Dir. George Scribner. Starring Joey Lawrence, Dom DeLuise, Billy Joel
The first five minutes of Oliver & Company are indebted to the opening minutes of two of its predecessors. Eleven years earlier, The Rescuers used still images of a message in a bottle, sometimes enduring a storm and sometimes reaching a pier in warm yellow sunset. Six years earlier, The Fox and the Hound used its credits sequence to depict a mother fox desperately running away from the sound of gunfire while holding her kit in her mouth. The artwork of late ’80s Manhattan in Oliver & Company is cut from the same cloth as that artwork from The Rescuers, and the people milling around bear strong resemblances to the folks entering the UN in that movie. And the cute little orange orphan from Fox and the Hound shows up again to melt your heart, except this time he’s a kitty. It’s not subtle or anything, but Oliver is the only kitten in a box of them who isn’t taken home by some person. He loses his box when a rainstorm destroys it and nearly sweeps him into a sewer. (The two movies that have made me cry in the past ten years are Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Fox and the Hound. Both of them have moments with sad animals in the rain. I don’t like it when animals are sad in the rain.) He meets a toddler who is whisked away by the adult holding her hand, even when the toddler reaches for the little cat. For the softhearted among us, the film is quite willing to tug until we break. I suppose those first five minutes are high point in the picture, but I’m not sure it’s all that high a point. It’s pure melodrama, and neither the animation nor setting lean far enough toward The Rescuers to make the film truly beautiful. (One can appreciate, for whatever it’s worth, that Oliver makes its lightning the same way Disney animators made it for Bambi.) The end result is a sequence which forces trauma on the viewer rather than making everyone earn it all together. At seventy-four minutes, it’s not hard to imagine another six or seven minutes of sadness which could anchor Oliver in more than just the protagonist’s namesake.
Like Oliver of Oliver Twist or Oliver!, Oliver of Oliver & Company is less interesting than his company. He has an advantage over the human Olivers because of how much cuter kittens are than little boys, although I’ll admit to a little bias there because I happen to have an orange cat. The group he falls into via Dodger (Joel) is unfortunately not all that interesting. Dodger is about as edgy and dangerous as, well, Billy Joel, and only marginally cooler. He struts and preens, but lacks any kind of personality under the facade built for him. Fagin (DeLuise) is criminally underbaked, since he is the most interesting person in just about any Oliver Twist adaptation. In the movie’s hands, he is a bumbler above all else, sensitive and given to sudden attacks of buoyancy. I remember Dom DeLuise’s voice, but I could not recall a thing that he says. Nor does Sykes (Robert Loggia) impress us much. He’s mean, I guess, but we don’t see him do anything terrible. Bad things happen because he commands them, or are witnessed from some distance. He grabs Jenny (Natalie Gregory) and drives off with her in his car, understanding (like the rest of us) what Fagin does not: holding a little girl for hostage from her parents is more effective than holding a kitten for hostage from a little girl. A good movie villain seems to be on screen all the time because the way s/he looms. Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, and the shark from Jaws work on this level; Sykes we forget about for long stretches of a movie that takes place over the course of less than a week, and the movie seems to do much the same thing. By making Fagin and Sykes humans, the movie wanders into a problem that turns out to be insoluble. The wacky world of animals breaking into limousines or stealing hot dogs—a world of laughter, you might say, or a world of joy—is a poor fit with the criminal underworld that Fagin dips his toes into and Sykes never gets to leave. To make Sykes menacing or make Fagin important, one has to lean into that morbid, scuzzy setting, and a movie about a kitten and his dog friends is unlikely at best to reach either.
Even if the company relies mostly on stereotypes, at least the stereotypes have more personality than the principals’ vacuity. Georgette (Bette Midler) is every incarnation of the narcissist beauty, amplified by her frankly horrifying teeth; for a French poodle, she has some truly British chompers. Einstein (Richard Mulligan) and Rita (Sheryl Lee Ralph) are basically nondescript, although they fill any ensemble’s need for “dumb giant” and “smart/only woman,” respectively. Francis (Roscoe Lee Browne) is surprisingly entertaining. In the scams that these animals run for Fagin, Francis runs a point role as the dog who pretends to have been hit by a car and acts as the distraction for others to start nabbing what they can. It’s a hammy role, and Francis, who looks like a pile of khakis with a face assembled from orphan socks, is a ham. Even when he’s offstage, as it were, he stays in character. He watches Macbeth on television. He despises the nicknames that Tito (Cheech Marin) throws at him. And like any good struggling actor in New York, he fails to bring home dinner for his roommates.
The standout of the movie, weirdly, is Tito. More than anyone else they got for this movie, even DeLuise, it’s Marin who seems to appreciate that you aren’t there when you’re voice acting. Your voice has to do an absurd amount of work for the facial expressions and body language that are absent, and Marin’s voice is distinctive and impossible to forget. It’s the not the most sensitive depiction I’ve ever seen, and that’s the fault of the animating team from a less sensitive Hollywood. All the same, Marin is the only actor who elicits reactions. He finds a cigar and says, for my money, the quote of the movie: “If this is torture, chain me to the wall!” It’s outrageous and silly, which is a mode the movie could have leaned into with a little more verve.
Although this is a heretical opinion if you’re an Oh My Disney fanatic, Oliver & Company is more than just a bridge film to the Disney Renaissance: it is the first movie of that blessed era. Its animation is not as clean as that boasted by later Renaissance movies, but it’s clearly of a piece with The Little Mermaid and The Rescuers Down Under. Of the Renaissance directors, the only ones who didn’t contribute in some way to Oliver are John Musker and Ron Clements, who directed The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. But Mike Gabriel (directed The Rescuers Down Under and Pocahontas), Roger Allers (co-directed The Lion King), Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (co-directed Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame), and frequent supervising animators Glen Keane and Ruben A. Aquino all had significant positions on the creative teams. Most importantly, even though Disney movies had kept little musical asides throughout the ’80s, Oliver & Company was the first bona fide musical the studio made since The Jungle Book. Musical numbers serve to advance the story (“Why Should I Worry?” is the closest thing Disney gets to a “greatest city in the world” moment for New York as Dodger leads Oliver on a wild goose chase to Fagin’s hidey-hole) or build character (“Perfect Isn’t Easy” makes it clear that Georgette is vain, preening, and not likely to share the spotlight with a kitten.) The fact that it would rank last among that era with a bullet is hardly a detriment to that case; you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’d call Donatello the equal of da Vinci.