Oliver and Company (1988)

They should have just subtitled this movie, “So totally 80s”.  You’ve got Billy Joel. You’ve got Bette Midler. You’ve got a mobster bad guy who could have been taken straight out of any number of 80s action films. Everything about this movie screams the 80s.

And you know what? I absolutely love it.

This is the first Disney movie that feels modern for me.  The “Sony” and “Coca Cola” signs that are dotted throughout the background imagery help ground the film in a very real environment.  The crux of the story is pretty simple: If you’re familiar with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, you’re familiar with Oliver and Company.  In Disney’s reimagining of the classic story, Oliver is an abandoned cat who falls in with a crew of street dogs, led by the too-cool-for-school Dodger.  Oliver is soon adopted by a sweet Upper-East Side girl named Jenny, and starts to live the lap of luxury in her townhouse.

No Disney movie is complete without a bad guy though, and this one takes the form of a terrifying mob boss named Sykes. Dodgers human own owes Sykes a bunch of money, and through a rather bizarre series of events, Sykes kidnaps Jenny in order to get a ransom to cover the money owed him.

(The only thought throughout all of this: how much freaking money was Sykes owed that he would stoop to kidnapping just to recoop his loss??)

There’s a happy ending as would be expected, with Oliver and Jenny being reunited.  The story is fairly straight-forward. What makes this film stand out are the characters.  Whether they’re the stars or the sidekicks, each character adds their own unique charm to the film.

Take Tito for instance.

Tito is, unfortunately, a blatant Hispanic stereotype the likes of which I’ve never seen in a Disney movie.  That being said, Mistah J and I both agreed that as kids,we just remembered him being a really funny character. He still is, but viewing the film as an adult reminds us that these stereotypes were so common that they were perpetuated in kid’s movies.  It puts a slight tarnish on the character, but I can’t help but still look back on him fondly given how entertaining he was when I was a child.

Then there’s Georgette, who brings all of the panache and glamour one would expect from the actress voicing her: Bette Midler.

Her solo song is so over the top and ridiculous, yet also one of the most enjoyable scenes in the film. Georgette hates Oliver for moving into her home, and will apparently do whatever she can to get rid of him.  Midler infuses the role with her trademark drama and attitude, and it makes the character even more entertaining.  As a child I didn’t really know or care who Bette Midler was, so Georgette was just the mean dog who didn’t like the cute kitty.  Now, I can appreciate her turn in this role for the brilliance it is, allowing me to appreciate an entirely new facet of the film.

And of course we can’t forget Dodger, the street-wise pup who knows New York City like the back of his paw.

Try to tell me “Why Should I Worry?” isn’t one of the catchiest songs you’ve ever heard. Go on, I dare you. I bet just reading that title will get it stuck in your head all week. I know I’ve been walking around humming it for the past four days now.

Dodger is loyal and knows how to work the streets, doing what he has to in order to feed his adopted family.  He ends up taking a liking to Oliver and rescues him on numerous occasions, finally leaving him in his happy home as Dodger returns to the only life he knows.  He has a good screen presence, but the fact that he’s voiced by Billy Joel is what makes the character.

Oliver and Company has plenty of hints at being a much deeper story. Given that it’s based on the Dickensian novel, that’s no big surprise.  Looking back though, it’s impressive that Disney was able to take a serious-minded story and make it accessible for children.  They may take plenty of liberties with the original story, but it’s still impressive that they were able to adapt a classic tale into a more modern kid’s film.  With such entertaining characters, I’m not surprised that I have fond memories of watching this when I was younger.  I’m happy to say that even as an adult, I can still find plenty to enjoy about this movie.

-Jess

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