KIDS' STUFF: Oliver & Company (1988)

Oliver & Company (USA, 1988)
Directed by George Scribner
Starring Joey Lawrence, Billy Joel, Cheech Marin, Richard Mulligan

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth, and many commentators have speculated as to the reasons for his staying power as an author. Some point to his biting social commentary, which still rings true in our capitalist society. Others look at his unique and playful characterisations, which have given us a whole pantheon of memorable heroes and villains. And others still believe that it's simply because we were forced to study him in English lessons, and have been unable to shift him from our collective consciences.
Discounting the endless versions of A Christmas Carol, none of Dickens' works have quite captured the public's imagination like Oliver Twist. The classic story of the orphan boy who wanted more has been adapted many times in many different ways, from David Lean's elegantly grim version (with a then-unknown Alec Guinness as Fagin) to Carol Reed's much-lauded musical, the first and only G-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar. But just because the story is so hardy and malleable, that doesn't mean that every adaptation of it will hold up to scrutiny. All of which brings us to Oliver & Company, Disney's rather uninspiring 'twist' on Dickens' story which stands in stark contrast to the company's other efforts of the time.
Oliver & Company is significant in that it is the first result of a change in tactics that would underpin the Disney Renaissance. Since the 1970s Disney's animated features had taken longer and longer to make, with The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron all requiring approximately four years' work. After The Black Cauldron flopped at the US box office, the Disney executives decided on a new approach: to make more films faster, releasing at least one a year with intensive marketing and merchandising, to create a regular presence in the crowded film market and rebuild their dwindling brand recognition.
From this point of view you might describe Oliver & Company as the premature brother of The Little Mermaid. Both films were born from the same economic principles, but one was rushed out into theatres while the other was left to gestate a little longer. While it doesn't have the air of weariness and malaise that dogged most of Wolfgang Reitherman's output, it falls down against both The Little Mermaid and The Black Cauldron in terms of its storytelling, central villain and sheer lack of invention.
The animation conveys this impression of a film which falls between two eras of the Disney Company. It is neither pale and paltry like the Reitherman era, nor bright and glossy like the Renaissance. It looks scruffy, stiff and ragged in places, containing elements of classic Disney but also attempting to be somewhat gritty. The film is directed by George Scribner, who cut his teeth as an animator on the cult classic Heavy Metal. But while that film benefited from a trashy, sleazy aesthetic, being an adaptation of several pulp sci-fi stories, a similar approach on this film has the side effect of making New York seem deeply uninviting.
That said, the unease we feel about the setting may be as much down to the animation as it is inherent in the Disney style. Disney has always been strongest tackling European folk and fairy tales, and much of its approach (and popular appeal) relies on romanticising said folk tales to create a sense of inviting magic. Whenever Disney has attempted to set a story in the present day, this romanticism feels out of place and the film's sense of magical fantasy is compromised. Of the five Disney films with a present-day setting, only Dumbo is a genuine success, and that's largely because its story isn't all that time-specific.
One could argue at this point that the present-day setting doesn't matter, so long as the film does justice to the source material. But while Shakespeare is relatively easy to adapt for different time periods, and in many different styles, much of Dickens' appeal lies in his evocation of the Victorian era. His gallery of grotesque characters are difficult to translate or replicate in our more socially liberal times, hence why there are few (if any) Dickens adaptations set in the present day - whenever that present day may be. 
Oliver & Company attempts to bring Dickens into the 1980s by simply putting his archetypes in a modern-day setting in the hope that they are still relevant enough to fit in. But while our society still has beggars, dogs and rich people, the film's attempts to pin the characters onto their modern-day equivalents isn't always successful. The film gets the broad outline right, by having Oliver as an orphan, Dodger as a streetwise sneak-thief (of sausages) and Fagin as a miserable coward, but it's less successful when it comes to its villain.
Disney villains have frequently been cast as the equal and opposite of the main characters - for instance, the Queen is Snow White but with pride and vanity, and Maleficent is what the fairies would be if they were spiteful (and embraced the dark arts). The same is attempted here with Sykes, giving him two dogs for minions as if to imply that this is what Fagin would be like if he had ambitions. It's a nice idea in isolation, but it falls apart when Sykes is painted as a loan shark rather than Fagin's superior as in the story. With this in place, he becomes unconvincing in his modus operandi, especially when he kidnaps the young girl.
While Scribner does succeed in transliterating the protagonists, he is less successful in actually making them likeable. Oliver is charming and harmless enough, with his facial expressions and manner owing a debt to Tod from The Fox and the Hound. And Dodger, voiced by Billy Joel, has an appropriate sense of roguishness and swagger to him. But Tito the Chihuahua is incredibly annoying, Francis has no real development other than being a cowardly snob, and neither Einstein nor Rita leave any impression. The only non-human character who really sustains our intention is the diva Georgette, played by a typically outgoing Bette Midler.
Like many Disney films before the Renaissance, Oliver & Company contains many examples of the Company blatantly ripping itself off. During Dodger's big musical number, 'Why Should I Worry?', the film shepherds several familiar faces onto the screen, namely Pongo from 101 Dalmatians and Peg, Jock and Trusty from Lady and the Tramp. I spoke in my review of The Rescuers about the recurring role of mice in Disney films, but here, as there, you cannot put their presence down to any kind of continuity - it's plain and simple laziness.
The music of Oliver & Company reflects everything else about the film, in that it feels caught between outright mediocrity and being genuinely good. 'Why Should I Worry?' has a catchy chorus, and Billy Joel sings well, but otherwise it's far too close to the Phil Collins version of 'You Can't Hurry Love'. 'Once Upon A Time In New York City' has its moments, but the verses aren't written well enough to stick in our memory. All the songs are passable, and fairly well-produced, but they aren't up to the standard of 'I Want More', 'Be Our Guest', or anything in The Lion King.
In the presence of all these partial successes and missed opportunities, the film slowly rumbles on without any real weight or tension towards its conclusion. Even by Disney standards it feels relatively short, so that while it's technically longer than Dumbo it feels like a 40-minute TV episode. The pacing isn't brilliant, the character developments are all too familiar, and the final showdown between Fagin and Sykes is a chaotic anti-climax. Sykes' death is decent, but the way our heroes escape isn't believable enough to make it truly good.
Oliver & Company falls between two stalls, being neither as wearingly disappoint as the Disney films from the 1970s, nor as visually and musically fresh as The Little Mermaid and its successors. Its protagonists are likeable enough to pass the time, and on the whole it's completely harmless and innocuous. But when such adjectives are used to describe Disney, a brand once defined by magic and wonder, you begin to understand how disappointing its mediocrity really is. 

Rating: 1.5/5
Verdict: Caught between a rock and a Renaissance