Hey man, if this is torture, chain me to the wall.
After the minor success that was 1986's The Great Mouse Detective, Disney's animation department was given a new lease on life. CEO Michael Eisner and chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg enacted a highly ambitious policy, one that planned for the studio to release one animated film per year. That kind of workflow was unprecedented since the Golden Age, but it was this push for quality and quantity in equal amounts that soon lead to the Disney Renaissance. So in 1988, Oliver & Company was the first of these "one a year" projects, and despite being a hit in theaters (even bigger than its Bluth rival The Land Before Time), it was received with lukewarm fanfare and is nothing but a forgotten footnote today. I have more affinity for Oliver & Company than it deserves, but something about the uber-80s New York feel is so charming. The voice over talent is really solid, and the content pushes that G rating in the same ways The Great Mouse Detective did. I would never try to convince anyone that Oliver & Company is an underrated masterpiece, or that it holds a candle to Disney's best work, but there's a certain likability to the characters, setting, and music that makes it all work.
The story features a little neglected kitten named Oliver (Joey Lawrence) as he tries to make his way through the means streets of New York City. Along the way, he meets a streetwise dog named Dodger (Billy Joel), who is the epitome of cool. He wears sunglasses, walks with a swagger, and just plain doesn't give a shit. He even sings a song about it. Oliver follows him home where to where his "gang" hangs out, among which are the likes of a feisty chihuahua named Tito (Cheech Marin) and thespian bulldog named Francis (Roscoe Lee Browne). The dogs are owned by Fagin (Dom DeLuise), a borderline homeless man who owes a huge sum of money to a gangster named Sykes (Robert Loggia). He can't feed himself, yet he tries his best to provide for his dogs (mostly by training them to be pickpockets of sorts). On his first day out petty thieving, Oliver ends up in the car of a rich little girl named Jenny (Natalie Gregory), who promptly adopts him. He runs into some resistance at Jenny's place in the form of her pedigree poodle Georgette (Bette Midler), who can't fathom sharing the spotlight with a mangy kitten.
When I say, "makes it all work," I don't mean that the film works in the ways the creators intended it. The very idea of taking Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist and making it "hip and edgy" while throwing talking animals into the mix is gimmicky as hell. But it's so unironically committed to that gimmick that it's actually kind of charming, albeit in a "so bad it's good" kind of way. Narratively, the film is overstuffed with characters and subplots; Oliver barely feels like the main character in his own story. I would have much preferred the film to focus on Dodger and Oliver's relationship and eschew the other dog characters (save for Tito, who steals the show with ease). It seems like the emotional crux of the film should have hinged on Oliver making a choice between living a carefree but tough life on the streets and a safer, pampered existence on Fifth Avenue. But the film is more concerned with slapstick humor and Fagin coming up with the money to pay off Sykes, which might have made a fine movie all on its own. Instead, these two plots share the film's 75-minute runtime, stuffing it with side characters that exist mostly for their one-note jokes.
The hand-drawn animation really shows the next generation of Disney animators having tons of fun and pushing the limits of what animation could do at the time. The character animation is full of energy, perhaps not capturing the animal nuance seen in Lady and the Tramp, but pushes for more cartoonish, broad emotions. A little Looney Tunes-style comedy never hurt anyone, and the visual jokes work a lot better than the written ones. The scenes between Fagin and Sykes are dark and stylish; anything to do with Sykes is really striking and memorable. His menacing sneers, imposing size, and perpetual cloud of cigar smoke make him a visually memorable villain, if not necessarily a great character. Like The Great Mouse Detective, he CG animation used on objects and vehicles throughout the film is achieved by animating the objects, printing them out on paper, and combining the hand-drawn characters by photographing it all on hand-painted cels. The result is seamless blending, allowing Dodger to strut through a New York City full of moving parts and helping make the climactic chase scene through a subway tunnel more visceral. I can't say anything reaches the levels of Mouse Detective's clocktower scene, but a particular shot of Dodger jumping on cars in traffic makes the city feel so alive and captures the feeling of being there.
The original songs are a bit of a mixed bag. I actually kind of love "Once Upon a Time in New York City" and "Why Should I Worry," but "Perfect Isn't Easy" and "Streets of Gold" are bland and forgettable, and I actively hate the saccharine "Good Company" and the "Why Should I Worry" reprise. So unfortunately from my perspective, the songs get worse as the film goes on. "Why Should I Worry" has some of that "so bad it's good," qualities about it, as the song really pushes how cool Dodger is and how amazing his life is. That being said, it's a really catchy song and the animation is at it's best here. It would be a better moment if this was setting up a character dynamic between Dodger and Oliver that pays off at some point, like Dodger's question, "Why should I worry?" gets answered in the form of him becoming a pseudo-big brother. But, as the horrendous hodgepodge of a reprise lets you know at the end, these dogs still don't give a shit, and why should they? It's incredible what a giant leap forward The Little Mermaid would be musically only one year later, when Alan Menken and Howard Ashman teamed up to write some of Disney's all-time best songs.
I can always appreciate a little darkness in my animated Disney movies, and Oliver certainly has a bit of that. The ending chase scene is surprisingly brutal; a dog gets electrocuted when he hits the third rail, and Sykes's death, while left mostly up to the imagination, is still surprisingly intense. I've read that the film was initially intended to be much edgier; Oliver's parents would be murdered by Sykes's dobermans at the start, and the subsequent story would focus on Oliver's revenge. Sounds a bit more interesting, no? With a bit less forced sweetness in the Jenny relationship, less side characters, and more character development from Oliver and Dodger, this movie might have been great. Some moments of heart do manage to shine during Oliver & Company, the best of which is probably when Fagin reads a bedtime story to his dogs, who are clearly all he has in the world. The opening scene of Oliver being the last kitten in a "free kittens" box left sitting out in the rain is also kind of a heartbreaking moment. So depending on who you are, the buckets of '80s cheese and charm alone might just make it worth the watch.