THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Oliver & Company’

The one that paved the way for Disney’s revival.

With the release of The Black Cauldron out of the way and production close to wrapping on The Great Mouse Detective, Disney CEO Michael Eisner and head of Walt Disney Pictures Jeffrey Katzenberg were ready to finally oversee their first animated productions. While Eisner was still flirting with the idea of shutting the costly animation department down, newly-appointed Vice President of Animation Peter Schneider promised bigger and better things were to come.

In a bid to uncover that next big thing, Eisner, Katzenberg, and Schneider invited the entire animation team to pitch potential ideas for future animated features. The first workshop meeting was held in 1985 and soon became known as the “Gong Show,” a reference to the popular 1970s amateur talent show. It was at this meeting that directors Ron Clements and John Musker first suggested the idea of an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, which we’ll get to in the next piece.

As Katzenberg surveyed the room for further ideas, story artist Pete Young blurted out, “Oliver Twist with dogs!” In a twist of fate, Katzenberg had been developing a remake of the 1968 Oscar-winning musical Oliver! in his previous role as president of production at Paramount Pictures, which failed to materialise before his departure. To Young’s amazement, Katzenberg loved the idea and immediately approved the pitch.

Under the working title Oliver and the Dodger, Katzenberg assigned animator George Scribner to direct the project, with Young appointed as story supervisor alongside several young story artists including future Pixar superstar Joe Ranft. In one of Disney’s loosest adaptations to date, Young and his team used the barebones of Charles Dickens’ classic novel and essentially created an entirely new modern narrative, starring a menagerie of streetwise animals and set in 1980s New York City.

In Disney’s adaptation, Oliver became a naive, abandoned kitten who crosses paths with laidback street dog Dodger, his gang of misfit hounds, and Fagin, their pickpocket boss who is heavily in debt with nefarious loan shark and shipyard boss Sykes. After a fateful meeting, Oliver is adopted by Jenny Foxworth, the daughter of one of New York’s wealthiest families, inspired by Mr. Brownlow from the original novel and Penny from Disney’s The Rescuers. After Fagin recognises Oliver’s new collar, he plans a scheme to elicit money from the Foxworth family to repay his debts.

Initially, the film was due to be much darker, with Oliver seeking vengeance for the murder of his parents by Syke’s two Doberman henchmen, Roscoe and DeSoto. After the failure of The Black Cauldron, Eisner and Katzenberg were anxious about the studio releasing another dark tale and encouraged the writing team to craft a more family-friendly picture. Newly-appointed chairman of the animation department Roy E. Disney suggested a plotline involving Fagin attempting to steal a rare panda from the Central Park Zoo, but the story team felt the ransom narrative worked best in the context of Dickens’ world.

After animators dabbled with computer-generated imagery on both The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective, Eisner saw the potential in the new technology and invested $15 million in a long-term system called Computer Animation Production System, commonly known as CAPS. The system would soon revolutionise the entire animation department and offer animators the chance to animate sequences like never before. For now, it was utilised for around 12 minutes of the newly-titled Oliver & Company, namely the creation of New York’s skyscrapers, sequences involving taxi cabs and Fagin’s scooter, Georgette’s musical number, and the climactic subway chase.

To create templates as reference points for the animators, Scribner spent several weeks blocking out scenes on the streets of New York City and photographing them with cameras mounted only 18 inches off the ground. The director wanted to echo the ingenious visual aesthetic of Lady and the Tramp where sequences were animated from a dog’s eye perspective. The production team also utilised urban planning maps provided by architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merril to create an authentic recreation of New York’s famous skyline. Fun fact – in 2019, SOM would be the firm responsible for designing The Walt Disney Company’s new head office in lower Manhattan.

For the first time in years, Disney sought an all-star cast to perform the characters of Oliver & Company, particularly those who personified New York City. In the lead role of Dodger, Scribner’s envisioned pop singer Billy Joel, despite the fact Joel had never acted before. Scribner felt Joel typified Dodger’s street-smart attitude and pitched the idea to the singer, who auditioned via telephone, due to his busy tour schedule. For the role of Oliver, child actor Joey Lawrence was cast in only his second theatrical role. Just a few years later, Lawrence would become a massive teen heartthrob, thanks to his role on the hugely popular NBC television series Blossom.

Scribner filled the rest of his cast with New York natives Bette Midler, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Roscoe Lee Browne. Comedian Cheech Marin was cast as the overly-energetic chihuahua Tito, with the actor encouraged to ad-lib much of his performance. Marin would soon become a staple of the Disney animated world, providing voices for The Lion King, Cars, and Coco. For the role of main villain Sykes, Eisner desperately wanted Marlon Brando for the role, sending the legendary actor an impassioned letter offering him the part. Brando turned Eisner down, fearing the film would be a huge bomb. The role was instead played by veteran character actor Robert Loggia.

Under the insistence of Katzenberg, Scribner enlisted a host of big-name singer/songwriters for the film’s soundtrack, with the likes of Joel, Barry Manilow, Ruth Pointer, and Huey Lewis each contributing one track. Working closely with Midler, Manilow wrote her character, Georgette, an extravagant musical number entitled “Perfect Isn’t Easy.” At the suggestion of music producer David Geffen, Katzenberg enlisted up-and-coming lyricist Howard Ashman to compose the film’s opening number, “Once Upon a Time in New York City,” performed by Lewis. Ashman would soon become one of the driving forces behind Disney’s renaissance period.

Oliver & Company was released on November 18, 1988, to relatively mixed reviews. Roger Ebert described the film as “harmless and inoffensive,” while The Washington Post called it a “happy adaptation of the Victorian classic.” The film opened the same weekend in the U.S. as former Disney animator Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time, which debuted at number one with $7.5 million, while Oliver & Company languished in fourth with $4 million. However, Oliver & Company proved to be the bigger hit overall, taking $53 million during its initial run, compared to $46 million for The Land Before Time.

When Oliver & Company went on to become the first animated film to gross more than $100 million worldwide during its initial release, the studio declared the film was the mark of a new age of Disney animation. Its surprise success promoted Katzenberg and Schneider to announce the company was increasing its animation staff and the studio would now release one new animated film every year, harkening back to the early days when Walt Disney pushed for the same goal.

Like every Disney animated film, Oliver & Company would stand as the first cinema experience for many children. As such, it holds a strong place in the hearts of people aged between 35-40 and has somewhat of a cult following with older millennials. Have a quick Google and you’ll find numerous articles defending this film as a classic piece of Disney animation and the film that truly started its renaissance period. When the film is viewed with a 21st-century perspective, it’s hard to agree with such sentiments.

By setting Oliver & Company in the 1980s, the film is terribly dated, particularly its retro musical numbers and saxophone-heavy score, which are both rather ghastly nowadays. It’s rare to see Disney set an animated film in present-day, and Oliver & Company proves why it’s a risky move to make. That being said, the film moved the studio back towards crafting musically-minded animated films, which would prove to be the key to their success in over the next two decades.

While its narrative leaves a lot to be desired and its saccharinely sweet plot is borderline nauseating, Oliver & Company does feature plenty of gorgeous visual moments, particularly its meticulous recreation of New York City. From the skylines to the streets, the animators took great care with bringing their animated version of the Big Apple to life in spectacular fashion. Much of the computer-generated imagery just feels like the animators showing off what computers were capable of (did we really need a full three-dimensional tour of Syke’s town car?), but it laid the foundation for where computer-animation was heading.

Sadly, the entire film is rather forgettable and really quite difficult to endure. If Oliver & Company was your first foray into the world of cinema, it’s natural to feel a special connection to the film. And that’s perfectly fine. As a family-friendly tour of New York City with a bevy of animals as your guide, it works quite well. But as an engaging and captivating piece of feature-length animation, it simply doesn’t match what Disney were about to unleash on the world. A little mermaid named Ariel is ready to make a splash.

Is Oliver & Company a Disney Classic? While some may argue Oliver & Company truly started the Disney Renaissance, the finesse and substance of the films to come simply isn’t here. By setting the film in the now-retro 1980s, the film is robbed of the chance to be truly timeless. And that is the cornerstone of what constitutes a genuine Disney Classic.

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