Oliver is an abandoned kitten who is left to find his way on the tough streets of New York City. He finds himself on the good side of some dogs from the wrong side of the tracks and ends up involved in a giant kidnapping scheme where he must choose between his friends or a possibility for a family.
Oliver Twist was Charles Dickens’ second novel, published in 1838. It told the story of a young boy orphaned almost from birth who drifts from one residence to another until he finally comes across a boy named Jack Dawkins, also known as Artful Dodger. He goes with him to live with a criminal who sends the boys out to pickpockets. It is an amazing work of literature that presents us with a child protagonist and paints a vivid portrayal of criminals and their hard luck lives.
It doesn’t seem like subject matter Walt Disney would cater to, but at the time Disney was undergoing a change themselves. Disney had never been above taking chances, as evident by the fantastical Fantasia (1941) or the psychedelic Alice in Wonderland (1951), but by the eighties, they had become more known for their more traditional stories such as The Jungle Book, The Aristocats and The Rescuers. But change was brewing and Disney took a great risk with The Black Cauldron (1985), a movie that proved to be a giant failure thanks in large part to the graphic nature and dark tone of the story. With a failure of that magnitude, it is surprising Disney would quickly return to another dark subject so quickly.
Of course, they would figure out how to market the picture and changed the young Oliver into a cute baby kitten and the group of pickpockets into a pack of quirky, loveable dogs. The master thief would be changed into a kind man who would read them bedtime stories and give them treats and the true bad guy was a heavy that was owed money by the dogs’ master. Instead of focusing on the criminal traits and tough lives of the “children”, the movie turned into a story of a young kitten trying to find a home in the tough world.
The movie is most similar to The Aristocats in its visual style, although by 1985 they were working with new levels of animation and certain things were possible that the animators of the sixties could only dream about. This was the first Disney movie to use computer animation in heavy doses. Both The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective used it for small sequences, but Oliver & Company used it so extensively they created a department specifically for computer animation design. This is most evident in the backgrounds, the subway chase, and, in a smaller more striking detail, the original reveal of the bad guy, a sequence that would have been nearly impossible with drawn animation.
The biggest problem with the film, twenty years later, is it feels dated. There is an early scene where a kid is break dancing down the sidewalk and much of the clothing in the film dates it noticeably. The music is also dated, as Disney was throwing their money at big name artists and the entire track has a pop sound that has a predominately eighties retro feel. I grew up in the eighties and have a nostalgic love of some of the track’s artists, but the songs here are really not that great. I am a huge Huey Lewis fan but the opening number, “Once Upon a Time in New York City,” just doesn’t feel like a Disney song. It’s just out of place and a little too generic.
Another change for Disney was using “name” actors to voice their characters instead of the staff actors they utilized in years past. Disney always had an occasional celebrity lend a voice whether it is Peter Ustinov (Robin Hood), Scatman Crothers (The Aristocats) or Bob Newhart (The Rescuers). However, with The Fox and the Hound (1981), Disney started paying proper actors such as Mickey Rooney, Kurt Russell, Sandy Duncan and Pearl Bailey to voice their characters. Oliver & Company continued the new focus on name selling talent, securing Billy Joel, Dom DeLuise, Cheech Marin, Bette Midler and twelve year old, Joey Lawrence, who voiced Oliver.
With a great voice cast and high profile musical artists, the question remains, was the movie worth the effort?
Oliver & Company chooses to push the illegal activities of the group to the backburner, only hinting at what they do to make ends meet. Their owner does not force them to steal to make a living, instead asking them to help finds ways to pay off a real bad guy. When Oliver is taken in by a sweet little girl and finally finds himself a home, his buddies try to save him, believing he has been taken against his will. This leads to a situation where the bad guy kidnaps the little girl to try to get a ransom from her family and Oliver and his new friends set out to rescue her.
While the criminal activities of our heroes are kept to a minimum, there is still a level to this movie that tends to veer to older kid’s mentalities. The feelings of loneliness and abandonment are evident from the opening scene and the final climax with the bad guy meeting his doom is a little violent for the younger kids. What makes this movie work is the messages of friendship, comradeship and family. It is very similar to the storyline of 101 Dalmatians and holds up as well today as it did over twenty years ago.
This being a Disney disc, you know you can expect music. There are two sing-along-songs, “Why Should I Worry” by Billy Joel and “Streets of Gold” by Ruth Pointer of the Pointer Sisters. There is a game called Oliver’s Big City Challenge to help you “join the pack” which includes three tests. It is just for the kids.
Backstage Disney includes five features. The Making of Oliver & Company is more geared towards the adults. This is the original feature for the movie and it is interesting to hear the narrator talk about the new computer animation. Roy Disney mentions this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is amazing to see the enthusiasm where they could make the backgrounds move in synch with the animated characters. It’s short, only clocking in at around six minutes, but is a fantastic addition to the DVD. Disney’s Animated Animals is a fluff promotional piece that is about two minutes of talk about the use of animals in animated movies. Oliver & Company Scrapbook is a stills gallery with fourteen “pages” of concept art, story development, character development, behind the scenes photos, publicity material and merchandise art. Publicity Materials features four trailers. Fun Film Facts is a text based trivia feature.
Finally, there are two short films included as bonus features, Lend a Paw and Puss Café. Lend a Paw is a classic Mickey Mouse cartoon where Pluto saves a baby kitten from drowning only to watch as Mickey allows the kitten to move in on his territory as a result. Puss Café is a Pluto cartoon where two alley cats invade Pluto’s home to partake of milk from his porch, birds from the trees and fishes from the pond.