New York State of Mind: The 35th Anniversary of “Oliver & Company”
By Michael Lyons
November 3, 2023
In Jerry Beck’s book, The Animated Movie Guide, contributor Martin Goodman called Disney’s Oliver & Company “… an entertaining movie that represented the studio’s final dress rehearsal for the great successes of the 1990s.”
Coming to theaters just one year before The Little Mermaid (the film that kicked off the Renaissance era), Oliver & Company was indeed an excellent “warm-up lap” for the artistic leaps and box-office blowouts on the horizon for Disney.
In 1984, Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew, disagreed with the company’s direction and resigned his seat on Disney’s Board of Directors. Roy was then instrumental in bringing aboard a new leadership team at Disney, including Frank Wells as President and Michael Eisner as Chief Executive Officer.
Part of this incoming team’s vision for Disney was to ramp up the production of animated features. Ideas for future films would come from pitch meetings dubbed “The Gong Show.”
The name and inspiration for these meetings came from a popular ‘70s TV talent show, where amateur acts would perform for celebrity guest judges, who would sound a gong for those they didn’t like.
It was in one of these meetings that Pete Young, a story artist with the Studio, pitched an idea: “Oliver Twist with Dogs,” a re-telling of Charles Dickens’s literary masterpiece, but this time, a kitten would be befriended by a cast of canines. The film was given the green light under the original title, Oliver & Dodger.
Set in contemporary 1980s New York City, the film centered on Oliver, a cute kitten left alone on the streets, who is befriended by the mutt Dodger and a ragtag gang of fellow strays, whose owner is Fagin, a sad-looking pickpocket.
Fagin works for Sykes, an imposing mobster-like villain, who travels in a sinister-looking car with his two sidekick Dobermans.
Oliver is separated from Dodger and the gang and adopted by a kind-hearted young wealthy girl named Jenny, who lives in a luxurious apartment with her spoiled poodle, Georgette.
Dodger and the gang bring Oliver back from Jenny’s to Fagin, who decides to hold Oliver for ransom to help pay back a debt he owes to Sykes, who gets involved and winds up kidnapping Jenny. Fagin, Oliver, and the dogs try to rescue Jenny, resulting in a car chase scene that culminates on the elevated tracks of the subway.
The sequence is gripping and well-choreographed, incorporating computer-generated animation, which would continue to play a larger role in subsequent features. Just before Oliver & Company’s release, the film’s director, George Scribner, told writer John Culhane for a New York Times article that computers “do the inanimate objects, freeing the animators to spend more time on the flesh-and-blood creations. And because New York City itself is in some respects another character in the picture, we wanted it to be realistic, not just static backgrounds. We wanted lots of movement and traffic.”
The scene’s finale feels like a sequence out of an 80s action movie and is one of the film’s grittier elements that differentiated Oliver & Company from previous Disney animated features. In their book, The Disney Villain, Frank Thomas, and Ollie Johnston discuss how even Sykes was initially supposed to be a shadowy and more ambiguous villain: “The story development called for more and more action for Sykes, however, and the concept of keeping him in the shadows had to be abandoned.“
Critics noted the film’s tone, such as New York Daily News’ Kathleen Carroll, who called Oliver & Company a “Grim Disney Tale” in the headline for her review and stated that the film “…adopts the same dark, sinister view of the world as Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”
An element that was more familiar in the film was its use of well-known voices in the cast, including Billy Joel as Dodger, Bette Midler (who was the star of several popular live-action films for Disney’s Touchstone Pictures) as Georgette, Cheech Marin as Tito, Dom DeLuise as Fagin, Sheryl Lee Ralph as Rita, Roscoe Lee Browne as Francis, Richard Mulligan as Einstein, (then) child star Joey Lawrence as Oliver, and Robert Loggia as Sykes.
Oliver & Company was also a musical (something that would continue through the animation renaissance era). Many of the songs in the film would be performed by a Top 40 pop artist, such as Huey Lewis singing “Once Upon a Time in New York City,” Billy Joel as Dodger singing the showstopper “Why Should I Worry?,” Rita’s song “Streets of Gold” was performed by Ruth Pointer of the Pointer Sisters, and Bette Midler as Georgette performed the glorious “Perfect Isn’t Easy,” with lyrics co-written by Midler’s former collaborator, singer Barry Manilow.
Oliver & Company debuted on November 18, 1988 (Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday), and in an ironic twist, it opened the same day as The Land Before Time, which was directed by Don Bluth, who had led a walkout of animators from Disney in 1979, which garnered a lot of attention. Bluth had also directed 1986’s An American Tail, which was, at the time, the most successful non-Disney animated feature.
The two animated films opening on the same day was a “Barbenheimer”-like movie occurrence of another time (for more on The Land Before Time, see last month’s “Cartoon Research” article.
Both films were successful, with Oliver & Company taking in $53 million at the domestic box office.
Looking back at the film thirty-five years later, Oliver & Company showed how a generation of Disney artists, trained, and mentored by the generation of artists who worked with Walt himself could craft a compelling, entertaining film with well-developed characters and a distinct voice.
This was noted on Oliver & Company’s first day in theaters by New York Newsday film critic Lynn Darling, who wrote: “Happily, Oliver & Company is a contemporary cartoon that pulls off a tricky balancing act. It can take an occasionally sly eye to the crazy city in which it’s set without losing sight of the innocence at the core of the movie’s charm.