What if I told you that a cartoon starring a lovable talking kitten and a rag-tag bunch of dogs who all sing and dance and discover the meaning of friendship wasn’t just run-of-the-mill Disney but was actually one of the most important animated features ever produced?
You’d probably think I was being silly. Or making outrageous claims for attention. (In fairness, I do do that a lot.) At a glance, Oliver & Company looks like just another formula piece—nothing special. But what you may not realize is that, at the time this film was produced, the formula had been forgotten.
Cues from the classics
Enter the newly-appointed head of the film department, Jeffrey Katzenberg. Of the animation projects in queue when he took over, only one was early enough in development to make any significant changes. But when Katzenberg declared they would radically alter a proposed sequel for The Rescuers to become a singing-and-dancing Dickens adaptation, it was seen as a huge shakeup, even by Eisner-ian standards.
It was the choice to adapt Dickens’s Oliver Twist that would have the most profound effect. Upon announcement, the project was criticized as tackling too complicated and dismal a storyline—an ill-conceived effort to appeal to too many age groups. Since then, attitudes have changed and a children’s feature is blasted if it isn’t sufficiently complex.
The other lasting effect of Katzenberg’s decision was that, when Shakespeare’s Hamlet was transported to the African savannah, The Lion King was billed as an original tale. It wasn’t until The Hunchback of Notre Dame that Disney dared to openly tackle adapting something not commonly regarded as children’s fare—to a strikingly similar effect.
Sing a song
The more obvious effect, however, was the return of the musical format. In the 1980s, the musical was so dead that even Disney had diminished or completely removed the musical aspects of its animated features. There were no songs at all in The Black Cauldron. To ensure favorable reception of Oliver, current pop musicians were cast, including Billy Joel, Huey Lewis, Bette Midler, Barry Manilow and Ruth Pointer.
The wave of the future
Everyone knows Toy Story ushered in the age of CGI animation, right? Not so fast. While The Black Cauldron is officially the first animated feature to incorporate CGI, Oliver was the first to use it extensively. Skyscrapers, automobiles, a bridge and a scooter were all animated by computer and featured prominently onscreen.
A few criticisms
For all that Oliver revived, there are some aspects of that are decidedly un-Disney. Of all the films considered “Classics” this one has the shoddiest animation by far. The motion is often sluggish and the characters strike baroque poses more than just occasionally. It has an uncharacteristic “flatness” as well; one is very aware of watching moving drawings. In terms of quality, it is more on-par with Disney television animation—which is not terrible—than with other cinematic releases.
Taking on Dickens, while ambitious, was maybe too big a bite. The story takes precious little time for character development. Even so, the film feels rushed, especially when squeezing in those musical numbers, catchy as they may be. At the climax, one feels a tad confused about how everything arrived there.
The most inescapable flaw is how dated the film is. Sure, every Disney cartoon conveys a sense of when it was released, but generally they strive for the timeless and do quite well. Oliver is absolutely entrenched in the 1980s, from the visuals to the soundtrack to the dialogue. It may come to pass that, as we move further from the 80s, the dated effect will wear off as it has for films like 101 Dalmatians. Still, it remains an outlier among its peers.
Given Oliver’s relative obscurity in the Disney Classics lineup, one might think it was a flop. In reality, it had a very respectable box office performance. However, it was beaten in the same opening weekend by Bluth’s The Land Before Time. As history and 12 direct-to-video sequels have shown, baby dinosaurs have incredible appeal. (To Oliver’s credit, all the sequels were musicals, while the original was not.) A year later, The Little Mermaid’s opening figures dwarfed those of Oliver, cementing Mermaid’s legacy as the dawn of the Disney Renaissance and ushering in the age of the Disney Princess.
But imagine how different it and subsequent films would have been if, instead of following in Oliver’s footsteps, they instead traced the paths of Robin Hood or The Rescuers? It wasn’t just Disney films that were affected, either. Bluth, Fox, Dreamworks, and others released popular musical animated features in response, some of which are still mistaken for Disney films today. While I would never contend that Oliver & Company carries the importance of a Snow White or Pinocchio, Disney may not have ever returned to similar heights if this unassuming film hadn’t come first.