Since it’s set in what was once contemporary Manhattan, “Oliver And Company” is very much an 80’s movie. So totally 80’s from top to bottom – with grit, rock and roll, implacable villains, and edgy bad-boys with hidden hearts of gold. So it’s a good thing I’ve always had a soft spot for the 80’s and some 80’s cheese. Something I always enjoy about this film is how it gets increasingly crazy the more it progresses. It starts off simple enough, with a sad, lonely kitten looking to find a home, and then he meets the Artful Dodger, which sets off a long chain reaction of events that ultimately leads to one misfit cat, five street dogs, one terrified hobo, one kidnapped rich girl and one pampered poodle being chased down railroad tracks on a motorbike by a batshit crazy mob boss and his goon dogs, until said mob boss gets himself obliterated by a freight train. The escalation of insanity and absurdity is real, and I find it directly contributes to “Oliver and Company” being one of Disney’s better romp movies.
More than that though, “Oliver and Company” benefits from having some strong opposing themes running underneath it’s zaniness. Fear and loneliness is one of them, and “Once Upon A Time In New York City” lays it out early on when poor Oliver is put through a frightening and harrowing experience, but the antithesis of that, friendship and solace, is also present and “Oliver and Company” can be very earnest in it’s presentation of the latter. In particular, there’s this one surprisingly sweet and beautiful scene where Fagin’s dogs gather around their owner to comfort him, and JAC Redford’s theme for Fagin (which is usually quite morose in the film) becomes wonderfully tender as the man is reminded what good companions he has and he returns the favor by getting them all ready for bed. Oliver watches on as a curious, observant outsider for a long while until he decides to fully forgive Dodger for being a dick to him earlier and joins the gang in turning in, falling asleep under the shining light of New York City’s skyline. A worthy successor to that scene is “Good Company”, the montage where Oliver and Jenny frolic through Central Park, bonding as a human and pet should, and realizing what a good fit for each other they are.
More than the silliness, the likable ensemble cast of scruffy strays and the movie’s solid, surprisingly consistent soundtrack, it’s scenes like these that make “Oliver and Company” work as a story, just enough to compensate for some sizable flaws the film has. One of them is the monkey wrench that’s bizarrely thrown into the film’s pacing right at the start of the second act. The entirety of the first act builds to Oliver finding a temporary home in Fagin’s gang, only to be ripped away from them less than five minutes later and wind up spending another sizable chunk of a rather short movie with Jenny and Georgette. To add onto that, “Streets Of Gold”, which was clearly intended to be a bonding song for Oliver and the dogs in it’s entirety, is trimmed down so his time with the gang is even briefer. It’s such a weird decision and a poor bit of pacing that causes the character relationships in the film to be weaker than they could have been otherwise.
I mentioned in my “Frozen” review that starting around the 80’s, Disney films became a lot more stuffed and ambitious than they had ever been before, and instead of Disney adjusting the runtimes accordingly they still tried to keep their films between seventy-five and eighty-five minutes long by not lingering in one place for too long, resulting in some areas feeling rushed. This is actually a flaw in “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” as well, though they aren’t as noticeably hurt by it as “Oliver and Company” is.
Like the eponymous orphan of Charles Dickens’ novel, little Oliver is a lost, homeless and friendless feline. After having an encounter with a deceitful, older ruffian, he gets wrapped up in things that are way beyond him and spends the rest of the film even more in over his head. That’s as far as the similarities stretch though, since Disney has always taken its liberties with its characters. I appreciate that “Oliver and Company” allows Oliver a bit more agency than his human counterpart from the source material, despite filling a similar role, since I like my kid characters to have some pluck to them. When Oliver realizes Dodger tricked him, he doesn’t just take it lying down but successfully follows the dog all over town, through the sheer power of being pissed off. He also pulls off a rescue mission with his friends and helps to get the main villain, Sykes, killed off in the climax.
Despite Oliver being the sympathetic kid protagonist, he’s also allowed to be just flawed and thoughtless as everyone else at times. He’s so alone that he joins a gang of criminal street dogs who take him in and make him part of their crew, promising he’ll help them not get killed by the mob, and then he forgets them entirely after spending a day with a human girl he likes, never intending to return. When they call him out on it, Oliver has nothing to say to defend himself, and as he leaves he realizes he’s just let down some of the only real friends he’s had so far. Thankfully, since this is a Disney movie, things don’t end like that. After a few more near-death experiences, Oliver earns his happy ending and he gets to remain friends with the gang while also having his dream life with Jenny.
Billy Joel’s canine bad-boy, Dodger, is a fun reckless mutt. Seemingly a cross between the Artful Dodger, Tramp from “Lady and the Tramp” and the Fonz from “Happy Days”, the character had the potential to be cringy but is actually really charismatic and increasingly likable, despite his introduction bullying poor Oliver. One initially gets the impression Dodger is the aloof, wild card of the dog gang – a slick, tough, attention-loving daredevil and a cocky hotshot to boot who rarely ever doubts himself – when he’s in actuality their leader. He has all the aforementioned vices, but he’s wholly capable of being sharp, crafty and observant when he wants to be – a competent and reliable strategist.
Throughout the film, Oliver continually surprises Dodger and gains his respect by being more stubborn and gutsy and in one case forgiving than he would expect the cat to be, so the street dog takes the kid under his wing. It’s understated, but the reason Dodger spends a chunk of the film fretting about Oliver’s safety is because he sees himself as being responsible for every member of his gang, and by (unwittingly) bringing Oliver into their way of life and their business with Sykes, he’s personally responsible for him now. It tends to be the little things that round out Dodger’s character, like how he runs scared with the others when Oliver drops in (‘one bad puppy’ indeed), or how he tries a bit too hard to seem cool when he’s embarrassed, or how it’s actually Dodger who ensures he and Oliver are still friends at the movie’s end – implying that after everything that happened with Oliver, the delinquent dog has matured a bit into a softy.
Tito is, without a doubt, one of the best characters in this movie. Cheech Marin goes full ham as the hotblooded, hyperactive and argumentative Chihuahua and it is amazing. In general, life tries to knock Tito down, but he never stays down for a more than a few seconds, and he comes back up swinging. He’s pretty much a walking, talking, uncensored ball of energy, as well as the locksmith and technical genius of the dog gang. Along with his persistent, failed attempts to woo Georgette (his prissy crush), Tito tends to butt heads with stuffy British bulldog (Disney loves it’s stuffy Brits, doesn’t it?) and pretentious would-be thespian, Francis, who he often antagonizes. These two can best be described as bash brothers; they’re often squabbling and bickering over something or another but they’re bonded in their shared poverty and lonely lives nonetheless, and neither of them will stand for the other being harassed.
Rita, the musically-gifted voice of reason, and Einstein, the loving carefree muscle, are the two most underused members of the gang (probably because they don’t have as much potential for comedy as the others). As the most sensible and nominally mature canine, Rita often tries to keep the rest of the gang in check, while Einstein, bless is heart, is often used as distractions for the group. While they’re fun in the first half of the film, the pair sort of become lost in a sea of other characters during the second half.
Dom Deluise’s presence in this film as the scruffy homeless man, Fagin, is always a pleasant surprise (and an ironic one, since the Deluise role I’m most familiar with in the medium of animation is Itchy in the “All Dogs Go To Heaven” franchise, who was a dog). Fagin is probably the most morally murky character in this movie. Unlike his namesake, he’s not evil or an utter bastard (as mentioned above, he treats his canine companions well and provides for them as best as he can), but the film makes it clear he’s not all good either.
A petty thief and a vagabond, jittery doormat Fagin is in debt to local mob boss and loan shark, Sykes, and now Sykes has come to collect, one way or another. Fagin is pretty terrified of the implacable goon, since he knows Sykes is a powerful man with plenty of connections who could easily make a run-of-the-mill bum like him disappear, and no one would really care to go looking for him. In growing desperation, Fagin progresses from his usual petty thievery to ransoming schemes, which unwittingly gets Jenny involved. Ultimately, Fagin’s moral code turns out to be similar to his dogs’ (or should I say, his babies’); he may be a criminal but he’s a decent enough person to not let innocent people die for him, and he redeems himself by helping to save Jenny from Sykes. With Sykes dead by the end, the status quo returns to normal for Fagin’s gang, except they now have a little rich girl and her cat for an acquaintance. Towards the end of the film, Fagin and Jenny parallel each other as the two most important people in Oliver and Dodger’s lives, that the animals would do anything for.
I really like Jenny Foxworth, the wealthy human girl Oliver befriends, and I think she is the perfect owner for the tabby (the fact that they have similar, affable temperaments helps). Her parents are absent quite often apparently, which has left her craving some companionship, and luckily she’s an animal lover. Kind and affectionate, but also spunky at times, Jenny can be impulsive and has a hands-on personality. It’s clear she doesn’t let her wealth go to her head and she doesn’t like to rely on her family’s butler Winston too much, which also doubles as a character flaw when she goes to go rescue Oliver without telling anyone and gets herself into some serious trouble. Something that always stands out to me about Jenny is that she never once questions how her cat and a bunch of dogs can pull off a rescue mission. She does not even care, the only thing she wants during the climax is to get the hell out of dodge before she gets shot or eaten by something – which makes her a very sharp girl. Having been kidnapped by the mob when she was just a little girl, Jenny will have quite a story to tell her children and her grandchildren someday.
Georgette is one of the more deliciously camp characters in the movie. Similar to Dodger, Georgette fits a certain character type – the theater prat – that had the potential to be cringy, but she lands on just the right side of the fun / annoying divide. Bette Middler chews her fair share of scenery as the spiteful, aggressive diva and show dog who acts as a minor antagonist to Oliver, growing jealous of Oliver stealing Jenny’s affection. I loved seeing her indulge in her devious, manipulative side when she plotted to get rid of Oliver, and her steady, subsequent comeuppance during the climax, when Jenny dragged her along on her dangerous rescue mission through the shady side of New York, was just perfect. With that much having been said, despite her shallow personality, never let it be said Georgette isn’t loyal. She’s fiercely protective of Jenny in the last act of the movie, and perfectly willing to work with street dogs to get her back.
Bill Sykes and his attack dogs, Roscoe and Desoto, are a menacing trio, not to mention heartless, goal-focused and money-obsessed. Sykes is intimidating because he knows full well how dangerous he is, especially to someone like Fagin. He spends much of the movie effortlessly making his Fagin his bitch, playing him like a fiddle, before he’s ultimately done in by blind rage – his attempts to straight-up murder everyone out of spite get him killed and obliterated by an oncoming train. Roscoe and Desoto are a good fit for their owner, since they’re completely sadistic. Like him, they love what they do and the power they lord over others. It took me a while to realize Sykes’s dogs are the evil counterparts to Oliver and Dodger, who are scrappy enough on their own but work better as a team. Our heroes try to take on the killer dogs several times, but they never manage to actually beat them until Oliver and Dodger double-team them in the climax.
The animation in “Oliver and Company” is the film’s weakest aspect. It’s solid work, but it rarely ever rises above standard level and never really captivates. The film trades in the razor-sharp pencil lines from the 70’s for an overall grainy image quality and a few shots that were too obviously done with the aid of computers (Disney’s films from the late 80’s were the start of one of my least favorite practices, integrating CG elements into 2-D animation to save production time. Hand drawn animation and 3-D animation have two completely different textures that rarely ever gel well, even in renaissance films like “Aladdin” and “Tarzan”).
However, the film’s stylized backgrounds do do a fine job of capturing both the scenic, idealized Manhattan in the movie’s title sequence and the more grungy, realistic New York we spend the bulk of the film in, and I really enjoyed the vibrant, diverse color scheme of the movie. Something the animation in “Oliver And Company” does really well is capture the darkness at the heart of the film, the seedy underbelly of New York that no one ever really wants to acknowledge, and contrast it with the gentle innocence of characters like Oliver and Jenny. There are times when it’s really very disturbing what sort of trouble our kid characters have found themselves in, dealing with cutthroat criminals, as it should be.
If it wasn’t for the fact that “The Little Mermaid” was released the following year, I’d probably say “Oliver and Company” was Disney’s best soundtrack from the 80’s, because it is remarkably consistent. Oliver’s theme, “Once Upon A Time In New York City”, is a vibrant, longing opening song by Huey Lewis that gets more and more bleak and heartrending the more it progresses, and goes a long way in setting up the main conflict of the film. Dodger’s character-establishing song and the movie’s signature number, “Why Should I Worry”, is a pretty important turning point in the story. Up until now, “Oliver and Company” has been a somewhat cute and somewhat depressing movie about a lost tabby being overwhelmed by NYC. Oliver chasing Dodger down to a Billy Joel number is the first time the film takes on a larger-than-life, genuinely fun tone, resulting in the dogs of Manhattan commandeering the streets.
I will always lament “Streets Of Gold” being shortened, because it’s actually the only song on the album that matches “Why Should I Worry?” in quality. The musical style JAC Redford chose for Fagin’s dog gang was always earthy rock and jazz, and Ruth Pointer’s confident, energetic, irresistible 80’s workout music is the culmination of that style. Georgette’s purposely ridiculous introductory song, “Perfect Isn’t Easy”, is the weakest of the lot, with weak lyrics abound. Bette Middler, being Bette Middler though, slays the last chorus. “Good Company” is the most underrated track of the bunch. I love how the soft piano beat and Myhanh Tran’s harmonious vocals bookend the song, while the middle section is purely Redford cutting lose with stately, playful instrumentals.
“Oliver and Company” is a good, solid movie. With better animation and better pacing, it could have been a much stronger movie, but as it is, it’s another of Disney’s better dark age films, and a pretty important entry in the canon. “Oliver and Company” restored Disney’s faith in animated musicals, and that combined with the massive success of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” paved the way for “The Little Mermaid”, the film that kicked off the Disney renaissance. The rest, after that, is history.
* One of the cats being sold with Oliver is blue. Since when are blue cats a thing?
* “Looks like it’s time for the Dodge to turn this into a total cat-astrophy!” Bad puns are bad.
* “Listen kid, I hate to break it to you, but the dynamic duo is now the dynamic uno” How to handle break-ups, Dodger style.
* “The rhythm of the city, boy once you get it down, you can own this town, you can wear the crown!!!”
* Can we talk about how Oliver nearly died during the montage? Because death seriously almost came for him at one point.
* “GANG WAR! LOOK OUT EVERYONE, IT’S A GANG WAR!!!”
* “Isn’t it dangerous to use one’s entire vocabulary in a single sentence?”
* “Three sunrises, three sunsets, three days Fagin” “Before the sun sets on the third day” Yep, Disney used the same villainous time limit two films in a row.
* So that the leads can have contrasting personalities, of course it’s the edgy, aloof bad-boy of the dog gang that little Oliver wins over and eventually becomes buds with (and I wouldn’t want it any other way).
* If the transition between the first and second acts wasn’t poignant enough already, there’s also the fact that the Twin Towers are part of New York’s skyline, still standing in 1988. Now there’s history.
* Oliver chases Dodger all across town just to get some food and as far as I can tell, he still doesn’t eat anything until the following day.
* “Dead men do not buy dog food! So get out there, and fetch!” Welp, it’s time to steal some shit.
* “You’re gonna see how the best survive, we make an out of staying alive! If do just as you’re told these are streets of gold! Every boulevard is a miracle mile, you’ll take the town and you’ll take it with style! If you do just as you’re told, these are streets of gold!”
* “Whoa man, check it out! Hey forget Fagin, let’s take this baby to Atlantic city!”
* “You pretty pups all over the city, I have your hearts and you have my pity! Pretty is nice but still it’s just pretty, perfect my dears is meeeeeee!!!”
* “Yeah! He’s family, he’s blood!“.
* Disney wiki tells me Jenny is seven years old for most of the movie. That is way too young to have earrings. Mind you, Oliver is also too young to be hanging out with thieves, so I’m not sure where my priorities are here.
* “You and me together we’ll be, forever you’ll see, we’ll always be good company, you and me, just wait and see. Goodnight Oliver“.
* Winston is secretly one of those guys who gets way too into wrestling. Sweet.
* “Oh man, he’s dead meat now”.
* Why does Winston think this is normal?
* “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do!” “Neither do I!”
* “Oh… I broke a nail” “Oh, balderdash!” “Hey, what you’d call my woman, man?!”
* How would throwing a sheet over Roscoe and Desoto stop them, and why does it work?
* “Francis? Francis!”
* “Alonso, save me! Save me!” “Get off my back, woman! I’m driving!”
* Oliver and Dodger fought gangsters together and won. Now that’s a bonding activity.
* The only ones who come to Jenny’s birthday party are Fagin and his dog gang, who are Oliver’s friends more than they are Jenny’s. I feel like Jenny is pretty lonely.
* The dogs almost but don’t quite manage to butcher a good song in the reprise. I do like how the ending doesn’t feeling like an ending so much as a promise of more adventures. It’s one of the few Disney movies that actually had sequel potential.
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