“This city’s got a beat, and you gotta hook into it. And once you get the beat, you can do anything.” – Dodger
Oliver and Company was the last of an era, the last film before The Little Mermaid marked the official start of the Renaissance. It was the first musical in almost a decade, and also one of the few films up to that point to take place in a contemporary society, 1980s New York in this case. The musical stylings and the lighthearted feel make the film almost a transition, a mix of what The Great Mouse Detective offered before it and The Little Mermaid would offer after it.
A twist on Dickens’s classic Oliver Twist, the story concerns a young orphaned kitten who will be later known as Oliver. As he wanders the streets of New York, he follows a streetwise dog named Dodger, and is led to Dodger’s gang of dogs, owned by a petty thief named Fagin. Fagin is in debt to a loan shark, Mr. Sykes, and uses his pets to steal potentially helpful items. Oliver gets officially adopted into the gang, and is out helping them the next day. Through a series of mishaps, Oliver gets adopted by a wealthy little girl named Jenny, much to the chagrin of her pet poodle, Georgette. After some time bonding, Oliver is retaken by the gang, and a plan is put into motion to hold Oliver at ransom. When Mr. Sykes takes over the plan, Oliver, Fagin, and the gang must team up to save Jenny.
Last time, I mentioned how we were getting to that point in the countdown where the characters in these films were going to have consistently good relationships. I tell you, Oliver and Company almost makes it there. The best relationships in the movies are the ones of unbridled love. The relationships between Jenny and Oliver and Fagin and his dogs are wonderfully presented, and even in the little time we see these build both of these, they use the most of that time to make it very strong. The relationship between Jenny and Oliver especially so done so well. This is in part due to how well Jenny is written. She has so much innocence, and that’s just what the character needs to have.
I love the Big City, New York setting for this film. It certainly is a unique setting in the course of Disney History, and it works very well. There are some very fun backgrounds and establishing shots in the film, and the range of Times Square in the middle of the day to the docks at night is really fun. The city setting allows for some real fun in the musical numbers, and a subway chase scene that in the end is pretty cool.
The music is a success to me. Like in the Aristocats, I don’t think it’s one of the strongest soundtracks in Disney History, but “Once Upon a Time in New York City” and “Why Should I Worry” are strong numbers in my book. “Streets of Gold,” “Perfect isn’t Easy,” and “Good Company” are not as strong as those two, but they work for the film, and have their moments.
Overall, the film has a strong first half. The characters are great, the music is fun, the relationships are there, and the plot moves along almost without a hitch. The first half of the film shows great potential for what the film could be. It’s what happens in the second half that puts Oliver and Company down here at 41.
As much as I love some of the relationships in this film, the film’s most important one, Oliver and Dodger, just flatlines by the end, and that’s really unfortunate because I really want to say it is a success. It starts off so well. I love the first scenes between the two that occur before and during “Why Should I Worry,” and I feel the mentor-protege relationship they have together through the middle of the film is very strong and vibrant. However, after the rescue from Jenny’s house, the relationship goes down the drain.
This may be because the film shifts its focus towards Jenny and Oliver’s relationship, but the Dodger-Oliver relationship just goes all over the place. After Oliver is returned, Dodger argues with him, and they stand off. Which is fine, except that every scene afterwards ignores that this happened, and there isn’t much interaction between Oliver and Dodger for the rest of the film. It almost feels like there is a scene missing between Oliver and Dodger that really solidifies their relationship. Everything that was strong in the first half of the him is sort of lost in the shuffle.
In actually thinking about it, the shift in focus hurts the film more than it helps because it does overtake everything that was set up in the beginning of the film, before Penny appeared. The relationships that were building between Oliver and Dodger, the gang, and Fagin just disappear because all of their focus is on saving Penny. The first half of the film does not feel like the proper lead-up to the climax, and vice versa. You know what would have really helped this? If Oliver had been taken alongside Penny. This would have better in tying the beginning with the end, and would make the film feel less fragmented.
Also, for being in the title of the film, Oliver isn’t really a memorable character. The film just doesn’t put enough focus on him. The film pays more attention to Dodger and the Gang, Fagin, Penny, and Georgette than Oliver. The film is afraid, it seems, to explore Oliver as more than just a cute orphan kitten. He just doesn’t do much during the film. I mean, he does have that moment where he saves Dodger in the climax, but for most of the film, he is just walking around or being pampered. I feel he has no change in character, no arc, nothing to learn. He just exists for the story to work.
Finally, this may be a nitpick, but the one thing that hurts Dodger more than the second half of the film is Billy Joel’s voice work. Look, I like Billy Joel. I think he has a good singing voice and some great songs. However, I just feel the role of Dodger was miscast. I can’t say exactly what I want in the character, but there are moments where I wanted Dodger to have a cockier voice, a more suave voice. Billy Joel just doesn’t cut it for me.
Also, Cheech Marin as Tito outstays his welcome. By the end, you just want him to be quiet for a couple minutes.
BEST MOMENT AND SONG
This is actually a weird, because my best moment and best song are both songs, but they are two different songs.
The best moment is probably the film’s Signature Song, “Why Should I Worry.” It has some very fun animation, great character moments, and is a catchy song in its own right.
However, the best song in this movie, and a personal favorite of mine, is “Once Upon a Time in New York City.” It is a great opening number, and really goes alongside the introduction of Oliver.
In the end, Oliver and Company almost makes that leap from good to great. It has a really strong first half, and some very strong relationships and moments. However, everything just sort of fizzles in the second half of the film. There’s not a strong connection between the first half and the second half, and it really hurts everything the film had going for it. It’s strong first half is able to push it up to 41, but as get closer to more consistent films, that’s where it has to stop.