The Great Mouse Detective got some good reactions from critics, but was overshadowed at the box-office by Don Bluth’s film latest film, the Steven Spelberg-produced An American Tail, which became the highest grossing animated movie ever (not adjusted for inflation). That record must have been a major blow for Disney, but they were building up their response. Despite not being able to revive the animation department so far, the studio’s new plan was to make a new animated movie every year. Not since the early forties (benefiting form the Snow White bonanza) had the studio been able to work at such an accelerated pace. And the Disney of the mid-eighties was definitely nowhere close in success and amount of manpower to the Disney of Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo. Still, Katzenberg, Eisner and Roy Disney were determined. They hired about 400 new employees and brought in Peter Schneider to be President of Feature Animation. Schneider, like Eisner and Katzenberg, had no background in animation. He came from the world of theater, but there is no denying that he was a great executive. With such an enormous staff there were certainly many great minds at work at Disney at the time, but Schneider’s time at the company overlaps precisely with the height of Walt Disney Animation’s success.
The first movie to be a part of the a-movie-a-year project was Oliver & Company, a loose adaptation that brought the story of Oliver Twist to 1980s New York City. The intention to make Oliver a hit is apparent, starting by the casting of big-name celebrities like Billy Joel and Bette Midler to provide voice work. The studio had done some stunt-casting before (Vincent Price in The Great Mouse Detective is one of the better examples), but never with the kind of big names that were supposed to lure people into buying tickets. This may very well be the beginning of the celebrity-obsessed casting of contemporary animated movies, but it’s also something that would become a big part of the Disney’s M.O. going forward. The casting of Robin Williams in Aladdin, Jeremy Irons in The Lion King and Demi Moore in The Hunchback of Notre Dame can all be traced down to Oliver.
As a matter of fact, Oliver very much shares the DNA of the movies that would put Disney at the top in the following years. From a purely formal standpoint, one could make a great argument to deem Oliver & Company the first movie in the Disney Renaissance. First of all, the movie is the first all-out musical the studio had done in more than a decade. Their movies had had songs here and there, but Oliver has five major musical numbers, four of which are sung on-screen by the characters. All of them serve the narrative on some level and although the soundtrack is very much a piece of late-eighties pop music, show-stopping numbers like “Why Should I Worry?” and “Perfect Isn’t Easy” indicate the direction their approach to music was heading into. The Broadway influence in “Perfect Isn’t Easy”, as sung by Bette Midler, is obvious; while “Why Should I Worry?” ends with a chorus-line of dogs making its way through the streets of Manhattan.
The second big development in Oliver & Company is the extensive use of computer generated animation. CG had been used for the bubbles in the fairy scene in The Black Cauldron and the final action sequence inside the Big Ben in The Great Mouse Detective, but never as extensively as in Oliver. It would obviously become a huge part of animation going forward, being used in all of Disney’s films in the decade to follow and becoming the primary style of animation today. The third, and I think most important, breakthrough for Oliver is the quality of its animation. Even though the black outlines make me think it was done with the relatively cheap xerography process (I haven’t been able to confirm this), it is steps above what we saw in the last few Disney films. Unlike in The Black Cauldron, the design of the characters, even when grotesque (Fagin is very unpleasant to the eyes), never feels cheap. And the movement of the characters is so fluent and consistent it makes the stiffness of the supporting players in The Great Mouse Detective even more frustrating*. This is the first Disney movie in a long time in which I didn’t see moments in which the characters didn’t look like themselves or other animation mistakes.
*This may be a tricky statement to make, since there are many static backgrounds featuring people or cars in Oliver & Company. Those people and cars obviously don’t move, but I’m referring to any animated characters that appears in the film.
The animation, the use of CG and the music would all become better with future projects, but Oliver is already a huge step forward as far as all these aspects are concern and in that sense could stand head-to-head with the movies that followed. There is still, however, a big reason why Oliver & Company is not the movie that sparked the Disney Renaissance: the story. The word loose should be underlined when you say this movie is a loose adaptation of Oliver Twist, especially if you consider a novel’s true value to be its message and not its plot. Oliver & Company recasts Oliver as a homeless kitten in New York City. He soon meets Dodger (Billy Joel), the leader of a group of pickpocketing dogs working for homeless guy Fagin (Dom DeLuise), who in turn is in trouble for owing money to Sykes (Robert Loggia), who being some sort of financial guy, sounds like the perfect ’80s villain. Out on a mission to get Fagin some money, Oliver gets trapped in little girl Jenny’s limo. The girl adopts Oliver even if that doesn’t please her jealous poodle Georgette (Bette Midler). Since Oliver has been adopted by a rich girl, Fagin thinks he can kidnap and ransom Oliver to pay his debt to Sykes.
As you can see, the plot is fairly different to that of Oliver Twist. The weird thing is that even as it keeps the themes of homelessness and class distinction, the movie has zero interest in making any kind of comment about it. It prefers to spend time with somewhat-offensive mexican chihuahua Tito (Cheech Marin). Well, that’s a little unfair. Tito is certainly a problematic character, but the rest of the dogs aren’t particularly bad. Neither are they particularly good, though. As a comedy about cats and dogs, Oliver & Company is competent. As a movie in and on itself, not so much. The themes of Oliver Twist as presented in the original novel may be a little too hard for a kids’ movie, but there are many ways in which they could at least have touched on them. I would say there is absolutely none thematic depth to Oliver & Company.
Oliver & Company opened the very same day as Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time, and this time, Disney won the box-office battle. Going a little deeper than nothing at all in its themes is what Oliver needed, especially if it was to stand the test of time and revive Disney Animation. While never actively bad, Oliver can barely be called a good movie in its own right. Still, it was a major step forward for the studio in most technical aspects. It would only take a better story for true greatness to come…
Up Next: … And it did come! The Disney Renaissance officially begins with one of the very best films the studio ever did. I’m talking, of course, about The Little Mermaid.