For Better And Worse, 'Oliver And Company' Ushered Disney Into The Modern Age Of Animation

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today's column, Spiegel discusses the 1988 Charles Dickens adaptation Oliver & Company.)

When Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells joined the C-suite at the Walt Disney Company in 1984, they did so with the intent of boosting the company's profile, internally and externally. In the mid-1980s, Walt Disney Pictures and Walt Disney Animation Studios were just about the furthest thing from industry powerhouses. Disney's theatrical output in the 1980s was meager, with just 28 films overall; it's the lowest number of films they'd released in a single decade since the war-torn 1940s. But the new executives wanted more films, from more subsidiaries. They wanted Disney to be more than just a family-friendly studio.

Part of the problem is that Walt Disney Pictures was the kind of studio where A-Listers need not apply. Stars in their live-action fare could typically be found on network television sitcoms and dramas, and it was rarer still to find any big names in their animated films. Once Katzenberg and Eisner joined Disney, they were able to expand upon the recently created subsidiary Touchstone Pictures (whose first film Splash served as Tom Hanks' breakout role and netted an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay) and lure in recognizable actors for mid-budget comedies and dramas, such as Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Ruthless People. For animation, thanks largely to Katzenberg, it took until the 1988 release Oliver & Company for big names to start making appearances.

The Gong Show

Though The Great Mouse Detective was released roughly two years after the new executives arrived at Disney's Burbank studios, it was not wholly overseen by Eisner and Katzenberg. The first film they truly shepherded from start to finish was Oliver & Company, a pet-focused adaptation of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, in which an orphaned boy falls in with a group of ruffians on his way to hopefully finding a happy ending and a loving family.

The idea was first voiced by story artist Pete Young at something Eisner and Katzenberg dubbed "The Gong Show". It was so named after the kitschy Chuck Barris game show from the 1970s, and allowed animators to throw out any ideas that might turn into features. Eisner and Katzenberg had developed projects in this way back at Paramount, and quickly instituted the idea at Disney. It was at a 1985-era Gong Show that the co-directors of The Great Mouse Detective, John Musker and Ron Clements, suggested two projects: one they dubbed Treasure Island in Space and a film based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. (But let's not get ahead of ourselves.)

The biggest success at this Gong Show was Young's idea — Oliver Twist, but with dogs and cats. Katzenberg especially latched onto the concept, and it was swiftly greenlit. Unlike The Great Mouse Detective, inspired by the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, this new story wouldn't take its cue from Dickens and have a period setting. In fact, much of the film's unique design and story issues stem from that very fact.

Patient Zero of Modern Animation

The finished version of Oliver & Company is, for good or ill, a first for Walt Disney Animation Studios: it not only took place in the present day (like Disney's very successful One Hundred and One Dalmatians), but it was awash in modern references. Modern mainstream animation (at the feature and TV levels) enjoys utilizing popular culture, both in casting and in jokes, and has for decades. Patient Zero for this habit at Disney is Oliver & Company. The hints of the musical stylings that crop up throughout the Disney Renaissance are more fully present here than in The Great Mouse Detective, but that's because the film featured a lot of musical ringers, both behind and in front of the scenes.

Most of the musicians represented in Oliver & Company were popular enough that they would appeal to mass audiences...in 1988. When you run down the list of performers in the film in 2019, it represents a Baby Boomer-era Who's Who of names designed to appeal to the parents being dragged along to the film by their kids. Bette Midler and Billy Joel both get a song of their own, and play major characters in the film; Ruth Pointer of the Pointer Sisters provides the singing voice for another character; Barry Manilow wrote the Midler song; and Huey Lewis sings the opening number.

If that musical roster wasn't enough to remind you that this is a film of the 1980s, Oliver & Company's freeze-dried status starts with its hazy opening shots of the New York City skyline. The skyscrapers are recognizable enough, but so too are all of the logos: from Coca-Cola to Dr. Scholl's to Kodak, Oliver & Company is a film of its time, which makes watching it 30 years later odd and distancing.

Disney films, at their core, are largely timeless because they avoid specificity. Though some of them take place at clearly defined times or locations, they work best when they're not tied to the present day. (The rare exception, at least within recent memory, is Zootopia, which indulges in a lot of pop-culture jokes and gets away with them by not being about actual humans.) Even the 1961 adaptation of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, set in London in the late 1950s, doesn't quite feel so aggressive in its visual and verbal reminders of its setting.

A Film Without a Voice

Oliver & Company, on the other hand, doesn't want to stop reminding you it's a modern film, which ends up being arguably its greatest failing. The film's premise is hard to beat, no question, but the way it's executed suggests a film that was rushed into production. Reflective writing on the film echoes this suggestion, too. As detailed by ex-Disney screenwriter Steve Hulett, the film was originally going to be co-directed by George Scribner (a first-time helmer) and Richard Rich of The Black Cauldron. (Pete Young was going to be the film's story director.)

The addition of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg to the review process meant that a lot of work would get done at the expense of ideas they'd quickly put the kibosh on, adding roadblocks to the production. Roy Disney had argued in favor of the idea that the human Fagin and his crowd of rowdy dogs, led by Billy Joel's Dodger, would attempt to steal a rare panda from the city zoo. The animators, including Young, weren't as hot on the idea, but it was only after Eisner and Katzenberg saw storyboards of the subplot (which Disney had essentially commissioned) that they rejected it out of hand.

Worse still, in the middle of production, Young died unexpectedly at the age of 37. (He receives a "special thanks" credit in the final film.) Hulett, who had originally been hired as one of the film's screenwriters, was slowly but surely removed from the project and the Walt Disney Company entirely. Though he received a credit for "additional story material", the final script is credited to Jim Cox, Tim Disney (Roy's son), and James Mangold. (Yes, James Mangold of Logan and Walk the Line. This was his first feature credit.) Richard Rich was also removed midway through production, leaving Scribner as the sole director on the project.

Oliver & Company, thus, feels like a film without a voice. In this telling, it's 1988 in New York City, and Oliver (voiced by Joey Lawrence, pre-Blossom) is an adorable tabby kitten who we first meet in a cardboard box. He's stuck there with other kittens hoping to be adopted on the side of a city street by all the passers-by, and eventually Oliver ends up the sole non-adoptee. Before things get too dreary, Oliver winds up with a mutt named Dodger, the leader of a pack of friendly mutts who live by the docks with the vagrant hustler Fagin (Dom DeLuise). Fagin is deep in debt to a dockyard gangster named Sykes (Robert Loggia), and soon enough, Oliver is placed at the center of a scheme to get a lot of money quickly, while also meeting a kind little rich girl named Jenny who might be the loving owner he's been looking for.

Owing a Big Debt to the Past

Though Young's idea is novel enough, the finished product of Oliver & Company feels indebted as much to previous Disney animated features as it should be to Dickens' source material. Though the animators felt The Great Mouse Detective might have owed a bit too much to The Rescuers, the same can be said for a good chunk of Oliver & Company, with a damsel-in-distress little girl whose name is Jenny, instead of Penny. Jenny, too, is used by a nefarious villain to get a prized treasure (money this time, instead of a jewel).

And Dodger feels like an 80s-era version of the Tramp from Lady and the Tramp. His cocksure style is represented in the early song "Why Should I Worry?", a song with the kind of attitude that Tramp himself could've exhibited in the 1955 animated film. Dodger's group of canine friends also call to mind the supporting players in Lady and the Tramp, easily characterized by their accents as by their visual design. We know who they are once we hear them, let alone once we learn about their lives.

That latter element does not get any better on a rewatch in 2019. Dodger, as portrayed somewhat shakily by the Piano Man himself (there's a reason Billy Joel isn't known for his acting), is meant to be cool to the core, to the point where at one point he sports a pair of slick sunglasses. (When Dodger has his shades on, it's awful hard not to think of Poochie from The Simpsons.) The rest of his crew includes Tito, a chihuahua voiced by Cheech Marin; a Great Dane named Einstein, voiced by Richard Mulligan; and a bulldog named Francis, voiced by Roscoe Lee Browne.

A Film of Stereotypes

The advantage to casting these actors is that their voices are distinctive enough even if they're not all big-name celebrities. In the same way that Pixar's filmmakers cast actors with such instantly recognizable personalities that they could help deepen a characterization with just a line of dialogue, so too is the case with the cast in Oliver & Company. In Pixar films, it pays off for being clever and shrewd. In a film like this, it's representative of lazy, stereotypical writing.

For example, having Cheech Marin play a Hispanic character is something of a double-edged sword. On one meager hand, it's a genuine, if exceptionally slight, improvement on past Disney voice casting. In Lady and the Tramp, while the cast is entirely white, there are plenty of stereotypically foreign dogs, down to a chihuahua in the dog pound. That said, Tito is very much a stereotype of Latin American culture, meant to be an excitable spitfire who's also unable to stop drooling over an attractive female dog. Marin, who's no stranger to working with Disney, on projects like the Cars franchise and The Lion King, is energetic enough but engaging in such easy humor that it's a creative setback.

But Marin's presence is a minor problem — Oliver & Company struggles both in its visual design and in the story told within that design. Both from a wide perspective and down on the ground, the film's representation of New York City is something out of a shakily drawn 80s-era comic strip. The details, or lack thereof, are somewhat baffling, if only when you think about what Disney came up with not a year later with The Little Mermaid.

Creative Thriftiness

This is far from the first film in the Disney feature-animation canon that showcases less-than-crisp design work. However, in the two decades prior to Oliver & Company, the choice to have characters and environments with more identifiable pencil lines was intentional and creative. Here, it seems like a decision of thrift, not creativity.

Two years prior, The Great Mouse Detective had been released with a less fully defined visual world — its London may be appropriately dark and grimy, but that murkiness still leads to a film whose visuals aren't as remarkable as what would come later. But its design is also a necessity, with a $14 million budget. Oliver & Company, by contrast, has many scenes that take place in broad, smog-free daylight, which only serves to heighten the lack of texture in most of its shots. And unlike The Great Mouse Detective, budgets weren't an issue — its reported budget was $31 million.

Shaky visuals don't automatically guarantee a bad story. Yet Oliver & Company runs into a problem that a number of adaptations of Dickens' novel Oliver Twist have encountered: that the eponymous character is perhaps not the most interesting in the story. Lawrence's performance as Oliver is suitably innocent and winsome, but the character is more of a pawn than anything else. Dodger uses him to get some food in the opening section, before he becomes as much of a character in distress as the young Jenny does.

And in the climax, Oliver is more passive even as the villainous Sykes essentially loses his mind and indulges in a car chase with Fagin wherein they're driving on subway tracks on the Brooklyn Bridge. The film's relative brevity — including its end credits, it's just 74 minutes long — also makes it so the connection between Dodger and Oliver is as poorly defined as the connection we're meant to spot between Jenny and Oliver. When Oliver seems to prefer Jenny (what with her living in a nice, clean home, and offering him food all the time, as opposed to living as a homeless pet), Dodger has what amounts to a hissy fit simply to introduce dramatic tension. Part of the problem is that Joel's performance doesn't have enough shading to merit the character's frustration, but part of the problem is that Dodger is barely sketched in to begin with.

A Tentative Musical

The story is papered over in other ways, too. There are five songs in Oliver & Company, all of which suggest a studio that wants to bring the storytelling style of Broadway to the silver screen, just without figuring everything out. James B. Stewart, in his book DisneyWar, talks about how the studio brought Peter Schneider to work for them direct from the Great White Way, and Schneider's mild frustration at seeing Oliver & Company come together, co-opting some Broadway tropes without fully understanding how to best use them.

Few of Oliver & Company's songs hold up 30 years later — the best of them is "Why Should I Worry?", the song brought to boisterous life by Billy Joel. (Even that enjoyment varies based on how much you like Billy Joel.) The other songs in the film are largely forgettable. "Perfect Isn't Easy", the big number for Jenny's pampered poodle Georgette, voiced by Midler, ought to work because Midler's a sterling performer. But the lyrics are mostly uninspired, and the fact that the song is performed to no one — Oliver hasn't met the haughty and instantly jealous Georgette when the number occurs — is just strange. In fact, if it wasn't for one person, the other songs in Oliver & Company would be worth moving on from.

Years before Jeffrey Katzenberg would leave Disney to form a new studio called DreamWorks SKG, the "G" in that title, music producer David Geffen, encouraged the movie executive to work with a lyricist on one of the Oliver & Company songs. Geffen had been instrumental in bringing that lyricist's most recent stage show to off-Broadway glory. The show was a comic adaptation of a Roger Corman horror film from 1960, Little Shop of Horrors, and the lyricist would become arguably one of the most influential figures in modern Disney animation despite never drawing a character: Howard Ashman.

Ashman provides the lyrics for the film's opening song, "Once Upon a Time in New York City". The song is a little too hopeful considering the fairly downbeat images we're watching, as Oliver fails to attract any takers and is nearly swept into the sewers by a rainstorm. Hearing Huey Lewis tell Oliver "Don't be scared" in a mildly upbeat tone is awfully disconnected from the very damp kitten on screen. Knowing that Ashman wrote the lyrics (Barry Mann wrote the music) is somewhat stunning — the dexterous, detailed, emotional, and complex songwriting Ashman was known for isn't present here. But a lack of an authorial voice throughout is something Ashman would help rectify soon enough.

Gunning for the Bank of America Award

Though Pete Young came up with the idea, the notion was clear: Jeffrey Katzenberg was pushing Oliver & Company to completion, come hell or high water. Per DisneyWar, Katzenberg was often heard saying "Do you want to win the Academy Award or the Bank of America award?" The war of art versus commerce is what longtime animators like Eric Larson were afraid of, and Oliver & Company, unlike just about every other film in the Disney Renaissance, feels like the summation of those fears.

With 30 years of hindsight, what Oliver & Company really looks like is the kind of film pushed through production by someone who would move to another animation company that made films like Antz and Shrek. Those are films defined by their popular-at-the-time cast and an immediacy of references that focuses on appealing now, not later. Katzenberg was no doubt pleased at the end result. Oliver & Company was a big hit at the box office, opening the same day as the latest film from Disney's competition: Don Bluth.

Bluth had once again teamed up with producer Steven Spielberg on an animated film all about dinosaurs, The Land Before Time. Though Bluth had An American Tail (which had outgrossed The Great Mouse Detective in 1986) as a boost to his career, The Land Before Time wound up being outgrossed by Oliver. The Disney film made $53 million domestically, while Land made $46 million. Though Disney was, per DisneyWar, a bit surprised at how well Oliver did, it was yet another sign: children of the Baby Boomers were an ideal audience for new animated fare.

Oliver was, like The Great Mouse Detective, a proving ground. In 1986, The Great Mouse Detective was evidence that there was still life at Walt Disney Animation Studios. In 1988, Oliver & Company served as proof that Disney's animators could work at a faster clip and make films that were good enough to make a surprising profit. Peter Schneider, emboldened by the box-office returns, would soon announce that Disney was going to release animated films once a year from that point forward. It was an aggressive effort, and a daunting one. Disney's animators were about to take a major step forward.

***

Next Time: We'll head under the sea with Disney's first out-of-the-box Renaissance-era smash hit.