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!

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