Disney Animated Features
<< The Great Mouse Detective | The Little Mermaid >>
Release Date: 18 November 1988
After The Great Mouse Detective and The Black Cauldron, which had both already been in production or pre-production when Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg came to the Walt Disney Company in 1984, it took some time to release the next Disney Animated Feature.
This film, Oliver and Company, built on the lessons the company had learned from the financial failure of Cauldron and the relative success of Detective. Like Detective, it utilized well-known actors for voices, songs by well-known composers, a clean and vibrant animation style, equally bold and vivid characters, and a strong sense of humor.
But it also went beyond that earlier film in many ways. Where Detective had only Vincent Price, Oliver and Company had several well-known actors. The later film included more songs (5) and could be considered a musical. And, perhaps most importantly, the film aimed a little lower for its target audience; the dark images of The Black Cauldron and the sophisticated references in The Great Mouse Detective were a little bit over the heads of Disney's traditional audience -- young children.
That's not to say this isn't a film adults can enjoy; as in most of their films since, Disney crafted a story that can be appreciated on many different levels, so there is something for most anyone to enjoy.
Disney films have gone to many different sources for inspiration, from children's books to fairy tales to great literature. For the first time since The Jungle Book, the studio took the great literature route -- Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. The story had been interpreted before, of course -- most notably on Broadway and in film as Oliver!. But, as they often did, Disney put their own twist (no pun intended) on it.
In this version, the orphaned Oliver is a kitten, taken in by a pack of semi-stray dogs. The dogs are led by the terrier Dodger (get it?); in exchange for shelter , food, and protection, they steal things and commit other petty crimes for their human companion Fagin. Complications arise when Oliver is found and adopted by a rich little girl named Jenny -- the dogs try to "rescue" their young friend, not realizing he rather likes it at Jenny's townhouse. It doesn't help that Jenny's spoiled poodle, Georgette, would just as soon the newcomer go back where he came from. But when Jenny goes looking for her "rescued" kitten, she stumbles into the clutches of the loan shark Sykes, who holds her for ransom to get reimbursement for the money Fagin owes him...
As mentioned, several well-known voices were employed for this film; these are led by Billy Joel (in pretty much his only stint as an actor, animated or otherwise) as Dodger and Bette Midler as Georgette. Supporting these two are a young Joey Lawrence as Oliver, Dom DeLuise as Fagin, Robert Loggia as Sykes, and Cheech Marin, Richard Mulligan, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Roscoe Lee Brown as the other dogs in Fagin's troupe. Marin, as (what else?) the hyperactive chihuahua Tito, provides most of the comic relief in the film. The actors, particularly Marin, Joel, and Midler, do a fine job of imbuing their characters with just the right personality, and the animators -- as usual -- did an excellent job of capturing those personalities.
The songs are generally good and particularly well-performed, led by Midler on Barry Manilow's "Perfect Isn't Easy," Joel on his own "Why Should I Worry?" and Huey Lewis on "Once Upon a Time in New York City" (lyrics by Howard Ashman, who was about to become one of the pivotal figures in Disney feature animation).
The film garnered no Academy Awards, but Joel's "Why Should I Worry?" got a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song - Motion Picture.
And the film did well at the box office, setting a short-lived record for highest gross by an animated feature in initial release. This despite being somewhat overshadowed by the same year's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, produced by Amblin Entertaiment and Disney's Touchstone Pictures division.
And the film that broke Oliver and Company's box office record? Well, it was a little film Disney released the very next year... maybe you've heard of it... something about...
a little mermaid.
Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory.