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Oliver & Company is a 1988 American animated musical film produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation and released on November 18, 1988, by Walt Disney Pictures. The 27th Disney animated feature film, the film is based on the classic Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, which has been adapted many other times for the screen. In the film, Oliver is a homeless kitten who joins a gang of dogs to survive in the streets. Among other changes, the setting of the film was relocated from 19th century London to modern-day New York City, Fagin's gang is made up of dogs (one of which is Dodger), and Sykes is a loan shark.

Following the release of The Black Cauldron, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg held a pitch meeting with the animation staff, in which story artist Pete Young pitched the idea to adapt Oliver Twist with dogs. The pitch was quickly approved, and the film quickly went into production under the working title Oliver and the Dodger. Released on the same day as The Land Before TimeOliver & Company was a box office success, but it received mixed reviews from film critics. The film was re-released in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom on March 29, 1996. It was then released on home video later that same year, and again in 2002 and 2009 on DVD. The film was released on Blu-ray Disc in 2013, commemorating its 25th Anniversary.

Plot

On Fifth Avenue, an orphaned kitten named Oliver is left abandoned after his fellow orphaned kittens are adopted by passersby. Wandering the streets by himself in search of someone to adopt him, Oliver meets a laid-back mongrelnamed Dodger who assists the kitten in stealing food from a hot dog vendor named Louie. Dodger then flees the scene without sharing his bounty with Oliver. Oliver follows Dodger all throughout the streets until he eventually arrives at the barge of his owner, a pickpocket named Fagin, along with his meal, to give to his friends: Tito the chihuahua, Einstein the Great Dane, Rita the Saluki, and Francis the bulldog. Oliver sneaks inside, located below the docks, and is discovered by the dogs. After a moment of confusion, he is then received with a warm welcome. Fagin comes in and explains that he is running out of time to repay the money he borrowed from Sykes, a nefarious shipyard agent and loan shark. Sykes tells Fagin that the money must be paid in three days, under the threat of resolving to violence. Sykes's dobermans, Roscoe and DeSoto, attack Oliver, but the cat is defended by Fagin's dogs. Immediately thereafter, a depressed Fagin returns to the barge, lamenting that he only has three days to find the money he owes Sykes. After the dogs cheer him up, Fagin is introduced to Oliver, and, considering that they all need help, accepts him into the gang.

The next day, Fagin and his pets, now including Oliver, hit the streets to sell some shoddy goods and perhaps steal money. Oliver and Tito attempt to sabotage a limousine driven by Winston, a butler who is chaperoning Jenny Foxworth, a lonely rich girl whose parents are away on a trip. However, the plan backfires when Oliver accidentally slips on the ignition keys, starting the car and electrocuting Tito. Jenny then helps untangle Oliver from the wires and adopts him out of loneliness, much to the disgust of Georgette, the Foxworth family's pompous and pampered poodle. Dodger and the others manage to steal Oliver from the Foxworth family and return him to the barge, but he explains that he was treated kindly and did not want to leave, much to the disappointment of Dodger who feels that Oliver is being ungrateful, but allows him the opportunity to leave. However, Fagin arrives and concocts a plan to ransom Oliver, then sends Jenny a ransom note. Jenny discovers the note and sets out to get Oliver back, while Fagin informs Sykes of his plan.

Later, Jenny meets up with Fagin, who is shocked that the "very rich cat owner person" is only a little girl. Bothered by his conscience after seeing Jenny distraught over losing Oliver, Fagin gives Oliver back freely. Just then, Sykes comes out of the shadows and kidnaps Jenny, intending to ransom her and declaring Fagin's debt paid.

Dodger rallies Oliver and the other dogs to rescue Jenny from Sykes, but the animals are confronted by Sykes and his Dobermans after they free her. Fagin saves the group with his scooter and a chase ensues throughout the streets and into the subway tunnels. Jenny is pushed onto the hood of Sykes's car after he rams it against the scooter, where she holds onto the hood ornament, and Oliver and Dodger attempt a rescue. Roscoe and DeSoto fall off the car in the struggle and land on the subway's third rail, electrocuting them. Tito takes control of Fagin's scooter as Fagin manages to retrieve Jenny, and Tito drives the scooter up the side of the Brooklyn Bridge as Sykes' car drives straight into the path of an oncoming train, killing him and throwing him and his car into the East River. Dodger and Oliver manage to avoid the collision thanks to Sykes throwing them off him before the impact and are reunited with Jenny and the others. Later, Jenny celebrates her birthday with the animals, Fagin and Winston. That same day, Winston receives a phone call from Jenny's parents in Rome saying that they will be back Stateside in Manhattan tomorrow. Oliver opts to stay with Jenny, but he promises to remain in contact with Dodger and the gang.

Voice cast

  • Oliver - Joey Lawrence
  • Dodger - Billy Joel
  • Tito - Cheech Marin
  • Einstein - Richard Mulligan
  • Francis - Roscoe Lee Browne
  • Rita - Sheryl Lee Ralph
  • Fagin - Dom DeLuise
  • Roscoe - Taurean Blacque
  • Desoto - Carl Weintraub
  • Sykes - Robert Loggia
  • Jenny - Natalie Gregory
  • Winston - William Glover
  • Georgette - Bette Midler

Production

Oliver & Company was the twenty-seventh animated film developed by Walt Disney Feature Animation, and the first one to begin production under the supervision of Chief Executive Officer Michael Eisner and Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg; the duo, who had previously worked at Paramount Pictures as chairman and head of production, respectively, joined the company in 1984.[4]After the release of The Black Cauldron in 1985, Eisner and Katzenberg invited the animators to pitch potential ideas for upcoming animated features, infamously called the "Gong Show". After Ron Clements and John Muskersuggested The Little Mermaid and Treasure Island in Space, story artist Pete Young suggested, "Oliver Twist with dogs". Katzenberg, who had previously planned on producing a live-action adaptation of the musical Oliver! at Paramount,[4] approved the pitch.[5] Under the working title of Oliver and the Dodger,[6][7] the film was originally much darker and grittier with the film opening with Sykes's two Dobermans murdering Oliver's parents, setting the story to focus on Oliver exacting his revenge as detailed in a draft dated on March 30, 1987.[8] George Scribner and Richard Rich were announced as the directors of the project, while Pete Young was appointed as story supervisor,[9] though Rich was fired from Disney about six months into production, leaving Scribner as the sole director.[10] In this adaptation, Scribner turned Oliver into a naïve kitten, Dodger and the gang into dogs, and Fagin into a human, and encouraged the film to be more street smart.[8] Furthermore, Scribner borrowed a technique from Lady and the Tramp by blocking out the scenes on real streets, and then photographing them with cameras mounted eighteen inches off the ground. In this way, the animators would use the photos as templates to provide a real dog's-eye view of the action.[11] As work continued on Oliver, Roy E. Disney came up with an idea that Fagin would attempt to steal a rare panda from the city zoo. However, the writers would have problems with the idea,[6] and the panda sub-plot was eventually dropped when Scribner suggested to have Fagin hold Oliver for ransom because he was a valuable, rare Asian cat.[12][13]

For the film, Disney invested $15 million into a long-term computer system called Computer Animation Production System, otherwise known as CAPS. Unlike The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective, which used computer imagery for special sequences, eleven minutes of Oliver & Company were computer-generated such as the skyscrapers, the taxi cabs, trains, Fagin's scooter-cart, and the climactic subway chase.[4] Meanwhile, the traditional animation was handled by the next generation of Disney animators, including supervising animators Glen Keane, Ruben A. Aquino, Mike Gabriel, Hendel Butoy, and Mark Henn as the "Nine Old Men" had retired in the early 1980s.[4]Throughout two and a half years of production, six supervising animators and a team of over 300 artists and technicians worked on the film.[14] Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was the database for the New York City skyline, which was recreated for the film.

Casting

Because personalities are considered the greatest strength of Disney animated films, the filmmakers sought believable voices to match the movement of the animation.[4] For this film, the filmmakers cast fellow New York natives including Bette Midler for Georgette, Sheryl Lee Ralph for Rita, and Roscoe Lee Browne for Francis.[4] Comedian Cheech Marin was cast as the chihuahua Tito. Because energy proved to be the key to Tito's personality, Marin claimed "I was encouraged to ad-lib, but I'd say I just gave about 75% of the lines as they were written. The natural energy of a Chihuahua played right into that feeling. George [Scribner] was very encouraging as a director: He kept the energy level high at the recording sessions."[15] Pop singer Billy Joel was recommended for the voice of Dodger by Scribner because of his "New York street-smart, savoir-faire attitude", and auditioned for the role by telephone after being given dialogue. Additionally, Joel confirmed he did the role because it was a Disney movie, saying: "I had just had a little girl. It's a great way to do something that my little girl could see that she could relate to right away."[16]

Music

The soundtrack of Oliver & Company contains an instrumental score by J. A. C. Redford under the supervision of Carole Childs, while Jeffrey Katzenberg had the idea to bring in big-name singer/songwriters, each of whom would contribute a song into the film including Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, and Huey Lewis. At his suggestion of his friend David Geffen, Katzenberg brought in lyricist Howard Ashman, who composed the song "Once Upon a Time in New York City".[17] Musical composer J.A.C. Redford was brought to compose the score who had a working relationship with Disney music executive Chris Montan on the series St. Elsewhere.[18] Ashman, who, with Alan Menken, would write the songs for the next three Disney films. Billy Joel, in addition to voicing Dodger, performed the character's song in the film.

The track list below represents the 1996 re-release of the Oliver & Companysoundtrack. The original 1988 release featured the same songs, but with the instrumental cues placed in between the songs in the order in which they appeared in the film. Using the numbering system in the list below, the order the tracks on the 1988 release would be: 1, 2, 6, 7, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, and 11. The reprise of "Why Should I Worry?", performed by the entire cast, remains unreleased on CD.

Track listing
  1. "Once Upon a Time in New York City" - Huey Lewis; written by Barry Mann and Howard Ashman
  2. "Why Should I Worry?" - Billy Joel; written by Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight
  3. "Streets of Gold" - Ruth Pointer ; written by Dean Pitchford and Tom Snow
  4. "Perfect Isn't Easy" - Bette Midler ; written by Barry Manilow, Jack Feldman, and Bruce Sussman
  5. "Good Company" - Myhanh Tran ; written by Ron Rocha and Robert Minkoff
  6. "Sykes" (score)
  7. "Bedtime Story" (score)
  8. "The Rescue" (score)
  9. "Pursuit Through the Subway" (score)
  10. "Buscando Guayaba" - Rubén Blades
  11. "End Title" (instrumental)

Release

Oliver & Company premiered theatrically in North America on November 18, 1988―the same day on which Disney celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Mickey Mouse short, Steamboat Willie.[19] It was also the first to be released as a part of a brand new schedule requested by Katzenberg, which called for a new animated Disney film to be released every single year, similar to Walt Disney's intentions for his animated features during the 1940s.[4]

Marketing

Oliver & Company was the first Disney animated film to include real world advertised products. More than 30 company logos and brand names were shown in the film, including Kodak, Dr. Scholls, Sony, Diet Coke, Tab, McDonald's, Yamaha, Ryder, and USA Today.[20] However, the filmmakers commented on ABC's The Magical World of Disney that this was done for realism, was not paid product placement, and that it would not be New York City without advertising.[21] Instead, Katzenberg urged the marketing campaign to focus on the classic Dickens novel and the pop score,[17] and promotional tie-ins included Sears, which produced and manufactured products with themes inspired from the film, and McDonald's which sold Christmas musical ornaments based on Oliver and Dodger, and small finger puppets based on the characters in a Happy Meal.[21][22] For its theatrical re-release in 1996, the film was accompanied with a promotional campaign by Burger King.[23]

In the United Kingdom, Oliver & Company was not distributed by Buena Vista International, but by Warner Bros.[24] Buena Vista International did however release the film on home video.

Home media

Despite its financial success at the box office, Oliver & Company was not released on home video despite being one of the most requested Disney films.[25] After its theatrical re-release, Oliver & Company was released on VHS and Widescreen LaserDisc in the United States on September 25, 1996, for a limited time,[26] and in the United Kingdom in 1997.[citation needed] It was later released on DVD on May 14, 2002. A 20th Anniversary Edition DVD was released on February 3, 2009, and a 25th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray was released on August 6, 2013.[27]

Reception

Box office

Opening on the same weekend as Don Bluth's The Land Before Time, which debuted at number-one grossing $7.5 million, the latter film beat out Oliver & Company which opened at fourth, grossing $4 million.[28] Nevertheless, Oliver & Company out-grossed The Land Before Time with domestic gross estimates of $53 million compared to $46 million of the latter.[29] It became the animated film with the highest gross from its initial run.[30] Its success prompted Disney's senior vice-president of animation, Peter Schneider, to announce the company's plans to release animated features annually.[6]

On March 29, 1996, Disney re-released the film in direct competition with All Dogs Go to Heaven 2,[31] grossing $4.5 million in its opening weekend.[32] In its total box office lifetime, Oliver & Company made a total domestic gross of $74 million at the U.S. box office.[33]

Critical response

The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 44% of critics gave the film positive reviews based on 36 reviews with an average rating of 5.4/10. Its consensus states that "Oliver & Company is a decidedly lesser effort in the Disney canon, with lackluster songs, stiff animation, and a thoroughly predictable plot."[34]

On the television program, Siskel & Ebert, Gene Siskel gave the film a thumbs down. Siskel stated: "When you measure this film to the company's legacy of classics, it doesn't match up" as he complained "the story is too fragmented…because Oliver’s story gets too sidetracked from the story in the film that gets convoluted, too calculated for the Bette Midler, Billy Joel crowd as well as little kids." Roger Ebert gave the film a "marginal thumbs up" as he described the film as "harmless, inoffensive".[35] Animation historian Charles Solomon wrote a favorable reviewing concluding that the film "offers virtually ideal family holiday fare. The cartoon action will delight young children, while older ones, who usually reject animation as "kid stuff," will enjoy the rock songs and hip characters, especially the brash Tito."[36] Writing for People, Peter Travers opined in his review, "Too slight to rank with such Disney groundbreakers as Pinocchioand Fantasia, the film is more on the good-fun level of The Lady and the Trampand 101 Dalmatians. But why kick? With its captivating characters, sprightly songs and zap-happy animation, Oliver & Company adds up to a tip-top frolic."[37]Desson Howe of The Washington Post noted that the film "retrieves some of the old Disney charm with tail-wagging energy and five catchy songs". Likewise, fellow Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley praised the songs and animation, and called it "happy adaptation of the Victorian classic."[3] Writing for Common Sense Media, Nell Minnow gave the film 3 stars out of 5, concluding that the film "Can't compete with Disney classics, but [is] still fun."[38]

Barry Walters, reviewing for The San Francisco Examiner, panned the film as "a rather shabby transitional work, one that lacks the sophistication of today's 'toons and doesn't hold up to the Disney classics of yesteryear."[39] Halliwell's Film Guide called Oliver & Company an "Episodic film, short on charm, that only now and then provides glimpses of stylish animation".[24] The Ren & Stimpy Show creator John Kricfalusi suggested that the film was derivative of Ralph Bakshi's works, and jokingly suggested its use as a form of punishment.[40]Likewise, even some of the Disney animators viewed the film unfavorably considering it "another talking dog-and-cat movie".[41]

Accolades

  • Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song for "Why Should I Worry?" (Nominated)
  • Young Artist Award for Best Family Feature Film — Animation (Nominated)
  • Golden Reel Awards for Best Sound Editing (Won)
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