Posted December 22, 2010 by editor in Retrospectives

Disney: Oliver And Company

Oliver and Company is not the best-known title among Disney’s Animated Classics, despite the fact it tells a very well-known story. It’s inspired by Dickens’ Oliver Twist, which is also a well-established stage musical and film. Is this animal version an adequate adaptation of the ever-popular tale of the famous orphan-turned-street-urchin? And can Disney tackle a literary giant as successfully as they can the folks and fairytales they usually favour?

Unlike the original story and its subsequent live-action productions, Oliver and Company is set in present day (well, 1988) New York and centres largely on a group of animals. Gone is the instrumental music and list of names seen in earlier Disney credits; there’s modern titles and a rocking song to open the film. In fact rock star of the era Billy Joel, as well as featuring on the soundtrack, actually voices the character Dodger, and Bette Midler gives the character Georgette a voice (more about those pups later). Such big names being associated with the film surely must have heightened its profile, at a time before anyone and everyone took a turn voicing an animated animal (as the situation seems today. There’s almost as many celebrity names in animated features as there are on perfume shelves…!).

As we descend into the city’s thick-lined, block-coloured, smoggy streets people are going about their day. The total reliance on hand-drawn scenes has gone, too, in this film and it seems to impact the look of the whole film. The people on the streets lack the usual soft, instantly recognisable features of Disney’s human princesses which helps create a busy, bustling atmosphere where the scrapping kittens in a box could easily go unnoticed. And, while the other kittens are adopted one-by-one, poor little Oliver does go unnoticed and is left alone as rain and night fall. He’s chased through the mean streets until finding shelter for the night. He’s ignored by the many pairs of ankles that pass him in the streets – we’re now seeing the world from Oliver’s perspective, a recurrent Disney technique to make us empathise with him and alienating us from the human world that is so foreign to him.

The defensive kitten’s attempts at stealing food from a smelly hot dog vendor with exaggerated features fail miserably; that is, until Dodger the dog wanders into his life. Fagin’s band of boys are criminal canines in this production, which makes them easier to accept as a gang than some of Disney’s cross-species collectives (think Bambi, Robin Hood and the Little Mermaid) and also firmly identifies Oliver as an outsider.

This chance meeting leads us to our first musical number. Disney songs tend to stick in the mind better if they’re actually sung by the characters. Dodger’s army of backing dogs and rats make this one memorable and sees Dodger sporting sunglasses, a string of sausages slung round his neck, just to let us know he’s cool. Then it’s back to Dodger’s digs to meet two racial stereotypes. Francis the eloquent British bulldog is overemphasizing every syllable as he argues with Tito, the excitable flea-bitten Chihuahua with a squeaky affected accent. There are two other members of the gang – Einstein, a Great Dane with a small brain, and Rita the saluki with shaggy ears and pretty eyes that make her especially anthropomorphic. All of these characters are reminiscent in some way of the Tramp’s friends from the pound in Lady and the Tramp, which it wouldn’t be unreasonable to call a bit lazy, but in both cases they make for entertaining and agreeable characters.

The gang’s beloved but cowardly ‘owner’, Fagin, is a stereotypical tramp in fingerless gloves and trench coat. At first sight he bears an undeniable resemblance to the live-action film Oliver’s Fagin. Villain Sykes, however, is much further from Oliver Reed’s character in the Columbia picture. Instead of a rugged, evil burglar, he’s a bulky cigar-smoking New Yorker in a sharp suit who owns two very vicious Dobermans. Fagin owes Sykes money, but there’s no indication of how the two are connected – unsurprising, really, as humans are little more than furniture in Disney stories about pets (101 Dalmatians, for example). Unusually for Disney, Fagin is able to communicate directly with his dog. Though they never speak English to him, they respond when he addresses them (similarly, Georgette can summon her ‘hired help’ when she wishes).

While Fagin and Sykes are talking, the Dobermans take an instant dislike to Oliver and Fagin’s dogs jump to defend him from them. There’s a sense of true camaraderie amongst Fagin and his hounds as they all fall asleep reading together, and Oliver is officially accepted into the fold when Dodger allows him to sleep nestled against his side. However, as Dickens’s Fagin sends his boys out to beg for him, so Disney’s Fagin sends his pets. Rita leads the song Streets of Gold and there’s even a bit of choreography as the dogs train Oliver in their trade – Oliver even attempts a bark, which is undeniably adorable!

Meanwhile, little ginger Jenny is being chauffeured around town. She’s a human girl, and one that looks a lot more typically Disney than the passers-by from the film’s beginning. In fact, she looks a great deal like Penny from the Rescuers and has a similar story. Her hair almost matches Oliver’s fur and, like Oliver, her parents are absent, sending only a letter to excuse themselves. She only features briefly before her driver is tricked into thinking he’s hit Francis and her and Oliver’s worlds collide. The other dogs raid the car while the driver checks on Francis, but when Tito messes up the operation Oliver is left behind to be discovered by the little girl.

Jenny is Disney’s Mr. Brownlow (the wealthy old man who takes Oliver in at the end of the novel/musical for those of you who aren’t familiar with the story) but there is no real equivalent for her pampered, glamorous dog Georgette. She gets a whole musical number to herself (Perfect Isn’t Easy) as she puts on her face and fends off the amorous would-be suitors in the neighbourhood. Her journey from waking up in her rollers to striking a pose in the spotlight is very amusing but it’s not the strongest song in the film. She’s patronising and disdainful when she meets Oliver – “everything from the doorknobs down is MINE!” she insists; but it’s obvious that there’s plenty of room in Jenny’s vast, empty home for a little ginger kitten. Nevertheless, Georgette gets increasingly jealous as the two become closer and get a bonding montage, during which Jenny sings a sweet little song (Good Company) she’s learned on the piano. Kid and kitten share ice creams and go shopping for a collar together – somehow, she knows his name as it’s engraved on the collar, a small flaw but a necessary one as his name’s an homage to the idea behind his story!

Oliver’s new friends, still determined to ‘rescue’ him from this plush new lifestyle, scheme their way into Jenny’s house, not banking on running into Georgette poring over her reflection. Fortunately for the gang, though initially she’s incredibly hostile, Georgette’s more than willing to comply when she realises they’ve come for the cat. Rita isn’t convinced they should take him when she seems him sleeping contentedly in his new home but before they can deliberate, Oliver’s swept into a bag and carted back to Fagin’s, where the others insist that they’re his family even though he wants to go back to Jenny.

Dodger takes Oliver’s feelings very personally and, hurt, turns his back on the cat. Just as Oliver heads for the exit, Fagin returns and sees Oliver’s new collar. He concocts a scheme so when Jenny returns home (where Georgette is doing a fitness video, a nice little touch that softens the blow Jenny’s about to receive for the audience) she finds a ransom note. It’s a lesson in not making assumptions, as Fagin has assumed Oliver’s been taken in by a rich man, not a defenceless young girl (not that holding pets to ransom is acceptable whoever their owners may be!). He goes to the menacing Sykes to explain his plan and finds him on the phone, having a conversation in gangster-style code about doing away with a body which (hopefully!) would be lost on young ears. Lucky for Fagin, Sykes approves of the plan, but of course neither is anticipating a small girl in a yellow raincoat coming to collect her pet.

While he’s waiting in the dark for the pet owner, Fagin checks his Mickey Mouse watch, a cheeky little in-joke it’d be easy to miss but one that shows Disney are proud of their roots. Fagin’s conscience kicks in when cute little Jenny tugs at his heartstrings and points out the cruelty of his actions. He’s not a bad man, he’s a desperate one and he decides to return the kitten. Few Disney films lack a truly evil villain, though, and Sykes is on hand to heighten the tension and widen the gap between good and bad. He’s a very bad man indeed and, seeing Fagin’s act of kindness, becomes enraged and snatches the girl.

Oliver is welcomed back into the ranks of Fagin’s gang and together they race after Sykes in Fagin’s souped-up shopping trolley, the height of hobo technology. They take Georgette with them, who undergoes a bit of a character transformation to become a sassy part of the team as they come together to rescue Jenny and escape Sykes once and for all. It’s tense, emotional and amusing in turns but, as it’s a children film, is an ordeal that’s over fairly quickly.

When order is restored, Jenny’s parents are still not back, but Fagin and his doggy entourage are all present and correct in time to give her a peculiar array of presents from the street and help celebrate her birthday. Oliver’s become a streetwise little kitty and gained a family and some firm friends. Even though his friends go out in a blast of synth and vocal harmonies, they’re still going back to a life of poverty while Oliver lives it up. But as they themselves sing…”Why should we worry? Why should we care? We got sweet savoir-faire…”

It’s a faster paced, less violent and more viewer-friendly than any other interpretation of this story. And it’s definitely the cutest! Kudos to Disney for bringing such a famous story to light for young audiences, but it’s a shame there’s no clear acknowledgment of the book. It’s awful to imagine children studying the book in their teens and accusing Dickens of stealing the idea from Disney.

Lauren Felton