Review: Oliver & Company: Disney’s Final Whisper

Oliver poster.jpg

This review was a suggestion by Paul Andolina. He asked “Any nostalgic movies you haven’t seen in years?” I knew the answer. 

In 1989, Disney became Disney and nothing was ever the same again. The Little Mermaid may have actually made about 92 million (adjusted for inflation) but it was nothing less than a declaration the studio was gunning for cultural dominance. A merchandising juggernaut that became a monster hit on home video, The Little Mermaid hit so hard my 3.5 year old daughter knows who Ariel is.

Of course the narrative of Disney’s rebirth turned cultural consumption isn’t that neat. The Rescuers Down Under would get obliterated by Home Alone in 1990 and is treated as a footnote while between the Disney renaissance and the spark of Tangled/wave of acquisitions, Disney was held up hard by Pixar and relying on their catalog. Then there’s the truth that The Little Mermaid didn’t emerge out of nowhere. Disney was on an upward swing with The Great Mouse Detective and this film.

Oliver & Company might’ve been a hit for Disney but it feels, if not an underperformer, like a minor note. It hasn’t had much of a cultural impact. It’s gotten a few releases on video but it’s definitely not one they put out with much fanfare. It’s invisible in merchandise. It’s a whisper before a scream. And that doesn’t make much sense until you look at the film itself.

At barely 70 minutes before credits, the movie is a wisp even in comparison to other animated movies of its age. It’s not as lushly animated as The Land Before Time, which opened the same day. The plot is almost stunningly inconsequential. It’s barely there.

The story, as it is, loosely follows Oliver Twist. Oliver (Joey Lawrence) is an orphaned kitten who falls in with Dodger (Billy Joel) and his gang of dogs led by human Fagin (Dom DeLuise). Oliver gets adopted. Fagin kidnaps Oliver to try to hold him ransom to pay off his debt to Sykes (Robert Loggia). Then Sykes kidnaps his owner. There is a chase that ends in shocking violence. Happy ending.

I stress, this movie is not one to watch for storytelling. The script is barely there. It’s a threadbare excuse for montages, jokes, and the most forgettable songs ever. And that’s so strange compared to the films around it which had more ambition.

By sheer coincidence and desperation to amuse said daughter, we watched The Little Mermaid the next day. The craft there in telling the story is staggering. Ariel’s desire to be human because she is fascinated by humanity and feels like she belongs there is so complex most adults misinterpret the film. The Little Mermaid is for all ages. This isn’t.

But I want to hit on something very important. This is not a movie made for adults. This is for small children. I saw it at 4 the first two times I saw it and that was when it was meant to be viewed.

What makes it for small ones is the way it’s told. Oliver is a passive, frequently quiet character. He’s their identification point. He’s small and doesn’t fit in. The film is told at his pace. Thus yes, it’s a lot of montages with songs fleshing them out. That’s how kids process stories. It’s not complex.

And that’s kind of great. We err to demand films be for all ages. If adults can have films for themselves, why can’t kids get a film that’s easier for them? The film hit me harder at 4 than say Bambi or Roger Rabbit (both of which I saw theatrically) because it spoke to my level. Those are better films but this was for me.

And having said that it’s for kids, it’s honestly still quite worth your time for the animation alone. This was really the last time Disney films had that rough, not fully animated, on the 2s so to speak, style. There are a few scenes, especially the climax, where the animation is assisted by computer and those pop but mostly this is scratchy, dirty and it’s actually something to see.

The movie also captured a moment in time. Pedro Garcia-Macias described it as imitating the NYC of Scorsese. That’s the truth. The film is the rare Disney animated film set in its modern day and it feels like it. But of course that has turned it into a supremely dated piece. Lots of shots of the World Trade Center. There’s a dirty look to the city pre-gentrification. Lot of 80s trends. TaB ads are in the background. This is a period piece now and it’s fascinating to have.

Then there are the small joys of it. Cheech Marin and Dom DeLuise are always a blast to watch even in lesser work. There’s nice humor here and there drawn from the personalities of the various characters, particularly the distinguished bulldog Winston voiced by Roscoe Lee Browne. And even if the songs don’t crackle, this was Disney at least noticing what Broadway looked like and trying to get that energy for the first time.

But really the reason for an adult viewer to watch this is to see Disney pivoting. Disney damn near experienced a buyout in the 80s and it’s well known Michael Eisner wasn’t against axing the animation studio. This was a quickly put together, safe film for the studio: the easy pitch of Oliver Twist with dogs.  After the surprisingly solid response The Great Mouse Detective got, this actually doing sizable numbers at the box office gave them solid footing to lift off the next year.

This is indeed the calm before the storm. And maybe it’s not the bold ambition to come, but it’s a film that was vital at a moment it needed to be. A footnote worth studying.

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