The 80s were a notoriously troubled time for Walt Disney Feature Animation. The studio still hadn’t managed to right itself from the tailspin that Walt’s death in 1966 and Roy Disney’s death in 1971 had plunged them into throughout the decade prior, the changing of the studio guard that The Rescuers was meant to see in not taking, and the films beginning to flop with both critics and audiences. Disney defector Don Bluth was kicking their arse with his upstart studio’s mega-successful An American Tail, their own films were largely only seeing modest returns, whilst the massive flop of 1985’s The Black Cauldron put the entire feature animation wing of Disney in jeopardy – costing the studio well over $20 million and being trounced at the global box office by The Care Bears Movie. There was a genuine question of whether feature animation had a future at the Disney corporation under new heads Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. 1986’s more-conservatively budgeted The Great Mouse Detective was a modest success which bought the studio time, but uncertainty still hung in the air.
Most retrospectives will then jump ahead to the smash-hit runaway success of The Little Mermaid in the tale of the Disney Renaissance, as the officially-sanctioned 2009 documentary on the period Waking Sleeping Beauty does. But between Mouse and Mermaid, there was another movie which arguably laid the groundwork for the studio’s resurgent domination of the following decade, a quietly major film in the canon in spite of its general “meh” critical reception. That film was Animated Classic #27, Oliver & Company, which turned 30 in the UK in October this year.
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Oliver, a then-modern day and somewhat loose updating of Charles Dickens’ frequently adapted novel Oliver Twist, is a film that represents quite a number of firsts for Walt Disney Animation. It was the first film greenlit under Eisner & Katzenberg (Mouse Detective was already in production once they took over) to see release. It saw Disney investing $15 million into their revolutionary Computer Animation Production System (CAPS for short) in order to render and augment large sections of the traditional hand-drawn animation with CGI, technology they had been experimenting with in brief isolated sequences for Cauldron and Mouse but was substantially featured throughout Oliver. It was the studio’s first full-blown new musical in 15 years – several movies in the canon had featured songs in the meantime, but this was the first genuine new musical (Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh was a package film) since Robin Hood in 1973. It was arguably the first to take part in stunt-casting with the majority of roles played by known celebrities such as Billy Joel, Bette Midler and Cheech Marin as opposed to lesser-known voice actors and the odd ringer (Vincent Price in Mouse Detective). And it was the first film in the studio’s history to be worked on entirely by next-generation animators with none of the fabled Nine Old Men involved in any capacity – they’d all retired or died by then.
Yet it also functions as a slight return to the studio’s roots, or at least shows an active grappling and reminiscence of its history and legacy for the first time in-film. There’s obviously the fact that, again, it was the studio’s first proper out-and-proud musical in 15 years, but characters like Georgette and Tito make occasional knowing references to past Disney hits like Snow White and Lady and the Tramp in the joke-laden dialogue, then a near-rarity in the studio’s animated features. In the dynamic of Oliver, a kitten, finding sanctuary and lasting friendship with a collection of dogs, one is put in the mind of The Fox and the Hound, an earlier work by the studio which also put an emotional and conflict investment in dogs making friends with an animal they are otherwise nominally enemies to. The animation style, meanwhile – grimy, slightly angular, Xerox-reminiscent, not too dissimilar from but also more refined than Disney’s syndicated television shows at the time – combines with the human/gaggle of dogs cast make-up to recall memories of One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
But Oliver is no mere mashed-up rehash of prior glories. What’s most fascinating about watching the film back nowadays is how much it also functions as a genuine New York movie. Movies where New York is such a central part of their identity that you could almost say it’s like the city is a charac- *gets beaten to death by The Cliché Police* Alright, alright, but it is true and Oliver evinces a deep tangible love for the New York City of the late 80s (which is to say pre-gentrification). There’s a loving detail in the grime and danger that the City used to run on, allowing it to show genuine character rather than merely being romanticised for what it represents à la An American Tail. The wealth and class disparities show between the hustle and business bustle of Columbus Street where Fagin and the dogs ply their “trade,” the upscale elegance and financially ‘comfortable’ relaxation of 5th Avenue where we find lonely kind-hearted rich girl Jenny, and the damp rickety makeshift poverty around the Hudson River where Fagin and his rescue dogs live and the evil Mr. Sykes exploits the underclass on their doorstep.
The diversity of New York people can be found in the cast make-up, and not just in racial make-up – although there is plenty of that found in the various animal characters, most prominently Tito, in a manner which leans heavy on stereotype and despite being well intentioned has not aged well. Georgette, the snobbishly well-off 1% with an ingrained distrust and fear of ruffians and scoundrels. Dodger, the fast-talking streetwise hustler grinding away day after day with a chip on his shoulder. Oliver, the wide-eyed dreamer with a can-do spirit just trying to find his place in the city. And you can even see that New York character in the songs, with bustling downtown pieces that carry an 80s pop-rock flavour indebted to Dodger’s voice actor (Billy Joel) contrasting against Broadway-esque showtunes of both the campy showstopper and tender ballad variants when we move upwards to 5th Ave. For a studio that had up to then completely shied away from anything contemporary, preferring to instead lean more on timelessness and period pieces to exacerbate that fact, they did a genuinely strong job at capturing a specific place in time.
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That said, doing so has caused the movie to date heavily. There are the obvious visual and audio signifiers which date the film to the late 80s: the Twin Towers are still standing, the litany of product placement and advertising billboards (there for authenticity rather than cynical marketing tie-ins), the fact that people were still voluntarily listening to Huey Lewis. But the era also makes itself known in the occasional risqué aside – there’s a genuine insinuated rape joke from Georgette when Dodger and the other strays break into her home looking for Oliver – and shocking bursts of adult tone and darker plot turns that demonstrate the studio’s continued growing pains and clumsy efforts in trying to throw off the uncool kiddie stigma which dogged their work throughout the 80s. Sykes is a truly horrible, menacing villain who, in stark contrast to Disney’s history of villains both before and since, is intentionally not cool, fun, campy or any such thing which distracts from what a vicious sadistic gangster he is. There are on-screen deaths, a third act turn towards kidnapping, and a genuine sense of non-romanticised danger lurking around much of the film.
Whilst easily the second-most successful of Disney’s desires to mature and experiment throughout the late 70s/whole 80s – Great Mouse Detective fans, unite – the tone is indeed quite scattered and the film mostly holds together on the strength of novelty for its outlier status in the Canon and a few highly enjoyable characters (Georgette is an utter hammy riot) rather than the strength of its hyper-accelerated storytelling. Fittingly, the film ended up being received with a rather confused shrug by most critics at the time and in retrospect you’ll find a lot of animation historians place Oliver & Company firmly in the middle or just above the bottom of Disney’s pack, although it has gained a cult following over the years (as all of Disney’s mostly-shunned 80s output has done).
But the film was never really meant to be a massively appraised all-problems-magically-fixed-in-one-go miracle. It was, as detailed earlier, a slightly floundering but necessary experimental step for what came next. The Disney/Bluth duel that had previously seen An American Tail absolutely trounce Great Mouse Detective underfoot ended up having a rematch on 18th November ‘88, both films’ US release dates, as Oliver squared off with Bluth’s brand spanking new The Land Before Time. Bluth won the battle (and arguably the war given the notorious direct-to-video franchising Land Before Time underwent in the years after) by crushing Oliver in their opening weekend, but Disney’s film ended up closing with a much higher domestic total than Bluth’s and, far more importantly, the modest success gave Eisner and Katzenberg greater confidence in the studio and full-blown musicals going forward. Oliver laid that foundation, both production-wise and content-wise, it just needed some tweaks and focussing.
The studio which was all set for total shutdown just three years earlier would now produce and release a new animated feature every single year. Its next release would prove such faith and confidence were very well founded…