Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Disney Discussion - Oliver & Company

Over the course of the year, we'll be spending our Wednesdays with Walt, having a discussion about each of Disney's animated films...

Movie #27 of The Disney Discussion
Oliver & Company (1988)
Featuring the voice talents of Joey Lawrence, Billy Joel, Cheech Marin, Richard Mulligan, Roscoe Lee Browne, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Dom DeLuise, Robert Loggia, and Bette Midler 
Directed by George Scribner

Summary (in 150 words or less):
Oliver is an orphaned kitten in 1980s New York City who is befriended by laid-back dog Dodger.  Dodger's owner is a pickpocket named Fagin who, on a daily basis, sends Dodger and four other mutts out onto the streets of NYC to scrounge up whatever they can find that's worth any bit of value.  On one such daily mission, Oliver, who had been staying with Fagin, gets picked up by a little girl named Jenny who takes the orphaned kitty back to her home on Fifth Avenue.  Fagin is in a bit of a bind, owing a large sum of money to the ruthless loan shark Sykes, so when he discovers that Oliver was "adopted" by a rich Fifth Avenue New Yorker, his brain begins to shift towards the idea of kidnapping the cat in order to pay off his debts.

Facts and Figures
Oliver & Company is the Walt Disney Company's 27th full-length animated feature film and was released on November 18, 1988.

Oliver & Company made $53.2 million in its original run in 1988 and has grossed $74 million overall domestically.  Interestingly, Disney decided to release Oliver and Company on the same day as Don Bluth's The Land Before Time.  Bluth's film actually scored the #1 spot on opening weekend, but ended up making $5 million less than Oliver in its original run.  However, The Land Before Time proved to be a bigger success overseas than Oliver.  Critics like The Land Before Time better as well. To me, this is the most interesting release date information we've looked at so far.  I'm sure there's a story as to why both animated films aiming at the same market opened on the same date.  Obviously, there was some "stand your ground, Showdown at the OK Corral, who's got the bigger cojones"-type stuff going on, but I have to think that the two movies cannibalized each other in some way.

In the awards races, Oliver & Company failed to garner any Oscar buzz, however, it was nominated for Best Song at the Golden Globes for "Why Should I Worry."

One more interesting tidbit -- Oliver & Company is the first Disney animated feature to have its own department set up exclusively for the purpose of generating computer animation -- cars, cabs, buses, Sykes' limousine, Fagin's tricycle, a cement mixer, sewer pipes, piano, spiral staircase, subway tunnels and trains, and the Brooklyn Bridge were all created with the assistance of computers.

Let the Discussion Begin...
Based on Charles Dickens' lengthy Oliver Twist, Oliver & Company feels like a movie that has much more story to tell than its 73 minutes allows.  Characters aren't really given time to connect with one another before they're whisked off to the next segment of the story.  This unfortunately leads to a slightly episodic tone and a lack of emotional connection with the characters and their plights.  (I knew that Dickens published many of his works in a serialized manner and, upon doing a bit of research, Oliver Twist was one such book.  So, perhaps the novel [which I've never read] is episodic in nature to begin with.)
The animators explored a little grungier side than we're used to seeing in Oliver & Company.  The New York City depicted here is filled with graffiti, trash, and gigantic billboards (the only time product placement finds itself in a Disney animated film), all of which combine to make it feel natural and real.  In addition, rather appropriately, in order to get a dog's-eye perspective of NYC, the film's art director and production designer went to the Big Apple and photographed street scenes from eighteen inches off the ground.  The attention to detail that this created is certainly noticeable.  Not only is the setting appropriate, but the character designs here are also solid.  The members of Fagin's dog crew all feel individualized and the humans each have their own personas as well.  Fagin's lanky physique and heartfelt comedic tone stand in stark contrast to the villainous Sykes' towering and looming figure, each playing nicely off one another and animated in their own distinct tones.  Only young Jenny feels like a "been there, seen that" kind of character, but I think that's more inherent to the generic nature of her storyline than anything else.

Oliver & Company opens with a song and after the last two Disney animated films had all but abandoned the musical genre, this one tries to bring music back to the forefront.  Unlike most other Disney films, each of the movie's five songs were written by different composers.  Although the songs work together in terms of sounding intrinsic to both the characters and the setting, some numbers fare better than others.  Howard Ashman -- who went on to great success in Disney's forthcoming animated features -- co-wrote the film's opening number "Once Upon a Time in New York City" with Barrry Mann.  Sung in voiceover by 80s pop superstar Huey Lewis, the song is a bit laughable in that it sounds like a Christopher Cross ditty reminiscent of Tootsie, but the piece does its job by introducing us to the young kitten Oliver and his plight.
The film's most successful number is "Why Should I Worry" written by Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight and sung by Billy Joel who voices the character of Dodger.  As Dodger careens through New York City, Joel's charisma and surprisingly decent vocal acting chops add quite a bit to the otherwise generic number.  Yet another 80s icon, Bette Midler, provides the voice for Jenny's pampered pooch Georgette and, of course, Midler gets to churn out a tune -- this one co-written by Barry Manilow.  The song introduces us to Georgette and her uppityness (along with her slightly Lauren Bacall-esque looking face), but the number comes on a bit too suddenly and doesn't quite fit in as well as it maybe could.
The less said about "Streets of Gold," the better (seriously...why is this throwaway tune even in this flick seeing as how it's seemingly the birth child in sound and subject matter of both "Once Upon a Time in New York City" and "Why Should I Worry") which leaves us the surprisingly charming "Good Company" -- a montage in which we see Jenny and Oliver's burgeoning relationship.  However, this number also feels the most reminiscent of Disney movies in the past.  Whereas the other songs in the film feel as if they are rooted in the 1980s (an idea which some viewers may very well hate), this one feels a little 1970s-ish.

As I mentioned above, Oliver & Company feels a bit episodic and because of the need for its various story lines to come together by the film's end, all of the aforementioned songs are placed in the film's opening forty minutes.  Admittedly, the film's rather exciting conclusion doesn't warrant songs, but it will become obvious in future films that Disney's storytellers became more adept at better positioning songs throughout their flicks.
Speaking of the exciting (though ludicrous) conclusion, Oliver & Company is actually quite thrilling in its climactic moments.  Sykes may not have magical powers or sorcery in his grasp, but he's a nasty thug whose evil is palpable.  Unfortunately, he's such a minor character in the film's opening fifty minutes that any fear we're supposed to feel isn't as strong as it probably should be.  While his comeuppance is shockingly brutal, we don't quite feel as "happy" as we should upon his defeat.

Random Thoughts
...while watching the film...
  • As an adult, despite the fact that more than ten years have passed, I still find it a little off-putting whenever I see the World Trade Center's two towers in some entertainment setting.  I certainly don't want these images removed from movies and tv shows, but it does take you out of the piece for a split second.
  • The finale in the subway and on a subway bridge is ridiculous, but surprisingly intense -- dogs getting electrocuted and head-on collisions with subways resulting in flames!
Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
Oliver & Company is an enjoyable enough diversion, but the film lacks a through-line in terms of its story.  I can't help but feel like there were several moments left on the storyboards that never made it to the film that would've helped the audience get to know and connect with the film's characters.  While certainly not a bad film, Oliver & Company never really succeeds at any particular aspect.  It's a bit hollow, lacking the heart that we come to want in Disney's animated films.  I liked the flick (which I hadn't seen in a long time), but I can't say it belongs in the Revered Disney Pantheon.

The RyMickey Rating: C+

Join us next Wednesday for The Little Mermaid, the 28th film in The Disney Discussion.

No comments:

Post a Comment