Friday, October 14, 2011

Oliver & Company

One thing I distinctly remember from my childhood is the story of Oliver Twist. My father had first introduced me to the story through the musical movie version Oliver! I fell absolutely in love with it, singing it's songs and even experimenting with pick-pocketing my fathers wallet. I got pretty good at it until my father reprimanded me. Obviously, he did not want his daughter pick-pocketing strangers or growing up to be a thief. I can honestly say I have not pick-pocketed anyone since then. I mention Oliver Twist because this is basically an animal version of the famous Dickens novel. Instead of some street urchins, there are a bunch of dogs and a cat. Oliver & Company is one of the few Disney movies that takes place in a contemporary setting. Originally it was supposed to take place in modern (80's) day London, but the filmmakers eventually decided that New York City would be a better setting. If you've watched the movie and suddenly realized, "Hey, this movie has a whole lot of product placement," well you wouldn't be wrong. Disney wasn't trying to sell Coca-Cola or Sony products, but trying to make New York look real. Anyone who has been to New York, or watched anything that takes place in New York has noticed the abundance of advertisements, especially in Times Square.

Another fun fact about the movie is that the production title was Oliver and the Dodger. Both titles honestly aren't that great if you ask me. Something that's a little odd to think about is that the producers wanted to make this into a sequel of The Rescuers. They would have Penny living in New York and continue the storyline in that vein. The producers realized that the story they were thinking about developing wasn't convincing enough, so they scrapped it and started from scratch. The only thing that stayed was the New York setting and a character that looks a whole lot like Penny from The Rescuers, named Jenny. I bet it took them all but two minutes to come up with that one.

What sets this movie apart from its predecessors was its use of CGI in a big way. While The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective had used it only in short sequences, Oliver & Company used it throughout the whole film. The skyscrapers, cars, trains, Fagin's scooter, and the subway chase were all computer animated requiring Disney to form its own department solely for the effects. If you hadn't noticed with the last couple films, Disney had kind of gotten rid of the musical element from its animated films. Oliver & Company was the test subject to see if Disney could sneak its way back into that. According to Disney, if the movie has three or more songs, it's considered a musical. Now let's all transport back to the mid to late 80's and remember fondly the really cheesy musical videos that dominated MTV. Well, that type of entertainment was so "in" that Disney decided to make its musical numbers more like music videos. Trust me, watch the part with "Why Should I Worry" and it'll all make sense.

Disney went all out in the voice acting department and got all well known (at the time) actors or singers to voice Oliver & Company's characters. Most notable were up and coming actor Joey Lawrence as Oliver and singer Billy Joel as Dodger. If you don't know who either of them are then you haven't listened to a radio station that plays the 80's ever and didn't watch TV in the early 90's. Cheech Marin of Cheech and Chong plays Tito, the excitable and often angry chihuahua. Other names that you may recognize are Bette Midler playing the poodle Georgette, Jenny's dog and the always enjoyable Dom DeLuise as Fagin. I think the only one I recognized when I was a child was Fagin's voice, as I had watched An American Tale and Fievel Goes West a million times and Dom had done Tiger's voice in both films.

Disney needed the star power because they were going up against the new behemoth that was Bluth Animation studios and their film, The Land Before Time. While Bluth's film didn't have anyone in the way of famous actors voicing the characters in The Land Before Time (if you don't count voice acting extraordinaire Frank Welker as Sharptooth), he did have executive producers Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Kathleen Kennedy, and Frank Marshall. The odds weren't looking in Disney's favor as they weren't having the most successful string of movies and The Great Mouse Detective was destroyed by Bluth's An American Tale. Disney needed more than critically acclaimed movies; they needed commercial successes.

Like I mentioned before, after the sequel to The Rescuers didn't pan out, Disney decided to do a new take on Charles Dicken's classic novel Oliver Twist. You may have noticed a few differences between the two, the biggest being that this is a story about animals and not about people. There are more differences between the movie and the novel than I can count so I won't go too much into it. If you have read Oliver Twist, then you know that basically everyone dies in the end (Sorry...late Spoiler Alert). This is not the case in the Disney version, as one can expect. Fagin and the Artful Dodger are legitimate villains in the book as is Sikes. In the Disney version however, Sykes (spelled with a Y for some reason) is the only person perceived as a villain. Fagin and Dodger are thieves but the audience is meant to have sympathy for their plight. The four characters are the only ones carried over from the book, with Oliver and Sykes keeping their demeanor from the original story. Sikes in the book is actually part of Fagin's gang but is no less dangerous and ruthless. In the Disney version, he is a loan shark that demands money from Fagin and the eventual kidnapper of Jenny. The part about Oliver joining a group of pickpockets and eventually being adopted by a rich family are about the only parts of the Oliver Twist story that are recognizable.

Oliver & Company was released November 18th, 1988, the same exact date that Bluth's The Land Before Time was released. I can't help but feel that Bluth did this on purpose, but who knows who set the release date first. Bluth's film took the number one spot for the weekend and ended up grossing 84 million worldwide to Oliver & Company's 50 million. Disney had lost the battle with Bluth but the film was still a success. Because of said success, Disney announced that it would release an animated film every year from now on, which they have done except for the years 1993 and 2006. The movie release also prompted the first partnership with McDonald's, with McDonald's selling Christmas ornaments with Oliver and Dodger on them. McDonald's has, for the most part, released toys or cups or other cheap junk in conjunction with Disney films. Even though the film was successful, people weren't able to see it at home until 1996 when it came out on VHS. While the film was a commercial success in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't a critical success. Critics found the songs to be lackluster, the animation stiff, and the plot predictable. Siskel and Ebert gave the film a thumbs up with Siskel saying the story was too fragmented and was one of the lesser in the Disney canon and Ebert saying it was "harmless, inoffensive." Gee thanks, Ebert. John Kricfalusi, creator of Ren and Stimpy, went as far as to say the movie should be used as a form of torture. Everybody's a critic!

I've always like Oliver & Company, as has my sister who wrote the intro. Sure it's not Sleeping Beauty or Bambi but it's good old Disney fun and it is good to see films in a contemporary setting. While not the first Disney film I saw in theaters (I was almost three at the time), it was one of the first I watched when I was a child, though now I have no idea how I saw it since it didn't come out on video until 96. Hmmmm....mysterious!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Disney's The Great Mouse Detective

I honestly hadn't seen this movie probably since I was a young child. I got the chance to finally watch it again last week and I have to say that I really enjoyed it. I'm not the biggest fan of Sherlock Holmes but the mouse version of his antics is a fun watch. Basil is a brilliant if not eccentric detective that seems to be a might skiddish around children. Along with his new found friend Dr. Dawson, they set out to stop the evil but entertaining villain Ratigan. There's action, suspense, comedy, and true heart to this film. You may even find yourself rooting for the bad guy because he's so devilishly cool. All I know is that this is one that I will be owning in the near future.

One of the first things I noticed about the movie was the difference in animation from The Black Cauldron. While the animators were still trying to get out of that older, choppier look for The Black Cauldron, they appear to have shed off all old animation and replaced it with a smoother look. How did they do it? Elementary my dear Computers did a lot of the work. The layouts were done on computers, and the use of video cameras made a digital version of pencil testing possible. With computers helping the animators, the production for the movie only took one year. That's a stark difference to The Black Cauldron. While The Black Cauldron may have been the first Disney movie to use CGI in any form, The Great Mouse Detective took it to the next level. The whole chase scene in the interior of Big Ben was CGI, the background that is. You can really tell when you see the scene. All in all the whole movie looks great.

Probably the only well known voice in the cast is the master of horror, Vincent Price. Remember how I said that who is cast as the voice ultimately decides on who the character really is? Well this was definable the case for the role of Ratigan. At first he was to be a thin and weak rat, but when Vincent Price signed on, they changed the character accordingly. Ratigan was changed into a robust and strong villain, more than able to pick a fight with Basil. Voicing Ratigan was a lifelong dream of Price's. Not specifically voicing Ratigan, but voicing a Disney character. Everybody's bucket list is different! Voicing Ratigan ended up being Price's favorite role, and you can tell that he had fun doing it. British actors Barrie Ingham and Val Bettin voiced Basil and Dawson, respectively. While you may not recognize Bettin's name, you may recognize his voice as the same as the Sultan of Agrabah in Aladdin. Alan Young who voices Hiram Flaversham also voiced Scrooge McDuck. I was inexplicably excited to find this out when I started watching the movie. I literally burst out saying, "SCROOGE!" Sorry, I loved Ducktales when I was a kid and still do.

The Great Mouse Detective is a movie based on a book series based on a series of books and movies. The movie is specifically lifted from Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus, with all the same characters and only a few differences in characters. Titus meant for the books to be a mouse version of Sherlock Holmes, naming the character Basil after the alias that Sherlock Holmes donned in several of the Sherlock Holmes books like The Adventures of Black Peter. The only difference between the book and movie version of Basil is his ability to play the violin. In the book series, Basil cannot play the violin like Sherlock Holmes, who lives above him in 221B Baker Street, but plays the flute instead. Dawson functions as Basil's personal biographer, though that isn't really touched on in the movie. Dawson is of course a mouse version of Sherlock Holmes' companion, Watson. Professor Padraic Ratigan, who is based on Sherlock Holmes archenemy Professor James Moriarty, is actually a mouse in the book series. They decided it would be interesting to have Ratigan as an actual rat and have him freak out at someone every time they referred to him as a rat. He was just a very large rat-like mouse!

Disney did a good job of making the characters true to their tributes. Basil and Dawson are both based off of the real life actors who portrayed Sherlock Holmes and Watson in several movies, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, respectively. Not only do they look like mice version of their tributes (especially Dawson), but they sound and act a lot like them too. If you love watching Sherlock Holmes movies, then you'll definitely enjoy this movie. The animators attempted to make Ratigan even more like the person who voiced him by giving him poses that were based off of Vincent Price's exaggerated Shakespearean gestures. One voice credit that I failed to mention before was the voice of Basil Rathbone, who voices Sherlock Holmes in the film. If you checked Rathbone out on wikipedia though you may notice that he died in 1967, almost twenty years before this movie came out. So what gives? Disney took a sound clip from Rathbone reading the Sherlock Holmes story, "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League," spoken in 1966, just months before his death. Most attribute the voice clip from being from one Rathbone's movies, but you can really tell the difference in the voice, being as he is awfully old in 66'. Since they didn't get the clip from one of the old Sherlock Holmes movies, they couldn't rightfully splice Nigel Bruce's voice in there. Therefore, Laurie Main provides the voice of Watson in the film. Having Sherlock Holmes' voice in the movie is a great treat and sure to excite fans of the older films. Something that I found entertaining was the personification of the Sherlock Holmes story into a mini version. Basil actually lives underneath Sherlock Holmes' house. Queen Mousetoria lives in Buckingham Palace with Queen Victoria, which gives away that this all is supposed to take place in Victorian era London. Queen Mousetoria's Diamond Jubilee even coincides with the real Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. This movie is just fun. It's like the Rescue Aid Society underneath the United Nations building in The Rescuers. One last note before I go into how the movie did critically. Like a few movies before it, this features a cameo from an earlier Disney movie. If you look at Ratigan's gang you notice that one of the members is not a mouse, but a lizard. It just so happens to be Bill the Lizard from Alice in Wonderland! This is another one of those things that jumped out at me when I watched the movie. There is another small cameo while they are in the toy shop: if you pay attention you can see Dumbo as one of the many toys in the shop.

If you don't love The Great Mouse Detective for it's story, then love it for something else. It literally saved Disney Studios. The higher ups were basically convinced that they should stop making animated films after the huge financial disaster that was The Black Cauldron happened. When the The Great Mouse Detective came out in June of 1986, it was a hit with critics and with audiences. It was more light-hearted then Disney's last film and it's characters were much more likable. With a budget of $14 million, the movie ended up raking in $25 million. With this critical and financial success, though modest, it convinced the higher ups that Disney Studios was still capable of making money and churning out good films. Without this movie doing well, we may of not had the Disney Renaissance.

Everybody has their favorite scene from this movie, whether it be the escape from the sinister trap they are put in at the end of the movie, or the climactic and visually stunning fight in Big Ben. One scene that has particularly stuck with me is when Ratigan, who has been in denial about being a rat the whole movie and tries to be this suave and sophisticated mouse of the town, embraces that he is a rat and tears his nice clothes, pursuing Basil inside Big Ben with the look of sheer madness. Really, the scene is terrifying. If you clicked the hyperlink above you see part of the scene. With this film, Disney appeared to be on the right track, but could they keep it up?