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Guys, I gotta confess.
I’ve been sitting here for like two hours trying write something about this movie and I got nothin’. I really, really don’t like Oliver and Company (sorry, spoilers) but my God if I’m having difficulty putting it into words why. I mean, it’s not like it’s the worst Disney movie I’ve had to review. But, Jesus, this one just rubs me the wrong way. Alright, well, no use beating around the bush. Let’s take a look at this thing.
By 1988 the Disney Animation Studios had survived their closest brush with death to date, the failure of the Black Cauldron. They had scraped out a modest win with Basil the Great Mouse Detective, a film that was quickly and cheaply produced and made a decent profit. But no one was kidding themselves that Disney was back to its former glory. It clearly wasn’t. This point was driven home very painfully when production began on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and hey! I could do a review on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Wouldn’t that be fun? Yeah, let’s do that instead!
Disney Reviews with the Unshaved Mouse #27: Who Framed Roger…
Well anyway, production had started on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? which would prove to be one of the most technically accomplished animated films ever. But instead of using Disney’s own in-house animators, director Robert Zemeckis and animation director Richard Williams instead set up a new animation studio with international animators in London. The reason for this being that they simply felt the Disney animators weren’t up to the task. Ouch.
To add insult to…0ther…insult, while Basil the Great Mouse Detective did well on its own terms, it was absolutely trounced by An American Tail, created by ex-Disney apostate (and absolute dictator of at least one alternate dimension) Don Bluth. Losing to Bluth was the final straw. It was as if a massive “Shit Just Got Real” picture appeared in the sky over the heads of everyone working in Disney animation.
There is a tradition at Disney. Whenever they don’t know what to do, whenever they feel that they’ve lost their way and need to get back on the right path, they ask themselves one question: “What would Walt do?”
And somebody, apparently, answered “Oliver Twist. But with…like. Dogs.”
Okay, so can we agree the eighties sucked? I mean, just, as a decade? Now stop, I know you’re already rushing to the comments to tell me about your favorite movie or music or TV show that came out in the eighties so let me save you the trouble. Yes. A lot of great stuff came out in that decade, just as it does in any decade. I’m just talking about the whole…feel of the decade. It was ugly, right? Is that just me? I’ve been thinking about it a lot since Margaret Thatcher died and trying to get a hold on my few fading memories of that era (I’m not THAT old). And I just remember it as an ugly time. Alright, let me put it this way. Imagine each period of history has theme music. The sixties sound great, right? The fifties sound classy. The forties are stirring. The twenties are swinging. The nineties would be all John Williamsy. And the eighties? They wouldn’t sound good, would they? All cheap synth and bland, sanitized jazz. I bring this up because that’s pretty much Oliver and Company’s opening credits, featuring the song Once Upon a Time in New York city sung by Huey Lewis. It’s not exactly a bad song, but it’s just so eighties and I have a real hate-on for that whole aesthetic. Plus, Disney movies should be timeless, and this opening just marries the film to the time it was made so thoroughly. Hell, the only way this movie could be more dated is if it had long lingering shots of…oh…
Alright, so anyway. Here we are in “contemporary” New York and we meet our hero, Oliver. Oliver is one of several kittens being sold from a cardboard box for five dollars.
One by one the other kittens are bought until only Oliver is left. Night falls and it starts to rain and Oliver is washed out of the box and on to the street. Hang on a minute. Who the hell was selling those kittens? It’s not like they were just abandoned on the side of the street. They’re being sold at five dollars a pop. Who’s running this operation? Dude! Take care of your inventory! With all that cheap eighties Colombian cocaine flooding the streets, five dollars can get you high as a kite! So before you know it, Oliver is soaked to the bone and being chased through the streets by feral dogs and almost getting run over by Travis Bickle.
Okay, I have to say the feline animation here is really good. Little things, like how Oliver cleans himself or starts at loud noises are just perfectly rendered. The next morning Oliver tries to catch the attention of people going by but everyone ignores him.
Okay. A moment please, I just need to scale a mountain so I can call bullshit from a suitably high place.
No one walks past a kitten. Nobody. A small child? Sure. A burning homeless person? Absolutely. But nobody walks past a kitten. Someone once told me that the only reason cats don’t overthrow us is that they can’t operate can openers. But that’s not true. Cats don’t overthrow us because they are already our masters. I mean, we mock Egyptians for worshipping cats, but they just built idols to them. WE BUILT AN INTERNET TO LOOK AT PICTURES OF THEM.
It’s around this point that we meet Dodger, voiced by Billy Joel.
Look. I got nothing but respect for Billy Joel. I think he’s a great singer, a great songwriter and I even believe his claim that he didn’t start the fire.
But by the unholy hordes of Bahia I can’t stand the Dodger. I mean, we’re not talking “Gurgi” levels of hatred here, but I really don’t like him at all. Which is a little odd, when you think about it, because he’s so similar to the Tramp who you’ll remember is one of my all-time favorite Disney leads. There’s just such a thin line between lovable rogue and insufferable asshole and Dodger is waaaaaaay over on the other side of that line. When we first see him he’s blowing kisses and generally sexually harassing a passing girl dog in A manner that suggests he’ll shortly be getting a visit from Ms No-Means-No.
He sees Oliver being yelled at by a hot dog vendor and says: “Could be time for the Dodge to turn this into a total cat-astrophe.”
Do I…do I really need to elaborate on why I hate this character?
Dodger talks to Oliver and says that if they work together, they can get some hot dogs off Louis the vendor.
Oliver wants to know how, and Dodger tells him that the city has a beat, a rhythm, and that once he learns it he can do anything. Dodger offers to take Oliver under his wing and teach him how to jive to the beat.
Okay, Dodger? I knew Baloo. Baloo was a friend of mine. And you sir, are no Baloo.
Dodger chases Oliver into Louis’ pants and makes off with a string of sausage links. Oliver tries to claim his cut of the heist, but Dodger tells him that the “Dynamic Duo is now the Dynamic Uno”.
Dodger leads Oliver on a merry chase through New York while singing Why Should I Worry? You know, I didn’t like this song the first time I watched the movie but…damn it grows on you. Really catchy, and if Joel can’t make the character likeable, at least he makes him listenable.
Yeah. This whole sequence is pretty much designed to establish that Dodger is, in his own words “New York’s coolest quadruped” and it just reeks of effort. They try so hard to make Dodger seem cool, or at least the primitive debased eighties equivalent of cool. Look at him, wearing sunglasses and getting bizzay with his in-your-face extreme attitude wait just a damn minute here!
Regardless, it’s a good song and Dodger is joined by seemingly every other dog in New York including ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!!???
Okay. That’s it. Case closed. He’s Scottish. He’s immortal. And he ends up in New York in the eighties. Jock is a Highlander.
Dodger returns home to an abandoned barge where he lives with his owner Fagin and the rest of his gang. Okay, Dodger’s gang all have names but I’m not going to be using them as these are some of the laziest, clichéd stereotypes you can imagine. There’s Big Dumb Dog, Snooty British Dog and Girl Dog.
And then there’s the Cheechuahua, a chihuahua voiced by Cheech Marin. Okay, so what is the most obvious, laziest, most hackneyed and borderline offensive characterisation for a cartoon chihuahua? If you answered “hot-headed Latino”, congratulations! You get to join me as we get drunk together and weep softly in a corner. I wouldn’t mind as much but they already did this character in Lady and the Tramp.
And it was actually less offensive then. In the frickin’ fifties.
So Dodger arrives and shares out the food, telling them that he had to fight off a giant, savage cat to get it for them. Oliver crashes through the ceiling and tells the other dogs the truth and Girl Dog takes pity on him and tells him he can stay.
Cheechuahua and the other dogs rip on Dodger for needing help from a cat which leads a to a big brawl which gets broken up by the arrival of Fagin, played by Dom De Luise.
Take a shot girl?! What are you doing here?
We? You don’t mean…
Gangsta Asia! You made it too?
Oh. Well, this is Gangsta Asia. He was a friend of mine in the Bluth Universe.
Me neither, but people seem to like him so we’re stuck with him. Okay, moving on.
Fagin is a homeless guy who lives on this boat with his dogs, one of whom he apparently puts eye shadow on and we’re just supposed to pretend like that’s fine. In the book, Fagin is the leader of a gang of child pickpockets and in the movie he uses Dodger and the other dogs the same way. Fagin is desperate to pay off his loan to a shipping magnate named Sykes. I don’t understand Sykes, I really don’t. He seems like a pretty successful businessman. He’s got all the trappings of success; nice suit, big fancy CGI limousine etc. Hell, he smokes cigars, which is pretty much how you know someone is rich. And yet, what kind of successful businessman loans money to a homeless man who’s only source of income is canine facilitated petty larceny? Sykes really looked at this guy and thought this was a shrewd investment in the cutthroat world of eighties America?
Sykes arrives and sends his two pet dobermans (dobermen?) Roscoe and Desoto to get Fagin and back up a minute here…
Does no one in this universe hire people? Has there been some kind of massive epidemic that killed off millions of people and so they’ve had to resort to training dogs to carry out menial tasks? Or is the economy just doing so well that there are no unskilled workers left for pickpocketing and low level mob work?
Sykes tells Fagin that he’d better have his money, bitch, in three sunrises and three sunsets.
What an Ursula-esque way of putting it.
Meanwhile, back at the boat Roscoe and Desoto are trashtalking Dodger and his crew. I really like Roscoe and Desoto, they give good menace. Desoto finds Oliver hiding under a box and tries to eat him but Oliver scratches his nose. Dodger and the rest of his gang leap to his defence and before the situation can turn into Michael Vick’s basement they hear Sykes sounding his horn. Girl Dog tells Roscoe and Desoto to run along because their master’s calling and WHY IS SHE WEARING EYE SHADOW????!
Fagin comes back, understandably a little upset about being given a death sentence, but he perks up a little when he sees that Oliver scratched Desoto’s nose and invites him to join the group.
The next day, Fagin drives Oliver and the dogs into town on a scooter (that could probably be sold for a decent bit of money to pay off a homicidal loan shark just saying) and sets them loose to skin the good people of New York to the bone of their cash and jewelery.
Okay, Oliver and Company was originally going to be a sequel to The Rescuers featuring Penny, the little girl who they…um. Rescued. So instead of Penny, we now have Jenny. Who is a totally different character.
We first see Jenny being driven around in a limousine by her chauffer Winston, the last working human. It’s actually probably better that they did change Penny to Jenny as otherwise this could be kinda depressing. See, Jenny’s parents are at a conference in Europe and have just written to tell her that they won’t be coming back for some time. You see children, back in the days before the internet, business people would have to actually travel to different countries for business reasons. These journeys could be long and hazardous, and many never returned due to disease and the scourge of piracy. The reason I think it’s better that Penny and Jenny are different characters is because when we last saw Penny, she’d just been adopted after finding the most valuable gemstone in the world. It would be pretty harsh to realise that her new parents had basically dumped her with the help and run off to Europe with the money.
Meanwhile, Dodger and his gang have come up with their next scam. Snooty British Dog pretends to get hit by the limousine so that while Winston investigates, Cheechuahua and Oliver can steal the limo’s radio. Oliver accidentally turns on the engine, which electrocutes Cheechuahua and sends him flying out the window. Dodger and the rest of the gang make a run for it, accidentally leaving Oliver behind. Oliver gets found by
Penny Jenny who is instantly smitten with him and wants to take care of him. Yes. THAT is how people react to kittens.
Jenny takes Oliver home with her over Winston’s protestations. Winston mutters that “Georgette isn’t going to like this”. Georgette, it turns out, is the family poodle voiced by…
Georgette is introduced with the song “Perfect Isn’t Easy”, one of the best Disney songs you’ve never heard. The lyrics are great, funny and inventive and Midler gives it everything she’s got. It also helps that this sequence sees a major bump in the animation quality, one moment where a flock of bluebirds encircle Georgette’s head is jaw-droppingly good.
After her big number, Georgette goes down to the kitchen and is none too pleased to see Oliver eating out of her bowl.
Yeah, you’re right. Sorry. I shouldn’t let it get to me. Thanks A-Dog.
Jenny…. Penny… Wait. Right the first time. Jenny tells Georgette that Oliver will be staying with them. Georgette immediately starts planning ways to get Oliver out of the picture.
You said it, Gangsta Asia. Hey, where’s Sarcastic Map of Wartime Europe?
Meanwhile Dodger and the gang decide that they have to rescue Oliver from whatever horrible torture he’s no doubt being subjected to. Said torture turns out to be listening to Pejenny doing her piano exercises. Oliver starts playing the keys alongside her and…oooookay. We need to have a talk movie.
You’re new to the blog, so let me give you some friendly advice: You don’t want to remind me of Aristocats. Ever. That’s just a good little rule for you to live by, movie. Now I won’t lie to you. I don’t like you. But you still have a decent chance of getting through this with a score in the low fifties. That ain’t too bad. But I swear to God, you pull anymore of this Aristocats-esque shit and THERE WILL BE BLOOD ON THE FUCKING WALLS.
Georgette sees Jepenny and Oliver bonding through the power of music is clearly a little jealous. A little “Othello in Act V” jealous.
We now get a sort of Pretty Woman montage with Pejennepy taking Oliver to see the sights of New York, visiting Central Park and buying him a silver milk bowl and a gold name tag that says “Oliver”. I thought this was a goof at first (how does she know his name?) but looking back I don’t think Dodger or any of the other characters actually ever refer to him as Oliver. It’s usually just “Kid” so…what IS his real name anyway?
Aw, can’t beat the classics.
The next day Pejennifer leaves for school and Dodger and the gang pull some Operation Entebbe shit right here. Snooty British dog distracts Winston and the rest of the gang sneak into the house.
Dodger finds himself in Georgette’s room and she freaks out screaming “Don’t come any closer! I knew this would happen some day!”
That’s a rather horribly jarring statement for a Disney movie. Dodger calms her down saying “It’s not you I’m after.”
So yeah, just for the removal of all doubt she totally thought he was going to rape her. Jesus wept…
Georgette then gets huffy and asks “It’s not? It’s not?! Well, why not?!”
We are going to go away. We are going to come back. And then we will just pretend that whole exchange never happened.
Georgette shows off her blue ribbon collection to Dodger, as well as her various prizes, trophies and a cover of TIME magazine.
Cheechuahua is pretty much instantly smitten with Georgette but she tells him to screw off. She does, however, agree to help them once she realises that they’ve come for Oliver. The dogs grab the kitty and head back to the boat.
Oliver is none too pleased about this, because friends are all very well but that place had a fucking jacuzzi, man. Oliver tells them that he has a new home now, and someone who loves him (and that jacuzzi, who loves sore backs and tired muscles) . Dodger says “What’re you talking about? You’re in the gang!”
Dodger gets pissy about Oliver wanting to live in the lap of luxury because fuck Dodger. Oliver sadly makes to leave but he gets picked up by Fagin who notices his solid gold name tag. Fagin hits on an idea. He’ll ransom Oliver to his presumably stinking rich new owner for enough money to pay off his debt to Sykes.
Jenniferpendelton returns home from school to find a ransom note stuck through the door. Tearfully, she tells Georgette that Oliver’s been kidnapped but that they’re going to get him back. And Georgette becomes the latest in a long line to glimpse the realm of perpetual madness and blinding terror that lies just behind the paper thin skein of the material world.
Fagin and Dodger pay a visit to Sykes to tell him his plan to get the money. They walk into Sykes office as he’s in the middle of a phone call. We don’t know who he’s talking to, but we hear him say “Whaddya mean? You start with the knuckles.”
Things go south quickly when Sykes realises that he doesn’t have the money and he siccs Desoto and Roscoe on Fagin. Dodger fights them off long enough for Fagin to Sykes the gold name tag on Oliver’s neck. Sykes calls off the dogs but Dodger is hurt pretty bad.
Jenpenneration X and Georgette arrive at the docks (here’s a thought, why doesn’t Fagin just cast off and float away downriver?). She comes across Fagin who’s waiting for Oliver’s rich owner to show up with the ransom money. She shows him her piggy bank and Fagin realises that he’s fucked. Like, proper fucked. Like before ze Germans get there.
Fagin, miserable wretch of a human being though he may be, realises that he might as well just give Oliver back to her and let Sykes do his worst. But it turns out Sykes has been playing Fagin. He’s been after the girl the whole time. He snatches Jentlypentlypuddingandpie and takes her back to his warehouse. Dodger, Oliver, Georgette and the gang sneak into the warehouse. Oh and we get a bit where Georgette complains that she broke a nail.
When I’m done with the review I’m taking this movie out and shooting it behind the chemical sheds.
Sykes calls Winston and gives him the ransom demands. Does it strike anyone else that this is odd behaviour for a wealthy shipping magnate? Hell, lending the homeless dog guy money was bad enough but why the hell would he jeopardise his entire operation (and judging from the size of his building it is HUGE) by committing such a serious crime as kidnapping. I mean, there are safer ways to make a little extra money.
They manage to free Pensburgh Jennsylvania and Fagin arrives on his scooter just in time. They leap on and drive away with Sykes, Desoto and Roscoe in hot pursuit in his limo. Sykes chases them down into a subway station and onto the train tracks. Oh damn. They’re on train tracks. Better set the timer.
Sure enough, a train hurtles towards them but Fagin is able to set the scooter to…leap on to a railing…or…something…I don’t really…fuck it. WIZARDS!
But Sykes is not so lucky and gets crushed like a bug but not before he flings Oliver out of the moving car.
We then get one of those pointless “Oh no he’s dead oh wait no he’s not yay” bits with Penjenamin Franklin and Oliver. God I hate those.
Cut to a few days later and Fagin and the dogs are helping Penjenalinacontessalouisafranchescabananafanabobesca III celebrate her birthday. They give her some presents…
…say goodbye to Oliver and the movie ends with Dodger and the Gang singing a reprise of “Why Should I Worry?”
You know, if I want to watch a mediocre animated film trying way too hard to be cool and starring celebrities cast more for their star power than any actual vocal acting talent I’ll check out the latest Dreamworks.
So. If it’s as bad as I say it is it must have flopped terribly and killed any tentative reversal of the Disney Animation Studio’s fortunes in the crib, right?
Huge hit! The movie-going public flocked to this thing! It beat Land Before Time. This. Beat. Land Before Time. Probably the greatest film of Don Bluth’s career, a beautiful, heartfelt, dark, gem of a movie. And it lost to this crap.
Well. As a great man once said.
Well, never mind. The success of Oliver and Company did have one very important legacy. On the strength of this (and the success of Pinnocchio on VHS) the decision was made that the Disney studio would release a new animated film every year.
The stage was now set for one of the most breathtaking artistic comebacks in the history of film…
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. Try to steal his blog and he will kill you with Care Bears.