Oliver & Company sits in a very curious place in Disney history. Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells took over the Disney company in 1984, but the animated films already set to be released within the next two or three years (The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective) were well into development, and could only be changed so much. Cauldron had some scarier footage trimmed, but that was about it, and Detective went through a title change (originally, it shared the Basil of Baker Street moniker with the books it was loosely based on) and some budget/schedule reducing. Because of that, Oliver can really be seen as the first film solely shepherded by the new regime, pitched by Pete Young in a famous “gong show” that also saw the birth of films like The Little Mermaid (although, amusingly, this idea was at first rejected, but Katzenberg liked it enough to follow through with co-directors/writers John Musker and Ron Clements), and eventually directed by George Scribner all on his own after the firing of Fox and the Hound/Black Cauldron director Richard Rich (who went on to do the Swan Princess and Alpha and Omega series). As such, it’s a strikingly different film from those that preceded it, and even some afterwards: a nakedly contemporary-at-the-time film with pop and rock songs rather than fairy tales or fables with vaudeville, ballet, or Broadway-ready hits. Does it hold up? I’d say quite well, albeit with some caveats.
Inspired by Dickens’ Oliver Twist (it can’t really be thought of as an adaptation), the plot takes its major cues from it but mostly does its own thing with them. In fact, I’d argue some of them are improvements. Fagin, for instance, is no longer a cruel anti-Semitic caricature exploiting his charges, but a neurotic, desperate mess of a man in debt to the terrifying Sykes (Robert Loggia, brimming with underplayed, casual menace), who loves his dogs but can’t see any other way to survive outside of sending them out to help bring in money. Awesomely voiced by Dom DeLuise (in his only Disney role), Fagin manages to become rather endearing and lovable in his flaws, and his turn to heroism at the end is kind of inspiring. The gang itself is made of broad archetypes, but they’re all expertly animated and voiced characters that are fun to hang out with; I was particularly fond of Francis, the bulldog with Shakespearean pretensions voiced with booming pomposity by the late Roscoe Lee Browne. And Bette Midler has a lot of fun with the arrogant poodle Georgette, belting out “Perfect Isn’t Easy”, the only really Broadway-esque number, with delightful relish. Though the main attraction is Dodger, voiced by Billy Joel in his sole film role, and while the part doesn’t really challenge him acting-wise (he’s basically playing himself as a dog), Joel is high-spirited yet laid-back in his own inimitable way, and he easily steals the show song-wise with the incessantly catchy “Why Should I Worry?” The plot itself is admittedly a bit thin, but it’s well told and paced decently, so neither is it patience-testing.
Oliver himself is a bit trickier. While adorably designed and ably portrayed by Joey Lawrence of “Blossom” and “Melissa & Joey” fame, he’s kind of in the vein of early Disney kid protagonists like Pinocchio, Dumbo, or Bambi in that things just kind of happen to/around him rather than him driving the plot. He gets a few nice moments of agency, mind you, especially in the climax, but I couldn’t help but think of the comparison. The relationship that builds between him and young Jenny (Natalie Gregory, very good) is sweet and adorable in that way kids so often bond with animals, and we do root for them to stay together (even Fagin, in one of the film’s best scenes). Really, he’s mostly a vehicle for the fun and songs, but then, that could be said for Dickens’ Oliver as well. Either way, it doesn’t really hurt the film.
Animation wise, the film is in an interesting transition period. Still using the Xerography process, the film has a very scratchy look to it, with New York City looking both impressively grimy and dirty in places, yet also vibrant and full of life in others. The CGI is…well, it’s rudimentary compared to, say, the heights of the Beauty and the Beast ballroom, The Lion King’s stampede, Hunchback’s Notre Dame, or the action/adventure thrills found in Tarzan, Atlantis, or Treasure Planet, but the sheer volume of vehicles and even some backgrounds is impressive for 1988, especially in the exciting, climactic subway chase (which has a rather memorable, violent dispatching of Sykes).
The animal animation is fantastic, quite possibly on the level on something like Lady and the Tramp (which this film frequently borrows from in terms of the POV camera often being that of the animals, as well as cameos by Jock, Trusty, and Peg during “Why Should I Worry?”), if a little more loose. The humans are pretty standard Disney but still memorable, particularly Fagin’s haplessness and Glen Keane’s formidable, massive Sykes. Musically, the songs are quite diverse, from the opening Huey Lewis-driven “Once Upon A Time In New York City” number that sets up both the 80s vibe and gets the story moving, to the irresistible “Why Should I Worry”, to Ruth Pointer’s far too short, energized “Streets of Gold” (thankfully the full version is on the soundtrack), the aforementioned “Perfect Isn’t Easy”, and the sweet piano number “Good Company” that furthers Jenny and Oliver’s bond.
Overall, I think Oliver is just as interesting for what it represents as well as its own considerable virtues. The old ways of doing things were dying (in particular, Oliver was the first Disney film in quite some time to get a marketing blitz in terms of toys and merchandise), a new order was imposed, and a mermaid who dreamed of becoming a human was just around the corner….