Oliver & Company (1988): United States – directed by George Scribner
Rated G by the MPAA – contains dogs getting electrocuted
Oliver & Company opens with a long shot of New York City, gorgeously drawn in an almost impressionist manner. The camera flies into the city where we find some hand-drawn characters, mostly kittens. They’re in a box, waiting for people to take them away. All the kittens get picked as the day wears on; everyone except Oliver (voice of Joey Lawrence).
He soon finds himself alone in the big streets of New York, trying to find some food and a friendly face. He runs into a couple mean dogs and a mean hot dog vendor. Finally he meets Dodger (voice of Billy Joel), a shifty con artist dog. Pretty soon they’re ripping off the hot dog vendor and running off with a link of sausages. However, since Dodger is so shifty he stiffs Oliver out of his share. That’s life on the streets of New York City.
But Oliver is tenacious and follows Dodger all the way back to his den, where he lives with some other mutts under the care of a gambling addict named Fagin (Dom DeLuise). After Oliver is taken into their fold (because he’s so spunky) he finds out that Fagin is in trouble with a bad fellow named Sykes (Robert Loggia).
And that’s where any relationship to Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist ends. That’s right, four characters have similar names and positions in the story. To say that Oliver & Company is loosely inspired by Dickens’ novel would be an understatement. To say the film is inspired at all would be an overstatement.
The first half of the movie sets up Dodger and the gang. Then, finally, the main story gets rolling as Oliver is left behind in an attempted car radio theft (yes, the dogs stop a car and try to steal the radio for Fagin so he can sell it to get money for Sykes.) The main electronic wizard for the gang is also the character best at stealing the show: the chihuahua Tito (Cheech Marin). He also gets electrocuted a lot.
During the attempted heist Oliver is left behind with a young rich girl. Her parents are often out of town so she is excited to get a cute new kitty. Suffice to say that her life will get more exciting by knowing Oliver. Dodger and the gang stage an attempt to rescue her from the house, which backfires when everything turns into kidnapping and ransom.
This isn’t the worst movie Disney has made, but it was definitely made during one of their weaker decades. Until The Little Mermaid the next year, Disney hadn’t had many hits during the 1980’s. It’s easy to see why, when plots like this are so haphazard and rambling. Even at a mere 74 minutes it felt long. Even the songs fall quite flat. There are only four or five musical numbers, and none of them is memorable. Even Billy Joel on the soundtrack doesn’t help. It also doesn’t help that this is ’80’s pop music we’re talking about.
It isn’t a terrible movie, though. It’s got some gorgeous art work, in a different style than most any other Disney movie. The animals are sufficiently cute, and Sykes’ sinister dobermans are effectively evil. There are also some very dark moments in the film, such as when Sykes instructs a colleague on the phone to “start with the knuckles,” and then advises on using concrete shoes. (SPOILER) Both of his dobermans die by electrocution on train tracks, and Sykes himself runs full speed into an oncoming train. Normally Disney villains fall off a cliff (Beauty and the Beast [review here] and The Rescuers Down Under) and one might suspect that water will be there to cushion their fall. Here we see fiery wreckage and face an utter certainty that Sykes is dead.
I didn’t hate Oliver & Company, but I didn’t adore it either. It’s tolerable enough to watch with one’s children, I suppose, though the bleak moments might be cause for concern. For adults re-exploring their relationships with Disney movies of the past, however, this one is hardly worth a second look.