made $84 million while Disney pulled in $74 million, but it was not so one-sided anymore.

So let’s croon with canine coolness and cruise into this crazy cartoon of the Queens!

The plot: Oliver (Joey Lawrence) is an abandoned kitten in the heart of New York City, until a smooth-talking mutt named Dodger (Joel) shows him how to steal hot dogs. Oliver discovers Dodger is just one of several dogs – including Rita (Pointer), Einstein (Mulligan), Francis (Lee Browne), and Tito (Marin) – owned by a bum named Fagin (Dom Deluise). But Fagin owes a considerable sum to loan shark Sykes (Loggia), and he has only three days to pay him back, with the gang of dogs utilizing their talents to pull heists and steal valuables.

During a job gone awry, Oliver gets caught by a young girl named Jenny Foxworth (Natalie Gregory), who promptly adopts him, and allows Oliver a life in the lap of luxury. Only Jenny’s other pet, a blue-ribbon winning show poodle named Georgette (Midler) is not happy about the presence of Oliver in her home.

But Dodger and the gang haven’t given up. With Sykes’ deadline looming, the dogs have to rescue Oliver, get Fagin the money he needs, and hope no one else crosses the man’s wrath. Or his vicious dobermans.

How’s the writing?: It’s been well over a decade since I’ve read Oliver Twist, so comparing it to the novel is beyond moot. What I will say, though, is the movie might have benefited from being a bit longer, or maybe using its runtime a little better. Because some parts feel rushed, even if they aren’t written that way. Like a lot is crammed in at once in some scenes, and not enough in others. I’m not certain it’s a pacing issue, because the story does use its quiet, solemn moments fairly well, similarly with its action and comedy ones.

If the pacing does fail, it’s in two places. In one, Rita segues into a song called “Streets of Gold” that comes out of nowhere, and ends super abruptly at the next plot point. It feels like it wants to be a pseudo-reprise of “Why Should I Worry?”, but is a third of the length and much less catchy. In the other, during the “Good Company” song, Oliver and Jenny are shown in a slow montage of doing various things during the song’s bridge. In it, they eat ice cream in the park, bow and curtsy at the upper class, go rowing in Central Park, get a collar and bowl, ride in a carriage, and go to bed. It’s a sweet song, but it’s bookended with Dodger planning Oliver’s rescue and the gang coming to said rescue. It gives the impression that only took, at best, an hour, when the “Good Company” song and montage took at least a day.

The story is fine, and one can follow it well enough. The only cumbersome element is Georgette’s mini-sideplot. I like it fine, but it does little to assist the story.

Does it give the feels?: It should have hit us much deeper than it did. I mean, it’s a Disney cartoon starring a kitten and a bunch of dogs! It certainly is cute, and it uses that well, but there were a couple reasons why it only did pretty well instead of a full-on slam dunk.

A big part of it was Oliver himself. He was another cute Disney orphan, sure. But when we first see him abandoned in that soggy cardboard box in a late night rainstorm, Oliver seems less scared and vulnerable and more worried, at a moment we need to feel complete and unyielding heartbreak for him. There’s even a tonal dissonance with Lewis’ “Once Upon a Time in New York City”, which, despite the obvious somber lyrics in the second verse, still carries an air of enthusiastic optimism. More than that, Oliver is played like a naïve 12-year-old (which is precisely how old Lawrence was when the movie came out) rather than someone younger, who would be more helpless and ideal in Oliver’s situation.

Add on top of that, the dogs tend to be quiet a lot. When the humans are around, none of the dogs talk, except as the occasional bark. I’ve already made the dire mistake of thinking about it too hard about it, but I keep thinking how it subtly implies the dogs can talk when the humans aren’t around. This was something done much more seamlessly in Lady and the Tramp 33 years prior.

Who makes it worth it?: I can’t explain why or how. I just can’t. But for whatever reason, my absolute favorite character in the movie, bar none, is Billy Joel’s Dodger.

Is it because I like Billy Joel? Sure, I rock a solid karaoke jam of We Didn’t Start the Fire, but to say I’m a fan is a real stretch. Is the character acted well? Heavens, no. Half the time I swear Billy’s just nursing a hangover, a head canon scenario not helped by the behind-the-scenes documentary showing Mr. For the Longest Time mumbling his lines while wearing sunglasses. Is the character well-written? Quite the opposite, actually! Dodger is entirely written with a sense of smarmy coolness, so much so that even his one emotional outburst fails to capture the intended vitriol necessary.

So why do I love him? Why is he in my top 10 favorite Disney characters of all time? It’s probably because he just oozes with charm and charisma. He’s self-assured, he’s confident, and he rarely takes things too seriously. He’s got serious pipes. And even when he’s ultimately scamming a kitten out of hot dogs, he still makes you think “He seems cool. I wanna hang out with him”.

The only time this works to its detriment is, like I said before, when he tries to emote beyond this default. Late in the movie, after being attacked by Sykes’ dogs, Dodger is injured and limps back to the gang. When Rita expresses concern, he immediately tells her “they never laid a paw on me”. This neck-snapping pivot of emotion is fine, but they couldn’t have him whimper or grunt, or even have his voice strain a little?

Still, Dodger is a character who is up there with Baloo, Thomas O’Malley, Lumiere, Timon and Pumbaa, Terk, Louis the alligator, or Nick Wilde, the kind of character who’d be fun to just spend an afternoon with doing anything or nothing.

Best quality provided: The soundtrack is pretty cool. When you’re used to the bombastic Broadway musical structure of the nineties films, it comes across as a tad unconventional. The tentpole anthem song, the “I want” song, the villain song…they’re not here. And I don’t really miss them.

The opening song, “Once Upon a Time in New York City” is a good song, like I said before, at least on its own. “Streets of Gold” is fun for its brief time onscreen. “Good Company” is sweet and endearing, and Bette Midler’s “Perfect isn’t Easy” is clumsy but full of attitude. I’d place them all in the “Good” category. But then there’s “Why Should I Worry?” and it is awesome. Here, everything that is the best of Dodger shines radiantly. It’s loud, it’s bombastic, it’s freewheeling, it’s energetic, and it’s catchy as all get-out. Really, it’s surprising this song got shuffled away once Disney had “Under the Sea”, “Be Our Guest”, “Friend Like Me”, and “Hakuna Matata” to market. To this day, it’s the most iconic part of the movie, and for good reason.

What could have been improved: I respect the artistry and craft that went into this movie. And it’s truly a shame that I can’t not compare the animation quality to what we’d later see as soon as the following year’s The Little Mermaid. It still retains some of that scratchy, Xeroxed-line quality we’ve been seeing for the past two decades, but in some parts, it works. In some of the city shots, it adds to the grungy, dirty, literally sketchy atmosphere. Other times, the animation seems limited, particularly in some of the tertiary human characters.

I think to Beauty and the Beast, in the song “Belle”, where every person, no matter how little a part they played, had a distinct look and personality, even if their overall cartoony look or action didn’t really jive with the rest of the movie. Compare that to some of the humans. Jenny, Fagin, Sykes, and even Old Louie look fine, but Winston has a bit of a bland look to him, and the rest of the humans just seem to be pretty flat and barely detailed. Almost as if they were rotoscoped and only slightly tweaked to not look completely devoid of life.

Verdict: Oliver & Company is a nice movie. It rocks hard with Dodger’s “Why Should I Worry?”, and characters like Tito and Georgette are highly engaging. The story is cute and simple. Altogether, it’s definitely worth your time to check out. I give this one seven dogs with street savoir-faire out of ten.

I know this isn’t one of Joel’s career highlights, but does he sing “Why Should I Worry?” at his concerts?

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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