(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.

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