Forgotten gems are scattered throughout Disney’s archive of animated musicals, with some outstanding works hiding in the ranks. Some would say Oliver & Company is among those, we don’t know any of those people. If parents are thinking of revisiting this strange, strange film, be warned: It’s one of Disney’s weirdest movies. Here’s why.
Loosely based (emphasis on loose) on the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, this animal-filled adventure took the classic book out of London and into modern-day New York City. So, basically, it’s an Oliver Twist reboot. Or is it a Lady and the Tramp reboot? If you’ve seen that 1955 film recently, you’ll notice that several of the character designs are lifted wholesale and plopped into Oliver & Company with mixed results. Arriving in theaters on November 18, 1988, the film was a profitable one for Disney and was supplemented with positive critical reviews. But, over the decades, it fell between the cracks of the sidewalk like unwanted pocket change, becoming an obscure favorite among Disneyphiles. Now, thirty-five years later, Oliver & Company is a time capsule of a different era of Disney that doesn’t amount to more than a subway ride downtown.
Precocious feline orphan Oliver (played by a young Joey Lawrence) is recruited by streetwise canine Dodger (Billy Joel) to join his gang of riff-raff dogs. This pack takes care of their down-on-their-luck owner, Fagin (Dom Deluise), who is in deep debt to a sinister loan shark named Sykes (Robert Loggia). With Fagin’s life as collateral, the group must collect enough money to free their master from his lopsided bond. As Oliver and the crew pickpocket their way across the streets of Manhattan, the orange kitten meets an upscale young girl named Jennifer, who adopts Oliver and brings him into her home shared by jealous show-dog, Georgette (Bette Midler). Shenanigans ensue, until Sykes gets wind of the situation and takes Jennifer hostage to ransom to her rich parents. It’s up to the gang to band together and free Oliver’s new caretaker before things go from bad to worse.
Oliver & Company is among Disney’s shortest animated features, yet still feels longer than its runtime. The plot is thinner than the crust on a slice of New York pizza, but it could have been even worse. Originally pitched as “Oliver Twist, but with animals,” the original cast included pigeons, rats, and other native Manhattan wildlife. Earlier drafts of the scripts featured a subplot about a stolen panda, and a police horse named Kaminski hassling the gang. It also had a much darker tone, shifting from a fun musical romp into something grimmer. Oliver was conceptualized to be a kids’ cartoon about revenge, with Sykes’ Dobermans viciously ending the lives of Oliver’s parents in an opening scene that sounds like it would make even Watership Down viewers cringe.
The Rhythm of The City
The music is forgettable outside of the signature Billy Joel song, which the movie’s entire marketing campaign was centered around. “Why Should I Worry?” is a perfect tune for “The Piano Man,” wildly catchy and setting big expectations for the rest of the film which are sadly never met. It’s the high point on the soundtrack, overshadowing the contributions of Huey Lewis and Ruth Pointer, and leagues above the saccharine-sweet “Good Company.”
Oliver & Company wasn’t your typical Sherman Brothers fare, settling on contemporary music in place of the traditional Broadway sound, despite resistance between internal warring factions. This movie came during a transition period in the studio, with Disney’s senior animation team lovingly dubbed “The Nine Old Men” retired from active duty or went off to work on other projects elsewhere. Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner had just come into power at Disney and wanted to shake things up by giving this movie a modern and hip vibe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Huey Lewis doesn’t age as well as something by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and lacks the staying power of the Disney songs that came before and after it. (Obviously “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis is still great, however.)
The voice cast in Oliver & Company is one of its strongest components, but Cheech Marin as the erratic chihuahua named Tito and Bette Midler’s Georgette steal the show. As a kid, I didn’t appreciate how hilarious and borderline-raunchy Georgette is. This future Sanderson sister nailed the personality of this role, and I looked forward to any scene she showed up in (especially when playing off of Cheech later in the film).
Perfect Isn’t Easy
YouTubers love to make countdown videos of the most brutal Disney fatalities (spoilers incoming), and I’m shocked Sykes being smashed by a subway isn’t on more of them. Then again, that would presume a person watched this movie to the end. This final confrontation, which also sees two dogs lethally electrocuted, is pretty horrific and arguably the most unrealistic Disney showdown. Do you expect me to believe the NYC subway is running that timely on a weeknight?
In spite of critical complaints, the movie was a box office hit, earning over $100 million to make it the highest-grossing picture from Disney at that date. Their next film would instantly break that record, starting the Disney Renaissance with a film about a lovestruck mermaid still heralded as one of the studio’s best works.
Despite its rousing success, Oliver & Company never came to home video until almost a decade later. For the longest time, this flick was hidden in the Disney vault, which helped it become a cult classic for serious Disney enthusiasts. Today, it’s easier than ever to find, but still might not be worth sitting through when there are over 150 episodes of Bluey available instead.
Oliver & Company is cute to look at, but hard to sit through. The fluid animation doesn’t help the otherwise uncharismatic art style with as much flavor as a street cart hot dog. I’m not sure what marketing executive thought kids could relate to a story centered on escaping debt from a sadistic loan shark (most youngsters don’t even know about college yet), but it adds up to an uninteresting experience with nothing other than a single song worth remembering. There are worse things to watch, but with so many superior Disney options besides this movie, why should I worry?