Oliver & Company (1988)
Release Date: November 18th, 1988 MPAA Rating: G
Director: George Scribner Actors: Joey Lawrence, Billy Joel, Cheech Marin, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Dom DeLuise, Robert Loggia, Bette Midler
nspired by (or very, very loosely based on) Charles Dickens’ classic novel “Oliver Twist,” Walt Disney’s “Oliver & Company” is one of the more forgettable feature-length animated movies released from the studio. The plot itself doesn’t make much sense, considering the best bits of the source material are watered-down or missing, and the blaring, politically incorrect character designs are noticeably overdone and extreme. Splitting the cast into half dogs and half humans, selecting a dated musical theme to drive the film, and turning the conclusion into a high-speed chase sequence through the New York subway all seem like plot choices that were chosen for popular style (“attitude” as the theatrical poster tagline calls it) over originality.
An abandoned, orphaned cat (voiced by Joey Lawrence) struggles to survive his first night on the frightening streets of New York. The following morning introduces him to Dodger (Billy Joel), a streetwise dog who swindles the kitten into stealing hotdogs for his gang of alley canines. When the hungry feline follows Dodger back to his hideout, he meets the whole company: Tito the Chihuahua (Cheech Marin), a fast-talking, bandana-wearing thief; Francis (Roscoe Lee Browne), the civilized, dramatic bulldog; the calm and oversized Great Dane Einstein (Richard Mulligan); and the sensible, independent Persian Greyhound Rita (Sheryl Lee Ralph). Petty human criminal Fagin (Dom DeLuise) looks after the group of strays from time to time, but is currently preoccupied by the large sum of money he owes to ruthless gangster Sykes (a throaty Robert Loggia).
Intent on helping Fagin, the pack recruits the newcomer cat and set out to rob some cars with an effective, well-rehearsed routine. Their first botched job ends with Jenny (Natalie Gregory), a rich little girl who adores the kitty, taking him home to her pampered, stuck-up, prize-winning poodle Georgette (Bette Midler). Although Georgette is intent on ousting the new addition, Jenny names him Oliver and gives him a sense of real belonging. But Dodger and his pals are determined to “rescue” Oliver and bring him back to help Fagin in his final confrontation with Sykes.
The rock music and heavy style in the film are trying to be hip and contemporary – but when watching this movie many years after its theatrical debut, it all becomes terribly dated. Even if the mismatched singing and dancing weren’t overly annoying, the character designs and plot are noticeably mediocre for the Disney standard, especially when compared to the following year’s release of “The Little Mermaid.” On the bright side, even though “Oliver & Company” is aimed more towards kids than many of the studio’s other animated pictures, Sykes turns out to be one of the most horrifying of all villains. Brandishing a gun and intimidating dialogue, he’s also a human fighting against mere animals (resourceful though they may be). It’s therefore fitting that he’s one of the few Disney antagonists to actually die – and he succumbs to a shockingly violent demise at that. But in the end, the project is devoid of solid entertainment value, containing only one memorable song and making no improvements on the animation techniques or storytelling capabilities of previous releases. “Oliver & Company” is one of the least impactful and most forgettable of the company’s oeuvre.
– Mike Massie