Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Toon-arama: Oliver & Company (1988)

by tryanmax

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.
By the mid-80s, to put it mildly, the Disney animation studios were in a slump. Not only had the pace of production fallen off considerably since Walt’s passing 20 years earlier, but the studio hadn’t had a big hit in nearly a decade. One by one, the fabled Nine Old Men, the original core of the Disney animation team, had retired or passed away and the best of the new crop, Don Bluth, had taken off to form his own studio. By all accounts, things had settled into a dismal state at the Disney animation studios. The cobwebs definitely needed dusting.

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.
[Brief synopsis: Oliver, an orphaned kitty gets taken in by a pack of stray dogs and a homeless guy in New York City. The guy is in deep to a loan shark, so the dogs try to pull a con to help him out. The con backfires, however, and Oliver ends up adopted by a poor little rich girl. Some stuff happens and the loan shark ends up kidnapping the little girl in an attempt to make his debtor pay up. But in classic Disney fashion, he gets his comeuppance and everyone (else) lives happily ever after.]

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.
Oliver also features the first Howard Ashman lyrics written for a Disney film. Ashman would go on to write lyrics for the next three Disney features. The success of the Oliver & Company soundtrack apart from the film itself allowed for the revival of the musical format in Disney animation and led to future collaborations with famous artists such as Elton John, Phil Collins, Randy Newman, and Alan Menken.

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.
So what happened?

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.


AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, An interesting history you've attached to this film! I know very little about this film because this was the point where I stopped going to Disney cartoons in theaters. So I didn't see it until much later. And by the time I saw it, it felt like a kind of el cheapo effort compared to Little Mermaid and the others that followed. Specifically, the animation wasn't great, it felt minimalistic and not very rich, the stars felt second-rate to me as most were long past their prime by the time I saw the film, and as you note, it had a very dated 1980s feel.

I suspect I would have liked this more if I had seen it at the time rather than 10 years later. In any event, the history is interesting and its impact is truly important.

Thanks for the review!

tryanmax said...

Andrew, one thing that Oliver definitely had going for it was being right with the times at it's release. I listed the musical stars, but I neglected to mention the voice work of Cheech Marin, Dom DeLuise, and in the lead, a young Joey Lawrence--all big names in the 80s. Considering how Disney strives for timelessness in everything else, it must've been a conscious decision to put butts in seats.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That wouldn't surprise me. And the consequence is that it feels very dated to me. That's another problem with using celebrities to do the voices. If their popularity fades or they get busted for something stupid, it tarnishes a movie that never needed to be tarnished.

PikeBishop said...

"If their popularity fades or they get busted for something stupid, it tarnishes a movie that never needed to be tarnished."

Paul Rebens, please call your service, Pee Wee Herman, please call your service.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, Good example! The problem with recognizable voices in cartoons is that (1) they generally aren't good at putting life into cartoon characters and (2) you get all the baggage of the actor, which you really don't need -- not if you want your cartoon to feel timeless.

tryanmax said...

Pike, Andrew, I agree completely. I also dislike the use of celebrities because the animators seem unable to resist modeling the characters after the actors, which is pointless.

On the other hand, I'd say Disney has been both very lucky in that none of their voice talent has ever flamed out in a bad way and smart in that they haven't leaned too heavily on the actors' star power. The one notable exception in both regards is Robin Williams in Aladdin but I think the worst we can say about him is that we're tired of his material.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, True. And I have to say in all honesty that I was tired of William's comedic material before Aladdin, so when I heard people say it was basically a Robin Williams movie, I avoided it for quite some time.

Agreed on them being incapable of not trying to make the characters look like the celebrities. That gets annoying too. The point to the characters is the look of the characters. Making them look like the celebrities only limits the interest factor for me.

Individualist said...

They made Cheech Marin a Chiwauwau...

That's funny I don't care who you are!

tryanmax said...

Indie, did they make Cheech Marin a Chihuahua? Or did they make a Chihuahua Cheech Marin?

*inhales sharply*

Messes with your head, man.

AndrewPrice said...

Wow... mind blown! LOL!

When I think of Cheech, I actually think of him in From Dusk Til Dawn at this point.

Rustbelt said...

Interesting article, tryanmax. I remember when this movie came out, seeing the commercials and such. I was in grade school, and we had brochures we could order books from every month. (With parental approval, of course.) I think several of us got 'Oliver & Co." stuff, like posters and stickers. However, I never actaully saw the movie. As you note, it was definitely overshadowed by "The Land Before Time," one of Bluth's top three films. (I'd say the others are 'Secret of NIMH' and 'An American Tale.')

I remember reading a book on the history of Disney animation by Leonard Maltin that echoed what you said in your article. He said that in the late 80's/early 90's, animators weren't actually redefining the process, or 'formula,' as you put it. They had simply forgotten what made animated films great. Not just the songs, but Walt's decree that you had to make these films for children AND adults- a kind of rediscovering how to make these films, so to speak.

As for this film's longevity, well, I really can't comment since I haven't seen it. But it got me thinking of the time period and I remember a few things about one of 'Oliver's' peers. When I was in the Disney College Program about 10 years ago at WDW, one of my roommates became practically obsessed with locating a copy of 'The Black Cauldron.' I forget if he found one or not. Then it popped up several times on 'Toon Disney' at the hotel where I was working. And on top of that, when I was in orientation, one of our activities was to list as many Disney characters as we could. At the end, we were asked, 'who remembered Hen-Wren?' Well, this character is from 'Cauldron.' We were told this film has a growing cult following and it might help if we watched it since guests did (and still do) ask about it.

I didn't mean to get off track, but we never heard too much about 'Oliver' when I was at WDW. I guess this means 'Cauldron' just found that niche audience Andrew talked about. While 'Oliver,' as you carefully put it, is historically important for the development of Disney films, it just doesn't seem to have found cult status. Maybe that's why fewer people have heard about it.

Still, a really good article. Makes me glad Disney followed this model instead of 'Robin Hood' and 'the Rescuers.' (Though those films are also okay.) Guess you need that one step before getting to the really good stuff.
Okay, enough rambling from me for now.

tryanmax said...

Rustbelt, good call on the top three Bluth films, though I would put Anastasia before NIMH. That's just me.

While films like Robin Hood and The Rescuers are totally fine by me, I can understand why they don't catch popular attention. (Okay, I really don't understand why Robin Hood doesn't, but I digress.) People see cartoons as candy, but if they're to last, they still need the substance. There wasn't enough cartoon candy in the features of the 70s and 80s, but a few like Cauldron have the substance to endure.

I don't know if Oliver will ever gain cult status. Maybe if there is a substantial 80s revival in the future? I'm not sure that the story is profound enough to make anyone want to rescue it otherwise. Even if it doesn't, it still deserves to be remembered for launching the Disney Renaissance. In my opinion, it really starts with this film.

T-Rav said...

I think it's important to point out that in this case, the bad guy "getting his comeuppance" means "getting crushed to death between his car and an oncoming subway train." Just saying.

I rather liked this movie when I saw it as a kid--not great, but certainly watchable--and I've also seen The Rescuers (and The Rescuers Down Under) and Robin Hood. In fact, it seriously upset me for a while when I found out that in the original stories, Robin did not, in fact, live happier ever after with Maid Marian. (It also upset me that he wasn't really a talking fox, but that's another story.)

tryanmax said...

T-Rav, I suppose I understated that point quite a bit. ;-) I originally debated not even including a synopsis, but I figured I'd better at least outline the story.

On Robin Hood, as far as I knew as a kid, the Errol Flynn film was the original story, so I never suffered any trauma until Kevin Costner took a crack at it. LOL

Patriot said...

Holy crap tryanmax!!.....You are approving violence in children's movies?!

To quote T-Rav: "I think it's important to point out that in this case, the bad guy "getting his comeuppance" means "getting crushed to death between his car and an oncoming subway train."

That's pretty brutal man. No wonder today's young people are anathematized to violence around them..watching horrific deaths of cartoon characters!!

Good thing my generation of the 50's and 60's cartoons never had violent deaths in them. My gawd...how would we boomers have turned out if they had?!

tryanmax said...

Patriot, actually, I maybe should have made a bigger point of that. Oliver somewhat ushered in an era of violence for Disney, as well. Prior to the Renaissance, there weren't a lot of violent deaths. But the Renaissance saw The Little Mermaid's Medusa impaled by a ship's mast, The Lion King's Scar being pounced on by hyenas, Beauty and the Beast's Gaston plummeting to his death after he stabs the Beast, Mulan is set during a war, Hunchback's Frollo falls into molten copper, and Tarzan's Clayton is hung from a vine.

Post a Comment