My introduction to Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist was Disney’s Oliver & Company, though I was unaware of the source at the time. I saw it as a fun little musical about a cat and some dogs (with one being voiced by none other than Billy Joel). Yet as I got older, I noticed that it was a much darker story than I was led to believe. Underneath its jazzy musical numbers, singing dogs, and New York atmosphere lied a story of crime and survival. The story of Oliver Twist was never really lighthearted to begin with, yet the slums of London are replaced with the streets of New York City as people hustle about getting from one place to the next, while the lowest live in the slums. Also, put in a mafia boss setting a race against time, and you have a recipe for what may be Disney’s grittiest film in animation history.
The story of Oliver & Company revolves around a little stray orange cat, eventually named Oliver, who is set up for adoption in order to go to a loving home. Though all the other cats in the litter end up getting picked, Oliver has to fight through hard rain, vicious dogs, and groups of people just to make it on the street. That is, until he runs into a street-smart dog named Dodger (Joel in his only acting role), who, at first, uses Oliver as a pawn to get a link of sausages from a cranky vendor, yet upon Oliver stumbling into a little hideaway where Dodger resides with a few other dogs, decides to welcome him into his gang, led by Fagin (Dom DeLuise), who is desperately scrounging around to pay back crime boss/loan shark Sykes (The late Robert Loggia). Along the way, Oliver finds himself in the home of a little girl named Jenny, whose parents are away on an important business trip. I don’t really want to say more for those who have yet to see it, but it is basically Oliver Twist with strays.
I have not read Dickens’ book, yet I am familiar with the musical, Oliver!; Mainly the 1968 Oscar-winning film. I know the main plot and characters are taken from the book, albeit with some changes to fit into the Disney brand. I already mentioned the change from London to New York, most of the characters being animals, Fagin being a homeless man instead of just a con artist, and Sykes being a loan shark, while Jenny is a little girl version of Mr. Brownlow. In a way, Disney could have just made a straight adaptation of Oliver Twist, yet the changes are fine for what they are, and perfect for introducing kids to the story of Oliver Twist.
While the animation isn’t as polished as most of Disney’s features that came after. It is impressive to see how much detail came from drawing New York City with the twin towers pre-9/11 to the real advertisements you see on the billboards. (Coca-Cola product placement, anyone?), and there are a few moments where the animation manages to impress (the introduction of Sykes through a zoom-out of his car, and the “Good Company” number where Jenny plays the piano and sings to Oliver). The musical numbers are catchy with “Why Should I Worry” sung by Dodger, and “Perfect Isn’t Easy” sung by Bette Midler’s pampered poodle Georgette in a show-stopping ditty. The characters are likable and fun, as flawed as they may be. The group of dogs in Fagin’s gang, which include fast-talking chihuahua, Tito (Cheech Marin), not-so-bright great dane, Einstein (Richard Mulligan), theatre-loving bulldog, Francis (Roscoe Lee Browne), and sassy Saluki, Rita (Sheryl Lee Ralph) are hilarious and enjoyable, with Francis and Tito being the standouts. While Sykes makes for one of the most terrifying Disney villains, due to his methods of villainy being realistic and serious when compared to other villains in the Disney canon. While his doberman pinschers, Roscoe and DeSoto are intimidating henchmen.
As a kid, I enjoyed Oliver & Company. As an adult, I still enjoy it! I consider it to be one of my favorite Disney movies for being what it is, a fun, jazzy Disney movie that eats, sleeps, and breathes the city life, and I would have loved seeing it in a theater.