Disney has a history of taking stories and books and changing them to make them more family friendly. Cinderella lost the cutting off of body parts and added in talking mice. Robin Hood had animals and made everything a merry gay time. But in some ways, Oliver and Company might be one of the most drastic departures from source material, and I’m including The Hunchback of Notre Dame in that statement.
Oliver and Company is taken from Dickens’ Oliver Twist, but this time with talking animals in Manhattan. Oliver (Joey Lawrence) is an orphaned kitten being sold from a box on a New York City street corner. After a rough rainy night, he meets a dog named Dodger (Billy Joel), and assists the canine in stealing some hot dogs. Upset that he doesn’t get any, Oliver follows Dodger to a boat on the docks, where Dodger lives with Tito (Cheech Marin), Einstein (Richard Mulligan), Francis (Roscoe Lee Browne) and Rita (Sheryl Lee Ralph). Oliver crashes through the roof and is adopted by Fagin (Dom DeLuise), a shady petty thief who owes money to Sykes (Robert Loggia). Sykes gives Fagin three days to repay his loan, so Fagin’s gang goes into town to try to ripoff some people.
After faking a car accident with the dogs, Oliver is adopted by Jenny (Natalie Gregory), who is the daughter of very wealthy people. Oliver, meantime, has to deal with Georgette (Bette Midler), the dog for Jenny’s family. However, Fagin’s gang decides to get Oliver, which then leads Fagin to get the idea of ransoming Oliver so that he can get the money to pay back Sykes.
This is of course a very sanitized version. Sykes, clearly based on Bill Sikes, is still evil, but does not have a prostitute girlfriend whom he beats to death. Fagin is made to be nicer, but he’s still a criminal with a gang that does his bidding. Mr. Brownlow seems to have Jenny as a stand-in, and everyone is nicer than their book counterpart.
But the failings of the film happen to be that it feels like a movie that is maybe only enjoyable for a child. As an adult, the biggest problem with the movie is that Fagin’s gang are a bunch of criminals and there really isn’t any of them that are appealing characters. They might posses a bit of a lovable rouge quality, but they aren’t even intriguing antiheros, although I would love it if Rita had gotten more screen time.
The only characters that get a decent amount of screen time that seem to be interesting are Oliver and Jenny. But then again, Oliver and Jenny seem to have a lot in common. The former is orphaned and is still trying to get his feet under him, without having much of a family. Jenny has parents, but they travel a lot and she seems to have more of a familial bond with her butler. This can help explain why the two get along so well because they both fulfill a need for a family in each other’s lives.
J.A.C. Redford’s music is fairly good, particularly with the catchy “Why Should I Worry?” But the music sometimes feels a little too clever, with lyrics such as “It’s raining cats and dogs outside” in the prologue number, “Once Upon a Time in New York City.” In the realm of Cute Little Animal Sidekicks, Tito fulfills the role even though most of the characters in this film are animals because Tito is loud and crazy, fitting the typical characterization of Cute Little Animal Sidekick. However, unlike some Cute Little Animal Sidekicks where you find yourself wish ill will on them because of how annoying they are, you feel sorry for Tito when he gets electrocuted multiple times.
As time has passed, Oliver and Company might prove to be an enjoyable film for children, but it’s not maybe a good movie to go back and revisit as an adult.