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Oliver and Company

Review by Carrie Gorringe

Directed by George Scribner.

Starring the voices of Joey Lawrence,
Billy Joel, Bette Midler, Cheech Marin,
Richard Mulligan, Roscoe Lee Browne,
Sheryl Lee Ralph, Dom DeLuise,
Taurean Blacque, Carl Weintraub, Robert Loggia,
Natalie Gregory, and William Glover.

On the subject of cinematic adaptations of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, two examples come immediately to mind, both of them classics: the 1948 dramatic version, directed by David Lean (in his pre-epic phase) and the 1968 musical, directed by Carol Reed. Continuing in this apparent tradition of releasing a version of Oliver Twist in years ending in the number "8," Disney released an animated version named Oliver and Company in 1988. This is not your high-school Dickens. True to form, Disney also subjected Dickens’ tale to the usual amounts of Americanization and bowdlerization, thereby expunging some of the more problematic issues from the original, such as wife-beating and anti-Semitism. What remains is the basic plot structure, pumped up with lots of infectious pop music from the likes of 60’s and 70s pop-meisters like Barry Mann and Dean Pitchford, and the personalities of celebrities. For all of that, the strength of the original story shines through; Dickens’s technical skills can survive even the hardiest of Hollywood prunings, Oliver and Company may be "Dickens Lite," but it is an entertaining, if covert, way to introduce children to the delights of good storytelling.

From the opening credits, it’s obvious that it’s tough to be a kitty in the hard, cold city of New York. The holdover from an unwanted litter, Oliver (Lawrence) finds himself abandoned to the vagaries of life, and there are many of them; he barely avoids death by drowning and being run over by a Ryder truck within the first five minutes of the film. Oliver must then contend with hunger, desperation and deceit. The latter lesson Oliver learns from the Dodger (Joel), an artful terrier with lots of self-described "street savoir-faire." After enlisting Oliver’s help to pull off a frankfurter heist, Dodger absconds with the "loot." Setting off in angry pursuit, Oliver soon finds himself on the seamy side of the tracks in the "Bow-wow-wow-ery," surrounded by Dodger’s gang. Among its members: Einstein (Mulligan), an ironically-named not-so-Great Dane, Francis (Browne), the quintessential British Bulldog (complete with the requisite plumy accent and a love for high culture), Rita (Ralph), a lady with both attitude and compassion, and Tito (Marin), an overly-exuberant Chihuahua with a taste for electrical wires. This gang of thieves lives on board the scow of Fagin (DeLuise), an extremely petty criminal who has three days to pay back the debt he owes to the vicious underworld boss, Sykes (Loggia) or else face the wrath of Sykes’ vicious Dobermans. Unfortunately, he and the gang are having no luck in procuring the necessary amount. During an aborted carjacking that the gang undertakes in an attempt to get the money, Oliver falls into the hands of Jenny (Gregory), a nice girl with an even nicer home on Fifth Avenue. He is happy to stay, but his arrival puts him in conflict with Jenny’s other pet, Georgette (Midler) a blue-ribbon-winning poodle with a green-eyed personality, who wants this inferior interloper out of her home at the earliest possible opportunity. When the gang arrives to "rescue" Oliver, she is more than willing to put aside her natural aversion to the financially- and aesthetically-challenged to help them achieve their goal. Understandably, Jenny tries to find her missing pet and, by so doing, puts herself and everyone at risk, as the financial status of her parents becomes known to a wider circle. What transpires are several fur-raising chases before everything comes to a typically satisfactory ending.

Oliver and Company is not a perfect film by any means, but whatever weaknesses there are in the story itself are concealed by the trademark meticulous care that Disney brings to the overall concept. First among them is a standout cast. In particular, Joel provides the right amount of hip insouciance to the Dodger’s demeanor and character. Midler is brilliant as the temporarily-malevolent but always snooty Georgette; Georgette’s musical solo, fueled by Midler’s immaculate phrasing and full-bore delivery, is the musical highlight of the film. Marin is an unholy hoot as the irrepressible Tito, so much so that he nearly walks away with the picture at several points. Moreover, it is remarkable how much the animators were able to invest the on-screen characters with the visual characteristics of their off-screen alter egos; just looking at Dodger, Georgette and Tito and their movements is enough to conjure up images of Joel, Midler and Marin. Such a skillful use of anthropomorphism spreads a substantial, but never overpowering, layer of celebrity to the animated figures. It’s a personality transfer that, when combined with the strong character figuration borrowed from Dickens, makes the characters immediately recognizable, not to mention likable, an important characteristic when the average age of an audience member is under ten years of age, and not much concerned with the finer points of psychological motivation; needless to say, it also works well with the adults in the audience, who may need the more "mature" aspects of a character with the strong underpinnings of a celebrity persona as a buffer against the more basic aspects of a stripped-down narrative. It’s the old concept of "something for everyone" without insulting anyone’s intelligence, a necessary prerequisite of mass-audience animation, and, among the animation houses currently in operation, no one is better at creating a formula for seamlessly merging disparate elements of an audience than Disney.

And, speaking of animation...as might be expected from any film bearing the Disney imprimatur, the animation is of the highest quality. When Oliver and Company was originally released in 1988, it represented the first time that animators could generate their own computer animation (it was not the first time that Disney had used computer animation; that was in 1986, in a sequence from The Great Mouse Detective. In that film, however, the animators were allowed only indirect access to the computer, having to utilize a technician as the "translator" for executing every command). In Oliver and Company it is apparent how much the animators had progressed in two short years; the film is filled with exciting chase sequences made all the more so by the addition of this technology. How exciting those sequences are can be best understood by an illustration of how the technology is used in a more intimate setting. During one particular shot, when Oliver and Jenny are developing their pet-owner relationship by enacting a duet on Jenny’s baby grand piano, the film takes the viewer on a 180-degree limited-range pan around the room, with Oliver at its center; the effect is nothing short of breathtaking: the foreground and background do not separate so much as they expand in depth, and what is two-dimensional suddenly and quite literally contains the third dimension so generally elusive to filmmaking in general, but which is most obviously absent in animation. The scene’s setup anticipates the exquisitely choreographed (in all aspects of the term) ballroom sequence in Beauty and the Beast some four years later; although the former exists on a more microcosmic scale, and lasts only a few seconds on screen, it is no less fascinating.

Thus, this re-release of Oliver and Company is not only useful from the standpoint of parents who are desperately searching for "safe" entertainment for their children (although the finale -- a maniacally-paced chase through the New York subway -- might be too intense for children under the age of six), but it is also valuable from the standpoint of animation history. So, if you’ve had your fill of violent films, or need eighty-six minutes of respite for and from the kids, or are simply curious about the development of Disney animation, Oliver and Company will work quite nicely into your plans.


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