Friday, March 4, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (15/50) -- Oliver & Company (1988)

One of the Walt Disney Company’s many bread and butters has been retooling old tales for new audiences, starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1938 and continuing as recently as Tangled. This formula has various stages of success; when the formula hits, you get something like Aladdin. When it misses, well, you get something like Oliver & Company.

This may be a bit harsh, but not by much. Released in 1988 as the first movie under Disney’s new one-a-year plan, Oliver & Company was the latest in a lengthy series of attempts to reestablish relevance for Chateau Disney ever since Walt died. The O&C was a critical mixed bag, but it made a hefty chunk of money ($54 million was nothing to sneeze at in the 80’s), so clearly someone went to see it.

Oliver also holds a small place in my life as well: it’s the only Disney film I’ve seen as part of its theatrical re-release program, which was eventually dropped in favor of the far more lucrative home video market. Truth be told, I don’t remember much about this picture, other than seeing how many pieces of BubbleYum my cousins could fit into their mouths while in the theater. And when your audience is more fixated on the amount of junk food they can cram into their craw than the on actual movie they’re seeing, it doesn’t speak well for the finished product.

By the time this I saw this in ’96, it had a slew of much better Disney pictures to compete with.

Oliver & Company is a modern day retelling of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. In this version, Oliver (Joey Lawrence) is a kitten who is abandoned by a pet shop, only to be found by Dodger (Billy Joel), and inducted into his band of miscreants. The gang is lead by Fagin (Dom DeLuise), a sad sack who is in dire need of paying off his loan shark, Sykes (Robert Loggia). Sykes gives Fagin three days to repay his debt, leaving Oliver no choice but to help prevent the poor guy from losing his kneecaps.

During a routine radio-stealing, Oliver gets picked up Jenny Foxworth, a young, wealthy girl in need of a friend. Jenny takes Oliver home, where he’s pampered and loved for the first time in his life, but he’s stolen back by Fagin and crew in an attempt to ransom Oliver and settle Sykes’ debt. When the time comes, though, Fagin can’t con the child, and gives Oliver back to her. Sykes, however, kidnaps the girl in an attempt to ransom her off, and it’s up to the homeless dude and his pack of strays to rescue her.

Justice rides a scooter.

I’ve never read Oliver Twist (we did Great Expectations instead), but I did see David Lean’s 1948 adaptation, and from what I remember of that film, Oliver & Company is more or less… not what happens. Even for a Disneyfication of the story, the plot in Oliver is both too simple and too stretched out. There’s a fair bit of back-and-forth, but not much that really “happens,” making much of the movie seem like it’s spinning its wheels.

Part of the problem comes from Oliver himself. The best, most interesting Disney characters are the ones who are actively involved in their stories, taking charge of their own destinies. Oliver, by contrast, is probably the most passive Disney protagonist ever. The little guy is handed off from one party to the next, and he has barely any impact on his own story, apart from simply being alive. If you were to swap Oliver out for, say, a stuffed teddy bear full of jewels, the movie could continue on with very few changes to the plot.

A cat in the hand is worth none in the plot.

The other characters aren’t much better. Billy Joel’s Dodger is surprisingly flat, and not half as charming as the movie makes him out to be. Sykes talks quite a bit, but doesn’t amount to much of a villain. Jenny was originally supposed to be Penny from The Rescuers, and we all know what I think about her. Fagin’s gang is a group of mismatched pups (including, notably, Cheech Marin as a Chihuahua named Tito) who don’t make much impact, and Fagin himself is probably the worst parody of a Dom DeLuise character I’ve ever seen (and I saw A Troll in Central Park). Last is Georgette (Bette Midler), a pampered, prima donna show poodle with the dubious honor of having the film’s worst song.

Oh yes, there are songs. After several films with a half-musical motif, Oliver & Company comes out swinging in full-on musical mode, similar to the next eight or so films to be released after it. How unfortunate, then, that Oliver lacks any memorable numbers. Seriously, as hard as I try, I can’t remember the melody to any of the songs in this film. Well, all but one, anyhow—I’m a big Billy Joel fan, and “Why Should I Worry” is easily my favorite Disney tune from around this time period.

This is the high point of the movie—a dog riding a Volkswagen

The film’s not all bad, though. Oliver & Company sports a reasonably-clean look that, while very simple compared to even The Great Mouse Detective, gets the job done. The character designs are also fairly good-looking, with Jenny and Oliver both looking exceptionally cute.

But these are small tosses in the bucket of what is a rather underwhelming experience. It’s not the worst children’s film you’ve ever seen, but there’s far more chaff than wheat here. The best thing that can be said about Oliver & Company is that it doesn’t have that patronizing feeling of a “kid’s film,” and instead plays out like a regular movie. Not a very good movie, granted, but audience respect is hard to come by even nowadays, so it’s worth mentioning.

Top 3 Songs:

  1. “Why Should I Worry”
  2. “Streets of Gold”
  3. “Good Company”

Favorite scene:

  • The ending subway chase

Favorite character:

  • Sykes’ car (Seriously. It’s a hulking, Jaws-like entity that represents Sykes’ presence as a villain even better than Sykes himself)

The Jar Jar:

  • Fagin (I was thinking it was going to be Tito for a while, but I was wrrroooonnngg)

How I Watched It

I snagged the 20th Anniversary edition of Oliver & Company from Amazon for fairly cheap, though you should be able to find it at your friendly neighborhood DVD retailer. The movie looks good enough, though oddly sketchy and zoomed-in during certain scenes (I couldn’t tell if this was the movie or the disc, though). Also, certain nighttime scenes are almost too dark, making it difficult to see the action.

Oliver & Company has a surprisingly inclusive set of bonus features. It has a tiny Making Of featurette (at six minutes, it’s more promotional than anything else), as well as art galleries and movie trailers for both the original and re-release. Also included are not one, but two Pluto shorts: Oscar-winning “Lend a Paw,” where Pluto finds an orphaned kitten, and “Puss Café,” which has Pluto fending off two alley cats from eating Mickey’s fish and drinking his milk. As with most not-quite-beloved Disney films, it lacks production insight, but has enough frivolous material to make it worthwhile.

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