The Great Disney Blogathon: Oliver and Company
|July 6, 2016||Posted by Jess under Disney, Movies, Music, The Great Disney Blogathon|
Now. Something you may have noticed if you’ve been around for earlier installments of this series is that I try really, really hard never to totally pan one of these movies, even the least-known or least-loved ones. My reasoning is that every Disney movie, even the more dire offerings from the 70s and 80s (or 2000s), is someone’s favorite, and as much fun as snark is to write, I’m not going to do it just for the sake of doing it.
And folks, I know that everyone’s got an unloved fave because Oliver and Company is mine, and anyone who has a problem with it can meet me outside.
Look, I’m not going to argue with the classification that puts Oliver and Company in the Dark Age rather than the Renaissance. The Renaissance films are by and large masterpieces, and Oliver and Company, though eminently watchable, is not that. But it’s leaps and bounds better than, say, The Rescuers or The Black Cauldron. The characters, though very much stock archetypes, are engaging, the animation is mostly solid, and frankly, every song is a banger.
Of course, I have personal reasons for being attached to this movie, the first Disney movie I was old enough to interact with the release of in any way. Though I was too young to see it in theaters (I was four), I did have Happy Meal toys based on it (incredibly pointless but surprisingly durable Oliver and Dodger finger puppets). Moreover, it’s set in what to me feels like a contemporary New York City. The setting, music, and fashion are all very much late 80s NYC,1 not to mention the cast. It doesn’t look like New York now, but it looks like a New York I recognize as home. (Complete with multiple heartbreaking shots of the Twin Towers, of course.)
Speaking of that cast, and that music – well, you can’t really separate the two, and they’re both very of the moment, which makes them simultaneously super contemporary (all those celebrity voices are still alive!) and super dated (remember when Billy Joel was actually cool and not just your dad’s drunkest friend?). I mentioned back in my review of The Jungle Book or thereabouts that Disney didn’t actually put rock and roll in an animated movie until 1988 and, well, here we are! Up ‘til now their “contemporary” music fare has all been jazz and swing, but the music of Oliver and Company could easily have been heard on the radio then (with the exception of the Broadway-esque and dog-pun-filled (and FABULOUS) “Perfect Isn’t Easy”).
It’s dominated, of course, by Billy Joel’s performance of “Why Should I Worry?” as Dodger, the lovable terrier-ish mutt who takes Oliver under his wing. Paw. Whatever. The Artful Dodger is one of English literature’s most engaging characters, and his canine namesake is a worthy heir to that tradition. He’s completely charming, a rascally mutt who manages to balance a wily independent streak with being such a good dog, yes he is! (He’s not unlike Tramp in that way, actually. Maybe they’re related!) As breakneck a pace as the movie maintains (the whole thing takes place in about three days), his emotional arc with Oliver – from apathy to affection to betrayal to devotion and respect – hits solidly and convincingly. He’s effortlessly cool throughout the first half of the movie, and heartbreaking when he comes off the worse in his fight with Roscoe and DeSoto. And of course, “Why Should I Worry?” is the best song off a great soundtrack, though surprisingly not actually written by Joel. (Full disclosure here: I LOVE BILLY JOEL. Twitter friends may remember my jubilant liveblogging of a Billy Joel concert at the Garden last year. I am 100% primed to adore any lovable mutt voiced by him. Bonus fun fact: according to the “making of” featurette on my DVD, he recorded his entire part while wearing sunglasses. Hahaha what a loser omg I love him so much.)
Again, though, Dodger and “Why Should I Worry?” are just the best of an overall solid soundtrack. “Streets of Gold,” sung primarily by the Ruth Pointer as Rita,2 is also a total banger, and I’m just sad that they only animated one verse and chorus and not the whole song. (Check the soundtrack for the whole song! Of course I own the soundtrack.) The opening track, “Once Upon a Time in New York City,” is, like all Huey Lewis songs, is a great example of the perfect-for-karaoke genre I like to call #dadjams, and even the weakest number, “You and Me Together,” is perfectly cute, though admittedly a pale copy of “There Must Be Something More” from Charlotte’s Web. Finally, there’s “Perfect Isn’t Easy,”3 which…look, everything Bette Midler touches turns to gold, so there’s just no way that “self-aggrandizing ballad sung by Bette Midler as a pampered poodle” wouldn’t be amazing. It’s just not possible. Even when she’s not singing, Georgette gives Dodger a run for her money when it comes to scene-stealing; the two of them are by far the most dynamic members of a thoroughly likeable cast.
…Which brings us to the most problematic member of that cast: Tito. While Fagin has escaped the traditional Dickensian trappings of Jewish stereotyping, the burden of racially problematic caricature has fallen on Tito’s diminutive shoulders. That “making of” featurette I mentioned before, which was created to promote the movie back in the late 80s, cheerfully credits Cheech Marin with “adding his unmistakable Hispanic spice to a hot-blooded chihuahua named Tito.” Yikes, you guys, yikes. Tito is violent, girl crazy, déclassé, and undereducated, as well as subject to repeated slapstick pain and humiliation. The best that can be said is that at least they had a Latino actor voicing this mess of stereotypes instead of weird vocal brownface…? I guess…? Well, and that Tito is at least unquestionably a good guy and deeply heroic. But still.4
Shifting gears, my recent rewatch revealed one other thing I didn’t pick up on as a kid: the end of the movie is really grim. The climax has our good guys fleeing down the subway tracks on Fagin’s motorized scooter/shopping cart hybrid, with Sykes’s limo in pursuit, and Dodger battling Roscoe and DeSoto in the back. The Dobermans are flung out the back of the car, followed by a violent electrical shock – in other words, these dogs were just killed by falling onto the electrified third rail. I’m honestly not sure how I missed that detail as a kid, except perhaps that it goes by very fast, because I was terrified of somehow falling onto the third rail. It’s pretty awful, especially since, like, they’re jerk dogs, but they are still dogs. The gruesome violence is compounded a moment later when Sykes’s limo – with Sykes still in it – is mowed down by a train in a burst of flames (somehow this does not cause the train to derail on the Manhattan Bridge and hundreds of people to die). Cut to a wacky birthday party! I don’t know. Even though Sykes is a mobster who, it’s clear from passing dialogue, has ordered murders to be carried out, the level of punishment meted out to the villains in this film just seems extreme in comparison to the crimes we see them commit and the generally lighthearted and small-scale vibe.
Finally, Oliver and Company isn’t exactly a movie with a unique or striking visual language, but there were a couple of interesting techniques in there. Adorably, the art director and production stylist traveled to New York and photographed a number of street scenes with the camera placed 18 inches off the ground – i.e., a dog’s eye level. It was also the first Disney movie after The Great Mouse Detective dipped its toe in the digital waters to require its own computer animation department, which worked on the major vehicles like the limo and scooter as well as some cool swooping crane shots. The blend is more seamless than you’d expect for 1988, although that same “making of” featurette does describe the film’s computer animated elements as “an amazing bit of modern electronic magic,” which made me laugh so hard I had to pause the DVD for a minute.
Anyway, that’s Oliver and Company! Again, it’s not a masterpiece; it’s somewhat pedestrian as far as Disney’s overall output is concerned, and there’s definitely a couple of weak points. But it’s by and large extremely enjoyable, and holds a very special place in my heart, even if it’s been overshadowed by what was to come next.
And speaking of what was to come next…get ready for the Renaissance, kids!
- Through a generic middle-aged white guy filter, of course; there’s a snippet of hip hop towards the beginning of the film that’s…less than authentic, shall we say? It might still be the only hip hop in a Disney animated movie, at least until Lin-Manuel Miranda blows our minds with Moana. ↩
- A slightly odd choice, as her speaking voice, Sheryl Lee Ralph, is also a singer, but the song’s so great I’m trusting Disney’s judgment on this one. ↩
- Written by Barry Manilow, of all people! ↩
- It doesn’t help that I can only think of a handful other Latin@ characters in a Disney animated movie outside of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, and one is also a chihuahua, Lady and the Tramp’s Pedro (plus Audrey from Atlantis, arguably Honey Lemon from Big Hero 6, and maaaybe Prince Naveen?). Get your shit together, Disney. ↩