The very best Disney films are timeless – they can be watched by people of any age, from any era, and it will feel like it was made for them. Bambi does not particularly feel like a film made in 1942, and with constant HD upgrades, each new generation can enjoy it, while The Lion King and The Jungle Book, among others, similarly fit into this description. Then there are the second tier of Disney films that are still excellent in their own right, but very much a product of their era. The comedy stylings of Eddie Murphy in Mulan make it feel dated now, as do the crows in Dumbo and the CG animated cave in Aladdin. Oliver and Company, the last film Disney made before their incredible studio renaissance, has a lot going for it but it feels far more of its era than anything else the studio have yet done.
The story relocates Oliver Twist from Dickensian England to 80s New York and recasts the eponymous orphan as a ginger kitten who gets abandoned and falls in with a group of stray dogs. The Artful Dodger is now a street smart pooch with a proper East Coast accent; Sykes is still human but here he is a menacing gangster with two dobermans; Fagin is, well, still a Jewish hobo. Many of the familiar plot beats from Dickens’ novel are present and correct: his initial rejection; integration into the pickpocketing gang; learning the ropes of stealing; adoption by a posh family. As with all of Disney’s adaptations of darker material, however, certain plot points are excised – there are no funeral directors or dead prostitutes here. The relocation to Manhattan is part of the reason that this feels so very 1980s – Fagin is the kind of neurotic New Yorker that sounds like a more energetic Woody Allen. New York is not The Serengheti or a generic forest, immediately placing the story in a particular time period.
Visually, too, this is very much the Disney of the 80s that was seen in The Black Cauldron and The Fox and The Hound. It only looks particularly 80s because the 80s didn’t have a distinctive aesthetic in the same way the Wolfgang Reitherman era did. Oliver is animated in a mish-mash of styles: the backgrounds are sometimes sketchy and lack detail, much like the studio’s 60s films, but the characters are created with thick lines and blocky colours like the 50s. Continued experimentation with CG techniques, however, brings it right back into the 80s. More than that, the look of the film can best be described as cheap – there’s no effort towards beauty here, and the simplicity of the landscape design isn’t charming, as with Reitherman’s films, but feels far more like a shortcut to getting the film made easily.
The most 80s aspect of the film, however, is the sound of it. Everywhere the Dodger walks he is accompanied by a slap-bass soundtrack, while the collection of songs have an undeniably 80s vibe about them – although I’m still not entirely sure what this means as I’m a 90s kid. Yet the incidental music throughout the film feels straight out of an 80s sitcom – like an animated Seinfeld. All it needs is canned laughter and that comparison begins to make a whole lot more sense. Getting Billy Joel to record the songs makes this even more 80s, just as Phil Collins and Elton John typify the 90s in the studio’s later films.
Yet hiring Billy Joel is also the fortuitous decision the film makers could have made, as the best thing about the film by a long way is Dodger’s song ‘Why Should I Worry?’ The peppy, upbeat, major key tune has Billy Joel written all over it, and like the best of his songs you’ll be desparate to sing along. It’s so catchy and so finger-clicking good that when I come to making lists at the end of this project, it’s bound to feature in my Top 5 songs list. Also, during the first version of the song, keep an eye out for a cameo from a dog from Lady and the Tramp.
In 1988, when this film was made (only their 27th, to give you a clue of how many Disney packed into the next two decades), Disney were in between their most fallow financial period since the 40s and their most successful era ever – the Second Golden Age. Before that could happen, though, the studio underwent serious upheaval behind the scenes. Animators clashed with money-driven executives, leadership continually changed over and the animation department had to prove they were worth keeping around. Oliver and Company is the last film before they got their groove back, and as such is fascinating as a kind of historical document to view a studio on the threshold of something far greater. This sets up more of the common tropes of Disney’s 90s output – celebrity songs, comedy sidekicks – but has the tonal awkwardness that characterised the Obscure 80s. It’s perhaps more interesting because of this than because of any artistic merit.
That being said, Oliver and Company is a thoroughly enjoyable film in many ways: it has a jazzy, catchy soundtrack, some neatly choreographed action and a collection of memorable characters. Plus, it has one of the best villain deaths in a canon that is full of good ones. Yet the most interesting thing about the film is viewing it as a film that captures a studio at a crucial juncture in its history, and as a historical document of what animation was like in the 1980s. The Little Mermaid made the studio timeless once more, but for now it’s great to spend time in the decade before I was born and get a glimpse of what animation looked like at that time.