#27 Oliver & Company

#27 Oliver & Company

In a New York cat’s state of mind

This week we jump into another zany big city animal adventure: Oliver & Company! This film is a modern adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic Oliver Twist, following a young kitten named Oliver trying to survive in New York City, befriending a gang of street dogs as well as a rich little girl.

Unlike the majority of previous films, Oliver was not based on a book, well, besides Oliver Twist. But the idea to adapt the novel about children in London into a movie about dogs in New York was pitched by story artist Pete Young. This was the first of Disney’s animated films to start under the leadership of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and if you’ve read my previous posts, you know that the studio was going through a time of big lows (Black Cauldron), moderate success (Great Mouse Detective), and lots of drama. The animation studio had moved into an era of creative debate, where the creators had to “prove” and fight for their ideas. A “Gong Show” style pitching procedure had been established where employees would give a quick pitch for a movie idea and then Eisner and Katzenberg would decided if they would pursue it or not. Katzenberg had also decided on an animation schedule of releasing a film every year – and Oliver was the first out of the gate.

Two directors were assigned to the film, though one wound up being fired six months into production. In the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, Peter Schneider, then president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, described the event by admitting that one director was “belligerent” and the other “sucked up”, and the former was the one who was fired. As you can see, while the movies were improving, the same couldn’t always be said about the employee interactions behind the scenes. The remaining director, George Scribner, used a technique that had been used for Lady and Tramp that involved taking photos of real city streets from eighteen inches off the ground, giving the animators an idea of how a small cat or dog would see the world. I love tidbits like this that shows how older techniques can still be used in modern projects! Originally, the film was supposed to open with the Sykes’ (the villain of the movie) dogs murdering Oliver’s parents (? what?!), setting up the rest of the film to center on Oliver getting revenge. I, for one, am glad the writing team changed things up there.

A less magical and fun, though still interesting, fact about this film is that it was the first Disney animated film to advertise “real world” brands and products, including Sony, McDonald’s, Diet Coke, and Kodak. The team said that this wasn’t for paid product placement, but rather to properly depict New York City, which does hold up – nearly every inch of that city is covered in some sort of advertisement.

In terms of casting, this was really Disney’s first time choosing multiple big-name voice actors, drawing extra attention to the film. The incomparable Billy Joel, one of the most famous New Yorkers of all time, was cast as Dodger, the suave leader of the dog gang, in part because of his, as Scribner put it, “New York street-smart” attitude. The legendary Bette Midler was chosen as the dramatic and audacious Georgette. Famous comedian Cheech Marin was set as Tito, and New York natives Sheryl Lee Ralph and Roscoe Lee Browne were cast as Rita and Francis, respectively; all three characters were part of Dodger’s gang. Future musician and TV actor Joey Lawrence voiced Oliver, although he was still just a kid and not well known yet. Even major musicians were hired to contribute to the soundtrack: Barry Manilow, Huey Lewis, and, of course, Joel. Oliver also marked the first time that the incredible Howard Ashman (who would go on to write some of the best and most beloved Disney songs of all time during the Renaissance) worked on a Disney film, as he co-wrote the song “Once Upon a Time in New York City.”

Oliver & Company‘s release date was momentous in more ways than one – not only did it go up against rival animated film The Land Before Time (a Don Bluth production, no less) but it also premiered on the 60th anniversary of Mickey’s debut cartoon, Steamboat Willie. While Land Before Time debuted at number one and Oliver at fourth, the latter ultimately out-grossed the former. It received mixed reviews from critics, being called “predictable and stodgy” and critiqued by many as not being as good as the classic Disney films. The characters, however, seemed to be enjoyed across the board, being called “hip”, “colorful”, and “captivating.” According to Wikipedia, “even some of the Disney animators viewed the film unfavorably considering it ‘another talking dog-and-cat movie’.” Ouch! (But also, they’re not wrong)

I’m pretty sure I watched Oliver at least once as a kid and I think I liked it, but we didn’t own it so it wasn’t something I watched multiple times. As someone who grew up 30 minutes outside of New York City, went there many, many times, and worked there for two years, but now lives on the other side of the country and misses The City dearly, I’m excited to rewatch. Also, as a big fan of Billy Joel, I’m excited to rewatch! So much excitement, which is fitting since we’re setting the scene in the City That Never Sleeps. Now, let’s head to the Big Apple!

My thoughts on Oliver & Company:

  • I love NYC, I love Billy Joel, I should love this
  • Ugh, New York, my heart, look at that skyline
  • Oh this song is so 80’s I’m not used to contemporary music
  • Okay, if a box of kittens were left on a NYC street they would most definitely be snatched up by some weirdo
  • How could no one pick Oliver?? There are so many kids in New York, SOMEONE would have gotten him
  • Also, WHO leaves kittens out on the street? Why not take them to a shelter or pet store? This is New York City!! There are many pet-centric businesses
  • Poor Oliver!!
  • All alone in the rain, mean dogs around 😦
  • Thank God Oliver jumped out of the way in time before this truck took off!
  • Yess Yankees cap in the movie!
  • hahaha I love this cool hip hop pedestrian with the boombox
  • Also love the mom who is non-chalant about her toddler cuddling a feral cat
  • They really did their research on New Yorkers haha
  • It’s hard to question anything in this movie cuz New York is such a “anything can and will happen here” city. Is it weird there’s a singing hotdog cart guy? Yeah. Does one probably exist? Yeah.
  • Billy Joel Dog!!!
  • Wow he was smooth with that hotdog theft
  • Aww now he’s not gonna share with Oliver after Oliver helped him? Come on, Billy!
  • “you’re not being fair” “Fares are for tourists” hahaha
  • Dodger’s stealing food from a baby, low
  • Does Billy Joel perform Why Should I Worry at concerts?
  • This is the first instance of one of a Disney movie having a major musical artist as a voice and making a song for it. I guess they really wanted the studio back on track
  • Look, Dodger is a jerk, and I feel really bad for Oliver, but you KNOW I’m vibing to this Billy Joel bop

Dodger at all times:

  • “tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day” is Francis watching Hamilton on Disney+?
  • Like most of us short folk, Tito is filled with raw chaotic energy
  • ooh I can’t wait for Oliver to interrupt Dodger’s bs story lol
  • “gang war!” what?! hahaha can you say that in a Disney movie
  • I get dogs and cats don’t like each other, but these four grown adult dogs are cornering a little baby kitten
  • So…now they’re just cool with Oliver?
  • Yikes! It’s Sykes!
  • Did Fagin really think he could send his dogs out to bring back valuables? Were the dogs gonna rob a jewelry store or a bank or something? What was this man expecting?
  • What did Sykes give Fagin money for? And how much did he give?
  • Sykes is very creepy – especially bc he’s a realistic villain, and those are always the worst
  • “Isn’t it rather dangerous to use ones entire vocabulary in a single sentence” Francis with the eloquent roast!
  • Fagin doesn’t seem to be very “on-the-grid” (does he even own/rent this home? Looks like he’s squatting) and it is the ’80s so what’s stopping him from taking his dogs and just going somewhere else in the city? Or even to another city?
  • Oooh Oliver scratched this big scary dog, go Ollie!
  • Aww Dodger redeemed himself by jumping into protect Oliver
  • Now all the dogs are jumping into protect Oliver! Love that! Love a found family trope
  • I love how the dogs take care of Fagin
  • Dogs are so loyal, they really are the best
  • And even though Fagin clearly doesn’t have any money to spare, he doesn’t even hesitate to take in Oliver!
  • And now he’s reading to all the pups! Ahh I love this so much! It’s so cute and precious!
  • Oliver cuddling with Dodger, how do I do the heart eyes emoji from my laptop?!
  • I would have LOVED to see a group of dogs dancing and strutting down the street
  • Little red haired girl named Jenny? Seems awfully similar to other little red haired Penny from The Rescuers
  • Poor kid, her parents are MIA
  • Love how seriously Francis takes his craft haha
  • Are these dogs trying to steal the car?! How were they gonna drive it?
  • “Let’s take this baby to Atlantic City” NJ shout out!!
  • Tito tells Oliver to look out but then when Oliver mentions something he tells him to be quiet?
  • Thank goodness the limo had a little girl and not some stuffy business exec
  • She’s rich af and the parents are never home, why would keeping the cat even be an issue?
  • Bette Midler dog!
  • This is an EXTRA dog room
  • Show dog people are serious af I’ve seen Best In Show
  • “I have your hearts and you have my pity” what a line!
  • I really want to know what this child is feeding to this cat…looks like chocolate chips? cake mix? eggs?
  • Now whipped cream???
  • Georgette back off you spoiled (can i say the “b word” appropriately here? Wanna keep the blog family friendly)
  • Why does the dog gang assume that Oliver’s being tortured??? I get them wanting him back but why would they think he’s in actual danger, especially since it’s such a nice place?
  • Aww Jenny singing with Oliver is adorable
  • I’ve never seen anyone take their cat for a walk
  • When I was a kid I had a rabbit that I tried to take for a walk but he wouldn’t hop anywhere
  • Oh central park, I miss you
  • Also, those boats are always packed and the line is like a mile long no way Jenny is out there on her own
  • Oliver has a name and a home!!!
  • Why would they use Francis AGAIN? Wouldn’t they know he’d be recognized?
  • They put Georgete, a DOG, on the cover of Time?!
  • Hahaha the gang being nosey and getting into all of Georgettes stuff is pretty funny
  • I get Georgette is obsessed with attention and Oliver gets in the way of that, but she doesn’t seem to be particularly attached to Penny, and Oliver obviously can’t compete with her as a show dog, so I don’t get why she’s SO bothered by him and bent on getting him out of the house

Georgette after two days, most of which Oliver spent either out of the house or sleeping

  • Aww little baby Oliver is sleeping
  • Nooo don’t take him!
  • How heavy do cats sleep? Why isn’t Oliver waking up?
  • Dodger’s being a real jerk
  • He’s being more a diva than Bette Midler Dog
  • He’s giving Oliver such a hard time – I get he wanted him as part of the gang, but 1) it’s not like Oliver was in the gang for years that it’s such a big thing for him to leave and 2) Oliver is a baby, literally born probably a few days ago, Dodger is bullying a child for wanting to live in a loving home
  • I’m glad the rest of the gang thinks Dodger’s going too far, but none of them are actually sticking up for or trying to help Oliver
  • Haha aww poor Oliver started to leave but then Fagin picked him up
  • People in cartoons always do that “one-eye-opens-in-shock” thing but people don’t really do that in real life, I’m not sure I can even do that in real life
  • “Mister very rich” You expect to be taken seriously with that note Fagin?
  • Jenny’s school transportation says “school bus” but I’m pretty sure it’s a minivan? Is that how rich kids get to school?
  • Poor Jenny – poor kid is ignored/abandoned by her parents, takes in a lost little kitty who she loves dearly, and is now being extorted by a grown man
  • And weren’t we rooting for said man and his pack of dogs? NOT rooting for him anymore
  • Oof this scene just got violent with these rabid dogs attacking Fagin
  • I hate when movies do that thing where a character basically freezes and then it just fades to black – it takes me out of the story every time
  • Jenny is out here ALONE?!
  • Did Jenny not tell the guy who works in her house? She’s a rich kid, doesn’t she have a nanny?? She didn’t tell ANYONE?!
  • And she brings Georgette but she’s just a showdog she’s not gonna be able to defend you Jenny!
  • How in the world did she possibly make it this far with a map that is a literal squiggly line?
  • Jenny didn’t anyone tell you not to talk to strangers? Stranger danger
  • Is Fagin really so surprised that it’s a child who came to get Oliver? I assume he thought her parent would come to get him – which yes an adult SHOULD be with her – but who did he THINK the owner of a little tabby kitten was gonna be?
  • “he must have been a poor desperate man” “it’s still wrong” you’re right Jenny and you should say it!
  • Here we go again with the child being kidnapped by a criminal, why was this the plot of all the last few Disney movies?
  • Yay! All the dogs are coming together to save Jenny!
  • Damn these dogs are competent as hell
  • WAIT Snow White the movie exists in this universe?
  • It’s a miracle they all aren’t falling
  • Ok never mind they fell
  • Fagin! Where the hell have you been this whole time?

Fagin to Jenny after stealing her pet, extorting her for money, making her wander around New York City at night, causing her to get kidnapped, and just overall putting her through multiple emotional and physical traumas:

  • No.
  • No no no.
  • There is NO way a CAR drove down a subway staircase
  • So far this movie hasn’t been magic so it CAN’T appear now
  • YIKES did that dog just get fatally electrocuted on screen
  • Oh no they’re on the wrong track!!!
  • I’ve seen a lot of crazy/ridiculous/convenient things in these Disney movies, but a chihuahua not only driving a scooter, but maneuvering said scooter up the side of the Brooklyn Bridge has got to be close to the top of the list
  • Sykes just tossed Oliver off his shoulder and realistically he’d definitely end up on the track or in the water…
  • OOF hit by a speeding train that is a ROUGH and dark end
  • Also, if a train ran into a car, than the conductor and passengers would be very hurt and/or dead too!! You just killed innocents, Disney
  • Oliver is so cute
  • So the housekeeper is okay with all these dogs and the homeless man extorted Jenny and then got her kidnapped chilling in the house?
  • Like I’m happy Jenny doesn’t have to celebrate alone but let’s take stock of the situation here
  • Her parents are coming home!
  • Hahaha at her strange pile of gifts from the dogs
  • Honestly, if i had a birthday party with only a bunch of dogs in attendance, i’d be thrilled
  • Jenny no need to hug Fagin
  • Bette Midler dog inviting Cheech Marin dog ~upstairs~ “privately” is not something I need in my Disney movie
  • “What a delightful scoundrel” he was okay
  • Hey other dogs, this is Billy Joel’s song! We don’t need harmonies…
  • Would Chuck Dickens enjoy this story??? Hmmm…..
  • We did not get ONE “please sir may I have some more” and that’s a travesty

Oliver & Company is a very cute movie, mostly because of the very cute kitten and doggies. However, I feel like Oliver, even though it’s supposed to be his story, gets sidelined a bit. He’s a pretty passive protagonist and is usually (quite literally) being carried from one scene to the next. Also, while I like that Fagin and the dog gang came to her rescue, it’s hard for me to ignore that this grown man extorted and used a little girl in his plot to escape his debts. I did thoroughly enjoy the dog gang and all their different personalities! That being said, I’m happy that Oliver stayed with Jenny in the end and didn’t stick with the gang.

Next week, let’s see, what do we have on the sched, oh just THE LITTLE MERMAID. That’s right, we’re heading into the Renaissance.

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