The first time I remember seeing Oliver & Company was when it was theatrically re-released in 1996 when I was four years old. I remember the TV commercials advertising the movie, seeing the VHS tapes for sale in the store, and I definitely remember the Burger King kids’ meal toys. But most of all, I remember my love for this movie, its music, and its characters.
A retelling of Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist, Oliver & Company opens with Oliver (voiced by Joey Lawrence), an abandoned kitten, roaming the streets of New York City.
Oliver soon meets Dodger (Billy Joel), a terrier mix with “street savoir faire” who tricks Oliver into helping him carry out a hotdog stand heist. Angry that Dodger has tricked him, Oliver follows him to his home in an abandoned barge. Here, he meets Dodger’s gang: Tito the Chihuahua (voiced by Cheech Marin), Einstein the Great Dane (Richard Mulligan), Rita the Afghan Hound (Sheryl Lee Ralph), Francis the bulldog (Roscoe Lee Brown), and their owner Fagin (Dom DeLuise), a homeless pickpocket.
In no time, Oliver is adopted into the gang of misfits, only to find out that they are in serious trouble. Fagin is in debt to Bill Sykes (Robert Loggia), a criminal loan shark with some seriously scary Dobermans, and his time is running out. Sykes has given Fagin three days to supply him with the money he’s owed… or else. In order to get the money, Dodger and his gang attempt to hot wire and steal a limousine. However, when all is said and done, their plan falls through, and Oliver ends up stuck inside the limo with its occupant, a little girl named Jenny (Natalie Gregory).
Jenny happily adopts the little kitten and takes him to her luxurious 5th Avenue home. Here, Oliver meets Georgette (Bette Midler), Jenny’s spoiled show poodle, who is not at all happy that Oliver has become Jenny’s new favorite pet.
Dodger’s gang quickly arrives to rescue Oliver and takes him back to the barge. Once there, however, Oliver reveals that he actually liked living with Jenny. In his time with her, the two became friends. Before he can leave, however, Fagin arrives. Increasingly desperate to secure the money he needs to repay his debt, Fagin decides to hold Oliver captive and demand a huge ransom from Jenny.
Upon meeting Jenny and Georgette to collect the ransom, Fagin feels increasingly guilty and ultimately ends up returning Oliver to Jenny without collecting the money. Sykes, in turn, seizes the opportunity to kidnap Jenny and demands her parents pay him ransom for her safe return. After a struggle with Dodger’s gang, Sykes and his Dobermans accidentally drive their car off the Brooklyn Bridge and fall to their deaths.
Fagin and his dogs, now free from their debt to Sykes, are able to return to their normal lives, while Oliver happily remains with Jenny.
Oliver & Company originally started out as a very different movie from the one viewers are familiar with today. An early version of the story involved a much darker plot in which Oliver sought revenge against Sykes’ Dobermans for the murder of his parents. After some revisions, however, the story as we know it today started to take shape.
Visually, Oliver & Company pushed boundaries. While it was not the first Disney animated movie to utilize computer-generated imagery (movies like The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective include sequences created with the aid of computers) eleven minutes of Oliver & Company involved computer generated elements created with CAPS—Disney’s Computer Animation Production System. In the future, Disney would go on to create films completely using CAPS, such as The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Oliver & Company served as an important stepping-stone on the road to digital animated movies.
Another visual change was the inclusion of many modern advertisements in the movie. Brands like Sony, Coke, McDonalds, Yamaha, and Kodak (among many other brands) are featured in the film in order to provide New York City with a more realistic and modern-day feel.
Filmmakers also turned to visual techniques from the past, however. In order to accurately simulate a dog’s perspective, scenes from the movie were staged and photographed from ground level. This technique, also used in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, gave animators the opportunity to see the world from a dog’s eye view.
If there is one thing that I think makes Oliver & Company stand out among Disney movies, it’s the music. With songs by Billy Joel, Bette Midler, Huey Lewis, and Ruth Pointer of The Pointer Sisters, Oliver & Company might be the most ‘80s feeling (and sounding) animated movie out there. But, even though the film is incredibly dated, the songs still hold up. “Why Should I Worry?” sung by Billy Joel, “Streets of Gold,” sung by Ruth Pointer, and “Perfect Isn’t Easy,” sung by Bette Midler are some of my favorite songs from the movie. Venturing away from more traditional styles of music and switching to a more contemporary soundtrack may have been a risky movie, but it definitely paid off.
Another strength of Oliver & Company is its characters. Animated by the likes of Glen Keane, Mike Gabriel, Mark Henn, and Ruben Aquino, the film’s cast of characters stands out above all else. Georgette, in particular, has always been one of my favorite characters. Even with her spoiled nature and bad attitude, Bette Midler and Georgette’s animators were able to create a funny and memorable character with great appeal.
Speaking of Oliver & Company in a 1988 interview, then Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg had this to say: “These movies for us are really the ambassadors of goodwill. This film will go out to every county and every city and every town—not just through America, but through the world. These movies are the heart and soul of our company.” Oliver & Company was just that—it reinstated animated features as the “heart and soul” of the Disney Company. Following its release, the decision was made to release animated films annually, something Disney Animation had not done regularly since the 1930s.
Overall, Oliver & Company served as a great turning point in Disney animation history. In the words of supervising animator Glen Keane, “With Oliver, it’s an amusement park ride. It just races through and it’s a lot of fun. The characters are real and fresh, and by the end of it you feel exhilarated and you want to kind of go on it again.”
What do you think of Disney’s Oliver & Company? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
Edited by: Kelly Conley