The Concept of “Timeless?” Not Here, Man.
Originally Released: 1988
Oliver & Company is an interesting entry in the Disney canon. It is one where producers chose to break the mold of most of the previous films by having a completely contemporary feel, loaded with contemporary actors and singers, including very contemporary pop songs, and set in a contemporary New York City. The main problem with this idea is that they decided to go contemporary right smack in the middle of the 1980’s. Oliver & Company is about as “80’s” as it gets (well, besides this. And this…yeah, I just did that).
I like the 1980’s and the 80’s feel. It brings back a lot of great memories. However, many people see the decade as an eyesore and don’t find much to appreciate in the pop culture that came out of that time period. So while the dose of the 80’s didn’t bother me much, Oliver & Company will likely weed out quite a few of today’s viewers on that basis alone. Which is kind of ironic considering the source material is by Charles Dickens, whose work has definitely stood the test of time.
The story, which in the Disney tradition is only loosely based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist, can be summarized as follows: we meet orphan kitty Oliver (voiced by a young Joey “Whoa!” Lawrence) as he tries to find a place to be accepted and loved. He is helped out by street dog Dodger (Billy Joel) and becomes part of Dodger’s gang. Shortly thereafter, Oliver finds a loving little girl who adopts him. But then he gets kidnapped. The kitty is freed but the girl is kidnapped. She is finally rescued and the bad guys each come to an unfortunate demise. The film closes with much rejoicing.
I realize my summary has a hint of a mocking tone to it, but for the most part, I enjoyed Oliver & Company. The songs were good in a 1980’s sort of way. Dodger and Tito, by far the two best characters in the movie, are both great. Tito (voiced by Cheech Marin) is actually quite funny, and Dodger is a totally cool dude. They really help the film. I also had some fun finding hidden tributes to past Disney films scattered throughout the movie.
My only serious complaint is the climax. Beginning at the point Jenny is nabbed and continuing all the way to the fiery end of the villain Sykes, I just couldn’t help but shake my head at what we were supposed to accept as reasonable or credible. That’s saying something, since in general you can get away with crazier stuff in animation than in live action. But as it all happened, I kept asking myself things like, “Wait, is Sykes really dumb enough to steal a girl? I thought he was calmer and smarter than that. Doesn’t he realize that Fagin knows where his hideout is? Why the heck didn’t Fagin just call the police and report a kidnapping, telling them exactly where to go find her?”
And more questions: “Wait, did they really just drive onto the subway tracks? Did those car tires really just blow up? And now the wheels perfectly match the train tracks? Did that scooter really somehow jump eight feet in the air and drive up the suspension cable? How did they pull that one off? Is Sykes really that crazed to do all of this nonsense? How on earth has he survived up to now in his profession? How much money did the poor bum Fagin borrow, anyway?” I could go on, but I think you get the point. It goes past the point of absurdity.
Criticism aside, the last thing I think is worth mentioning about this film is that it opened the same day as Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time. By 1988, Bluth and Disney had built a bit of a rivalry. In fact, in 1986, Bluth’s An American Tale managed to earn more money than The Great Mouse Detective. This time around, The Land Before Time won the opening weekend battle, but Oliver & Company narrowly won the total U.S. Box office with a score of $53 million to Bluth’s $48 million (which at the time were both very respectable numbers). However, Bluth’s film won both internationally and in my neighborhood. I remember The Land Before Time as a child. My friends and I talked about it and quoted it a lot. I have no such memories of Oliver & Company, though.
Of course, things would change dramatically the following year with Disney’s next release, which would basically leave Bluth in the dust. But Oliver & Company does deserve credit, because its success helped pave the way for this next release from Disney.
So today, if you want a nice dose of 80’s pop culture, great Cheech quotes, and a good, laughable ending, then Oliver & Company is just the thing for you. And with that, I’ll wrap up this post with some shots I found in the film that pay tribute to other films and characters of Disney’s past.