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Disney Sundays: Oliver & Company (1988)

  
        On November 18th 1988 an animated film came out that was beautiful, magical, and had all the wonder of classic Disney! It almost belongs up there with Bambi, Peter Pan, Fantasia, it’s just incredible. I am of course talking about The Land Before Time, the Don Bluth film that had the luck to open the same day as Disney’s Oliver & Company. With these two up against each other in a battle of animation, which one’s the winner? Well maybe the fact that The Land Before Time crushed Oliver & Company at the box office will give you some indication.
          That’s not to say that box office has anything to do with a films’ quality, but people looking for a rich, timeless experience out of an animated movie certainly didn’t get it out of Oliver & Company. No Disney movie I’ve come across feels more of its time than this strange adaptation of Oliver Twist. It’s about as loyal to the Dickens classic as you’d expect from Disney, in that it keeps the character names and a few story beats but little else. Even taking out the fact that it’s a poor representation of one of my favourite books though, there’s just so much about it that feels forced.
          The story follows a kitten called Oliver, the only one of his litter to not be adopted. Which I call bullshit on because he’s cute and there’s absolutely no reason every other kitten was wanted but not him (also who just leaves kittens sitting in a box outside on a rainy night??). He meets a dog called Dodger who gives him a lesson in surviving on the streets. Oliver soon discovers that Dodger is one of several dogs owned by a hobo called Fagin who’s severely in debt to a loan shark and gangster called Sikes; and he’s brought into their crew. But on a mission with the dogs to steal up some cash, he is found and adopted by a rich girl called Jenny whose parents are conveniently absent. She also somehow knows his name is Oliver which is never explained. As he becomes accustomed to this new loving owner he realizes he doesn’t want to return to Fagin’s gang.
          This movie is drenched in the 80’s! Everything from the tone, music, visuals, and attitudes distinctly reflect that turn of the decade culture. And therein lies the biggest problem: it’s trying too hard to be modern and “cool” so often that it’s irritating. The movie was clearly studio controlled and driven with an agenda to appeal to only the sensibilities of kids at the time. It’s pandering and really feels like a sell-out, with Disney replacing adventure, wonder, and moral tethers with gimmicks, marketability and manipulation. Hell, there are moments that straight up feel like advertisements for sunglasses, cars, or Billy Joel. All of this forced attitude can be summed up in Billy Joel’s Dodger. He’s a less funny version of the Fonze and he particularly irks me because he’s supposed to be the Dodger, man! The Artful Dodger was always my favourite character in Oliver Twist, shrewd, mature, and cunning, he was the kid you always wanted to be. And so for him to be re-imagined as a “chill” and “rad” dog with the constant I-don’t-care eyes saying things like “check ya later”, it’s just so obnoxious! Some of the other characters don’t age well either. Though most of Fagin’s gang (oh fuck it, they’re really Dodger’s gang) are fine, they were clearly designed to be toys. Einstein voiced by Richard Mulligan is just the big dope, Rita voiced by Sheryl Lee Ralph is the token sassy female, and Franklin voiced by Roscoe Lee Browne is the cultured English Thespian (the fact that one of these dogs is classy and cultured makes no sense considering they’re supposed to be street thieves). As for Tito the chihuahua, well... while Cheech Marin is just doing his usual comic routine, today’s audience largely unfamiliar with Cheech would probably see this as just a Mexican caricature. He’s not even that funny.
          Let’s also address this version of Fagin. First of all, it’s kind of ironic that Dom DeLuise is voicing this character in a film opening opposite the one Don Bluth movie of the 80’s that DeLuise wasn’t in. And he’s fine with what he has to work with. The character is made a lot more sympathetic in this film and I understand why. Most people when they think of Oliver Twist are prone to think of Fagin as the main villain rather than Bill Sikes, because Fagin has a more memorable presence and character. And considering some interpretations of Fagin including arguably in the book itself have been seen as anti-Semitic as well as Disney’s own history of anti-Semitic controversy, I can see why Disney would want to portray him as less of a bad guy and more of a victim. But Fagin is a pretty despicable character in his own right, and by taking that away in this film, it leaves him no impression to make. I saw a few versions of Oliver Twist when I was younger and I always remembered Fagin; but as for this film, I remembered Dodger, Tito, and even Sykes, but not Fagin. Even taking out his literary counterpart, he just feels like every other Dom DeLuise animated character, the talkative nervous clutz. He’s just Jeremy from The Secret of NIMH, or Tiger from An American Tail. I did feel though that Robert Loggia worked well enough opposite him as Sykes. I wish he could have been a bit more of the rough hateable brute from the book, but he was a decently imposing villain. Though one who suddenly became a moron in the film’s climactic chase, which is one of the dumbest I’ve ever seen.
          It sounds like I’m berating Oliver & Company a lot and it’s by no means good, but there are admittedly things I enjoy, ironically or not. The songs are performed by Billy Joel (of course), Huey Lewis and a few other artists, and they’re mostly awful. “Why Should I Worry” is the first song in a Disney movie that feels like a music video and for almost the first half of the film you could complain that the story distracts from a pop music concert. But as songs on their own, they are sort of a guilty pleasure to me. Because they’re so of their time and so not even trying to be Disney, I can actually kinda get into these corny 80’s pop songs. Yeah “Once Upon a Time in New York City” tries way too hard to illicit an emotional response, and yeah “Streets of Gold” is pointless apart from animating choreography, but a part of me somehow enjoys them. And even though it’s incredibly sappy, “Good Company” is the only one I’d say is a legitimately decent Disney song. 
          I also like some of the visuals in this movie. Much as the animation may be dictated by style and marketability, it’s often energized and versatile. Like The Great Mouse Detective you can see the origins of the Disney Renaissance in how the characters, particularly the humans, are rendered. And while most of Jenny’s household is a bore, with her, the butler, and Oliver having little to no personality we haven’t seen before, Georgette the poodle who has no counterpart in Dickens’ novel is actually kind of fun. She’s voiced with gusto by Bette Midler and is by far the funniest part of the movie. Her insane vanity coupled with her aggressiveness and exaggerated animation reminds me of Cruella in the 101 Dalmatians animated series I watched as a kid. Even her weird relationship with Tito gets a laugh once or twice.
          But a movie like Oliver & Company should make you laugh more than once or twice. Or at least affect in some way that doesn’t feel like a sell-out. Like The Sword in the Stone, I think Oliver Twist could make for a decent Disney film if handled right (actually Pinocchio has a lot in common; there’s your Disney Oliver Twist), but Disney in 1988 clearly didn’t want that. They wanted to be what they thought their audience wanted them to be: cool and hip.  But Disney is pretty cool on its own. History has shown that the moment it starts trying to be is when it starts looking embarrassing. The result is something forced and very dated. I can’t help but groan every time Dodger or Oliver gives one of those fake-out fist bumps or when the dogs start dancing to a “rocking beat” -it’s like Poochie from The Simpsons! But I’d be lying if I didn’t say there aren’t moments at least a little enjoyable in how dated they are; in something of a so-bad-it’s-good way. If you like cheesy 80’s songs, slang, and attitudes, this is a great time capsule and I’d recommend it -you’ll get a few laughs. But if you’re looking for some quality animation, I’d suggest doing what we all would have done back in 1988, and watch The Land Before Time instead.

Next Week: The Little Mermaid (1989)

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