So far, I only reviewed movies which I either liked, or had at least some good aspects to point out. But there is no way I can start this one pretending not to know what the outcome will be: Oliver and Company is a really, really bad adaptation of Oliver Twist and a terrible movie. And this will be easier if I go into this trying to explain why I consider it as bad, so even if you are a fan, please bear with me. I don’t try to bash the movie, I just want to explain why it doesn’t work for me.
1. The Setting
To make one point clear from the start: My issue with this movie has nothing to do with the setting. It should be pretty obvious from my previous reviews that I’m not opposed to changes or new angles, and I think setting the story in New York was the single good decision the animators made. Oliver Twist was written because Dickens wanted to point out that being poor and being a criminal is not automatically the same thing. You can take out the social message, but then you end up with the basic Cinderella story. If you want to keep it in the movie, you could keep it traditional. But if you want it to have an impact, you better pick a place which is close to the reality of the main audience (and that is still the US viewers – with one of two exceptions the movies are always made first and foremost for the US and not the foreign market), a place where the gap between poor and rich is similar big and crime is on the rise.
And back in the 1980s, there was no better place to choose than New York. It’s hard to believe when you visit the city nowadays, but back then, this was not a safe place to be. You better didn’t take the subway, especially not alone, and there were parts of it you better avoided altogether, even at daylight. I still have pictures of a visit we made back then, and on more or less each which isn’t taken at a main tourist spot (and sometimes even then), you can see unbelievable amount of rubbish piled up on the streets. In short: If there was a good place for a more modern retelling of this story, it was New York.
This is the one reason I won’t complain (much) about the story being set so clearly in the 1980s. I’m normally against everything which dates a Disney movie because the timeless ones stay relevant no matter how old they are. This one was doomed to age quickly from the get go, but it would have been a price worth to pay if Disney had delivered something meaningful. Sadly, the movie fell short in every way possible.
2. The Animation
On a purely technical level, there is nothing wrong with the animation. We are still in the kind of sketchy style of what I call the Impressionist era, but it really fits in this movie, especially when it comes to backgrounds.
The problem are the character designs: They are not very creative. I realize that there aren’t that many ways to draw cats and dogs, but when I look at Oliver and Company I always get the impression that the character designs are based on rejected ideas for older Disney movies. Partly this is due to the production history. At one point this was supposed to be some sort of sequel to The Rescuers, with Penny in the main role. Which continues a pattern, since one of the ideas for The Rescuers was to have Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians as villain. But unlike Madam Medusa who still became her own brand of character in the end, Jenny isn’t really all that different from Penny. And the other characters also feel like they have been plugged from other Disney movies, mainly Lady and the Tramp and The Aristocats. The high number of cameos by cats and dogs from those movies doesn’t help either, if anything it makes the similarities even more obvious.
3. The Characters
I guess making Oliver a cat which gets more or less abandoned somewhat works. If anything, it makes for a powerful start when the cute little kitty nearly gets drowned just because nobody wanted it. Making Dodger part of a group of dogs is in a way the next logical step. It’s when Fagin is introduced when this movie starts to go off the rails.
Now, Fagin in the book is an opportunist, someone who thinks of himself first and foremost. The only reason he takes care of street kids is because they steal for him. The only reason he doesn’t do worse than stealing is because he knows that the small crimes are usually not thoroughly investigated by the police while the big ones just attract unwanted attention. A character like this would have fitted into 1980s New York perfectly. Instead we get a guy who simply likes dogs and has debts with the wrong people. Because he spends so much money to feed the dogs? It’s not really clear why Fagin is in this bad situation in the first place. If there were some sort of backstory attached to him he might not work as Fagin, but at least a character who sends a message. Another message than “I was stupid enough to get tangled up with a loan shark” that is.
Concerning the villain: Book Sykes is not exactly a layered character, but he works because he presents the worst society can breed. Movie Sykes is just there and frankly, I don’t get his motivation at all. Naturally he can’t let Fagin off the hook that would be bad for business, but he can’t be that hard on money to risk a kidnapping. I don’t see what he can gain from this apart from a long prison sentence.
It’s also a weird inversion of the two characters. In the novel, Fagin is the smart one, but he is afraid of Sykes’ brutality – even though he did his part to make him this way in the first place, Sykes being one of the orphans he taught stealing. In the movie, Fagin is so stupid that even Sykes seems to be cleverer than him.
There are only two characters who get some sort of backstory in this movie, and those are the two which are not from the original novel. For one there is Jenny, who is lonely because her parents travel all the time. The other one is Georgette, who is obsessed with staying pretty. Those two character overwhelm the movie to a degree that it’s largely not about Oliver, but Jenny’s loneliness and Georgette issues – and let me tell you that the scene in which she practically begs to get raped is the strangest and most uncomfortable thing I have seen in any Disney movie. This tops even a cricket which lusts after wooden figurines.
4. The Plot
Above I defended the decision to set this story in New York and so clearly in the 1980s. But this defence only works under the premise that the movie actually addresses the social aspect. It doesn’t. Plus, there is no resemblance to the original book whatsoever. The only thing which is left is that orphan Oliver ends up first with a street gang then with rich people than back with the street gang and finally back with the rich people. That’s it.
The novel is mostly about Oliver trying to stay honest despite his poverty. Even when he is part of the street gang, he mostly manages to hold onto his innocence. The message is that Oliver is not the bad one, the society around him is. And it’s not only people like Fagin or Sykes which are shown as rotten to the core, the same is true for a lot of “good” members of society, like the leader of the orphanage and the people who originally take Oliver in, not because they care for him, but because he is a cheap worker.
But even if you forget the book, the plot of Oliver and Company doesn’t work. I already mentioned that the actions of Sykes don’t make a lot of sense. Even more confusing is Dodger. He spends the first part of the movie trying to get rid of Oliver, reluctantly accepts him into the gang – shouldn’t he be glad when Oliver ends up with new owners? Up to this point he only made trouble for everyone, so why should they even care? In the book, Oliver is kidnapped back, too, but that’s because Fagin is worried that he might tell the police about his little organisation. In the movie, I get why Georgette has an interest in getting rid of Oliver, but not why Dodger comes for him in the first place.
Plus, as I bemoaned beforehand: Oliver becomes very fast a secondary character. There is a bigger focus on Jenny. And to be frank: The child who is sad because the parents are always busy elsewhere, ends up in danger and finally gets some attention again – is there are more overdone storyline? Or a more boring one? And to add insult to injury, the movie ends with Dodger repeating his little musical number, essentially celebrating to live in poverty on the street. So much for a social message. Or any message at all…what exactly was this movie about?
5. The Music
The aspect of the movie which dates it the most are the songs. They are so 1980s, it isn’t even funny. And, with the notable exception of “Why should I worry”, they are kind of forgettable. Well, “Perfect isn’t easy” does stick out, but what it remarkable about it is the performance and the scenes they came up for Georgette, but the song itself is kind of…eh. All in all not bad, but far, far from being Disney at its best.
6. The conclusion
I once read the theory that Oliver and Company was a very successful movie and the main reason that it gets so mixed reviews nowadays is because it’s measured on the movies which came immediately after. Now, I watched this movie when it hit the theatres. And Imho: It didn’t measure up back then either. This was the movie which turned me away from Disney, the movie which convinced me (along with The Black Cauldron) that Disney’s good times were over and the only reason I gave the studios another chance was because The Little Mermaid is one of my favourite fairy tales.
I firmly believe that it was the marketing which made this movie so successful, and not the movie in itself. And what a marketing machine it was. Toys, toys, toys, for month it seemed like this movie was everywhere. And if you consider what the original novel was about – talk about totally missing the point. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that there has to be necessarily a moral attached to everything Disney does. But when you make a movie based on a novel about such a serious issue, the result shouldn’t be a celebration of poverty and consume (and how the hell they managed to combine those two aspects I will never understand).