The folks over at Disney have a talent for taking stories that already exist and reworking them to fit into the Disney ethos. They've found varying levels of success doing it with fairy tales, novels, historical accounts, and legends. And, whether they results are incredible or rather disappointing, there is still something indefinably “Disney” that manages to link them together.
Ending up neither on the legendary but nor on the disappointing side is the 1988 feature Oliver and Company. Based on the classic Charles Dickens' novel, Oliver Twist, Disney has updated the story to place it in late-1980s New York City. And, to truly make it a Disney piece, rather than having humans as the main characters, Oliver, the Dodger, and his gang are all cats and dogs. Animated humans do appear, but save for Jenny, the little girl who falls for Oliver, the humans all find themselves in supporting roles.
In this version of the story, Oliver (Joey Lawrence) is a cat who finds himself without a set of humans to adopt him. Hungry and alone he meets up with Dodger (Billy Joel), who promises to get him food, but Oliver quickly finds himself betrayed. A hop, skip, and a jump later, Oliver winds up working with Dodger and the rest of the gang, voiced by Cheech Marin, Dom DeLuise (as Fagin, who is human), and others.
Rather than really entering a life of crime however, Oliver randomly meets, and ends up with Jenny (Natalie Gregory), only to have her fall prey to a kidnapping plot. Of course, as this is a Disney movie, the bad guy, Sykes (Robert Loggia) finds himself done in (rather gruesomely for a Disney film) in the end.
The film runs a brief 74 minutes, but manages to include songs recorded by Billy Joel, Huey Lewis, and Bette Midler (who plays Georgette, Jenny's dog). The film itself appears rather grittier than most Disney pictures with its dark view of much of New York City, but then again, the portions of the city Oliver frequents probably ought not be depicted with rose-colored glasses.
These songs, The Joel, Midler, and Lewis songs all may have been written for this film, but sound very much in the same vein as other work by the artists – were one to attend a concert by Billy Joel in which he sang “Why Should I Worry” unless one knew the song was from the film it would fit perfectly into a set list with other Joel music.
Like much of the film are fun, but one can't help comparing them to some of the truly outstanding numbers that have appeared in other Disney pictures. It's a comparison that ends up finding the songs, and the movie somewhat lacking. There is nothing wrong with Oliver and Company, it's got great source material, a good cast, and some fun songs, it's just not Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King (this film does predate the last two movies in that list).
The new 20th Anniversary release of the film contains an interactive game; two animated shorts featuring Pluto including the Academy Award winner “Lend a Paw;” Sing-along versions of two of the songs; trailers; and two behind-the-scenes pieces on Disney movies, one on animals in general, and one specific to Oliver. Both of the behind-the-scenes looks appear to be strict promotional material originally made for the film's initial release. However, the Oliver-specific one is fascinating for its discussion of computer animation, which clearly is something Disney was just beginning to tinker with at the time.
Oliver and Company is a fun movie. It's not one that will stick with audiences as other great Disney films do, but it has enough to recommend it from the appealing animals to the work's pedigree to the songs to the voice actors. But, when you're finished watching, you may not find yourself asking for some more.