Directed by George Scribner
Written by committees with their own subcommittees, apparently
It's sometimes said that there are no bad concepts, only bad execution; the first film produced from start to finish by Walt Disney Feature Animation following its renaming and reorganization under the new leadership of Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Peter Schneider—a certain Oliver & Company—is one of the most persuasive arguments to the contrary you'll ever see. Its concept caught Katzenberg's attention amidst a rapid-fire pitch session that he and Eisner called their "Gong Show" (and the rest clearly had no legs at all—an animated adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen? where's the audience for that?). The idea, blurted out by Pete Young and quite possibly conceived right there in the moment, was a loose riff on Dickens's Oliver Twist, except with a Disney gloss. And so now the urchin Oliver (Joey Lawrence) was a cat; the gang he fell in with were dogs; and they're being led by a human, who uses them to commit... well, some kind of crime, anyway, though I don't know if even Young himself could explain how, for despite no fewer than thirteen credited writers—even despite Eisner and Katzenberg's crazy innovation that somebody put the whole story down into something called "a screenplay," that is, despite the kind of conventional story development process that was supposed to protect audiences against this kind of nonsense—it is never even slightly clear how Fagin (Dom DeLuise) uses them to do anything besides scavenge random garbage, though sometimes they steal delicious sausages links for themselves. I daresay that this is an atrociously bad concept—maybe if they were all dogs, maybe—but even so, as you've likely already guessed, the execution is pretty damn awful too.
That this is what didn't get "gonged," would, I think, have made any fan of Disney animation nervous in November 1988, such as they still existed in the back half of the studio's Bronze Age/Xerography Era/Dark Age. The thing is, Disney had managed to make a whole lot of new fans earlier that year, with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a bigger cultural phenomenon than the animation studio at Disney had generated in almost four decades. They didn't generate this one, either, really. Richard Williams and his animators in London did, with the assistance of executive producer Steven Spielberg, director Robert Zemeckis, and Katzenberg, who had championed it as the savior of animation at Disney anyway, and who had been driven half-nuts trying to keep costs down. He'd failed on the latter count, but Roger Rabbit had succeeded on the former, and it had convinced a dubious world that Disney could at least finance a blockbuster cartoon. Meanwhile, it had convinced Eisner that Roy E. Disney might've been right when he pled for the fate of his uncle's cartoon factory. And so while Roger Rabbit was wrangled into theaters—and while everyone involved pretended that certain promises made to Williams had never been binding, basically leaving the cantankerous, difficult animator to rot after they no longer needed him—Schneider kept busy at the new studio space in a warehouse in Glendale, executing Eisner and Katzenberg's ambitious plan for WDFA, very ambitious indeed considering they had arrived with the aim of closing the animation studio altogether, and the first product they'd been shown by the studio had been The Black freaking Cauldron.
That plan was to produce an animated feature every single year. To achieve it, Eisner and Katzenberg necessarily undertook the first serious expansion of the studio's labor force since, I think, 1939—and, despite Katzenberg's reputation for parsimony and Eisner's reputation for mid-budget successes, they were persuaded to loosen the pursestrings and give the studio more resources than it had had since 1959. They also recognized that the Disney animators were borderline-unemployable outside of Disney, and used that to their advantage even as their raw numbers increased. Likewise, the workplace culture also changed: there was a lot less goofing off for months at a time, not to say that Disney's employees were ever lazy, but until Katzenberg and Schneider rationalized their workflows and ensured that three cartoons would be in production at any given time, there was often not work to do. Well, there was certainly plenty of work now.
Oliver was in the vanguard of this revolutionary change at Disney, and good grief, does it feel like nothing had changed at all. The studio could've made substantially the exact same movie at any point in its history between 1961 and 1988, and indeed, it comes off like product in the worst way—one more iterative extension of the formula that had been prototyped for Disney's talking pet cartoons back with Lady and the Tramp and "perfected" (I guess) in 101 Dalmatians, before being slogged through hell and back in The Aristocats; the main distinction here is that it unites its human and animal characters in outstandingly idiotic ways. And yet: with the benefit of hindsight—a lot of hindsight—there's something (very) mildly exciting about Oliver, the same way that discovering a transitional fossil is exciting. Two things about it bring it closer to the ecstatic Disney still to come than the aimlessly flailing Disney it was born of: the first is its use of music, the second is the widespread employment of computers in its animation. It also has a stunning amount of poorly-calibrated celebrity casting. So three things, maybe, although Disney itself was usually fairly canny about its celebrity casting.
That first thing—the music—comes at us immediately. We won't notice how novel Oliver is for a little while yet, however; in fact, it comes off like nothing newer than the bid for hipness that began The Rescuers in 1977, the last time a pop singer opened up one of their cartoons. It was considerably hipper there, and in The Rescuers the song actually fit the singer, which is certainly not the case here, insofar as Huey Lewis was usually bland in specific enough ways to rise to the level of "genuine personality," and this can't even get that far. But this song—this very mediocre ballad, with not-very-good lyrics like "beginnings are contagious there," and bearing the drearily-unimaginative title "Once Upon a Time In New York City"—was written by one Howard Ashman. And Barry Mann. But the important part is that this was Ashman's first flirtation with the Disney machine that he would shortly do so much to re-engineer.
That song brings us to little Oliver, one of a large litter of kittens, offered for free to any passerby outside a pet store. When night falls, Oliver is the only one to remain, cold, alone, and, when a storm comes up, wet and swept out of his cardboard box and into the unforgiving streets. The next morning, he tries to mooch some food off a hot dog man, but has no luck until a streetwise dog—Dodger (Billy Joel)—takes an interest in his case. He exploits the kitten to snag the hot dogs for himself, but as Oliver realizes when he tracks the dog back to his lair in an abandoned boat down by the docks, Dodger's got a whole gang of dogs to feed, Rita, a saluki (Sheryl Lee Ralph with the singing voice of Ruth Pointer), Einstein, a great dane (Richard Mulligan), Francis, a bulldog (Roscoe Lee Browne), and Tito, a chihuahua (Cheech Marin). Oliver accidentally makes his presence known, and Dodger, impressed by his perspicacity, invites him to stay. This seems to be just fine with the grubby loser they work for, Fagin—he's literally in the same boat—but it's here that their troubles begin, as Fagin's boss, Sykes (Robert Loggia), demands in no uncertain terms the money Fagin owes him, with a deadline of just three days, or else. The pets are put into action, and in the midst of a scam, Oliver is picked up by Jenny (Natalie Gregory), a little rich girl who takes her new kitten back to 5th Avenue to be friends with her poodle, Georgette (Bette Midler). The gang "rescues" Oliver, whereupon Fagin gets the idea to ransom the kitten; but Sykes improves on Fagin's stupid plan by kidnapping Jenny, and Fagin, not a great guy but not that evil, along with his canine allies and Oliver, resolve to save the little girl they put into harm's way.
As this plays out, this isn't a story, it's a situation, 74 minutes of meandering fluff that strings together song sequences and about four plot points, that also doesn't even have the decency to be amusing on the kid's cartoon level it'd like to be met at; it's worthwhile to point out that Oliver opened against Sullivan Bluth and Amblin's The Land Before Time, which, if I'm being honest, has a lot in common with Oliver in terms of philosophy. (Oliver ultimately made more money, though Land Before Time beat the crap out it during their opening weekend—so did Child's Play and Ernest Saves Christmas—and this gratifies me, because they're all significantly better movies.) Both are built out of the DNA of a Saturday morning cartoon, but where Oliver trips up is that it doesn't even rise to that level with its characters, which are more like isolated gestures toward where each dog's one trait is supposed to go than any actual interaction between those traits. (It makes me depressed that they waste Mulligan as an unbelievably-generic "dumb one.") In some cases it's worse: Rita is the most "The Girl" character you'll ever behold, and Oliver is arguably even hollower than that. Land Before Time manages to feel like a magnificent feature film that just happens to be about Saturday morning cartoon characters; Oliver is the cartoon's pilot episode, for some unknown reason still stretched out to feature length. It leaves the whole cast with a big "TBD" next to them, and at best they capture some pose or attitude, which is nothing to be happy about when what that means in practice is that the Billy Joel dog wears sunglasses.
It's impossible to take seriously, of course: consider their scam on Jenny's driver. What was their plan? Were they going to steal a car? Tito was hotwiring it. I believe that, yes, these dogs were going to steal a car. And that's one big issue with Oliver, that it's completely bonkers without ever quite acknowledging it, let alone properly exploiting it. Another is it's not funny—like, almost literally never funny, and while I wouldn't be mad at you if you thought it was inappropriate for this children's film to have a rape joke in it (and it does: when confronted with Dodger for the first time, Georgette is sure he's there to take her roughly, and is rather offended when it turns out that he is not), this is also this children's film best joke, because by virtue of being such an ancient bit, it actually possesses the elements of a joke, rather than relying on the assumed comedy of very thin slapstick or, worse, really just the mere fact these animals are talking. As a result of this, vain Georgette is probably the only actual character in the whole cast—her one note is actually played, rather than just practiced—and I suppose this is why she's in the movie despite having zero plot function, and why her introduction gets a full length number of its own, "Perfect Isn't Easy."
Which brings us back to the music, and in this respect Oliver does presage the future, incorporating something very close to a full-on Broadway-style musical structure like no Disney film had before. Many if not most Disney cartoons had been musicals, but rarely if ever like this, with the music (theoretically, anyhow) used not just to provide setpieces, but to tell the story through the characters, and with a critical mass of songs rather than two or three thrown in to sell soundtrack records. The songs are not Broadway-style, although, other than Ashman's contribution, at least they're pop songs somewhat tailored to the celebrities who sing them. But the goals of the songs are Broadway-style. Now, it's clunky, and few of them are actually good—I would save that description solely for Joel's bouncy showcase, "Why Should I Worry?", which eventually finds its way into Joel's B-tier in its chorus, and while that sounds snarky I mean it as an honest compliment—but by being so heavily woven into the fabric of the story, they work pretty well, even though the story itself sucks. And hence, for example, "Perfect Isn't Easy": a frankly bad song that still does a great deal for the character it was written for.
It's also the beneficiary of maybe the most lavish animation in the film, but "lavish animation" is actually something that Oliver gets a lot of, at least in narrow ways. The actual character animation is... fine. It's rarely better than fine, and often pretty uninspired, doing the same low-camera tricks of Lady and the Tramp without the well-honed observation (Oliver thinks cats' ears collapse when they sleep), but it's never too bad even when it has the dogs doing silly things, like dancing on top of cars. The human animation is also fine, and arguably more interesting, though it's undercut by some of the most quotidian design in the Disney canon. It's usually appropriate: Fagin is a shambling mess who'd be pathetic even beyond the pathetic bits of business he gets (like uncomplainingly being fed a dog biscuit by one of his canine friends); Jenny is a quintessential cute widdle girl; Glen Keane's Sykes is plausibly the result of changes wrought upon a caricature of Jeffrey Katzenberg as a hulking monster to remove the more identifying features. (I guess "big meanie with a black crown of hair and glasses" could have been a coincidence.) But they're not especially compelling in and of themselves. The interesting part, then, is how little they look like Disney, and how much they lean into the thick black lines of xerography, and there are bits and pieces of design that really do feel like straining at the house style in preparation for the Renaissance, which broke in more intelligent and more fulfilling ways against the Nine Old Man-led draftsmanship that had defined Disney style since the 1940s. Well, either because Midler's performance gave them something to work with, or maybe because the prospect of drawing a dog sexy (the closest thing Oliver has to that kind of animator's appeal) was enough to keep them engaged, Georgette is by far the most dynamic figure, also the beneficiary of an angular design that works for "poodle" in and of itself, but also keeps her lines cleaner than the fluffier mutts of Dodger's pack. That said, Sykes's dobermans are well-built, scary beasts, though they could be much scarier: Oliver pulls punches that neither Tramp's nor The Fox and the Hound's animation did.
The real pride of Oliver's animation, anyhow, is everything else, and taken altogether, it really looks like no other Disney cartoon, before or since, even though it still points at both Disney's past and its future. The backgrounds are, in a sense, "just" 101 Dalmatians territory, though there's a weirdly immersive sense of place here, due to the fact they're traced over photographs done with the same sketchy techniques, and Oliver manages to do New York in '88 justice, a city as grimy as it is vivid. The objects that populate that city too: I said that Oliver depended on computers in ways that would become inextricable from Disney's production methods, but very little about the style seen in Oliver would be recognizable in later Disney, and in a lot of ways I even like Oliver's low-tech approach better. Oliver, obliged to use the same process as the climax of the final Disney film begun under Ron Miller's tenure, The Great Mouse Detective, it also had more money to throw at it, and so we get some very ambitious camera moves that would've been impossible without computers, and better still, we get a great deal of traced-over CGI, courtesy Tina Price and Michael Cedeno. It's integrated extraordinarily well into the scratchy backgrounds and the xeroxed character animation, and if there's a downside to any of this, it's only that they never do anything with it nearly as awesome as Detective's battle inside Big Ben. But it gives this version of New York a fascinatingly mechanized complexion—it was plainly easier to trace wireframe cars than draw crowds—and it finds a strangely profitable balance between the sketchy backdrops and CGI that's sleek but retains a deeply handcrafted feel. It also gives us this film's finale, which, I will say with some enthusiasm, is fucking insane, involving a madcap only-in-a-cartoon car chase through a subway tunnel (!), a lot of action across both vehicles thanks to our pets, and some pretty gnarly fates for the villains that are still technically "Disney deaths" but are startling in how little they leave to the imagination.
If the entire film had the willingness to own up to its own ridiculousness the way its ending does, and not only in a musical number or two, it might have actually been good. As it stands, it's actively terrible. But it has compensations, with some of the most idiosyncratic animation in the Disney canon, plus a decent Billy Joel song. For that, I can't hate it, though if Disney had kept at it like this—and the thing made a lot of money, briefly reigning as the highest-grossing cartoon ever—I don't think I'd be exaggerating to say that you'd have to scour the Earth to find anybody alive today who still gave a damn about Disney animation.
But, in 1989, the stars aligned, and the revolution finally arrived: you'd better believe the next Disney feature wasn't going to be another Oliver & Company.