Oliver & Company continues the Disney Renaissance in good style. Taking a popular story and adapting it for the screen without binding themselves too much to the source material is a tried and true Disney tactic. With the addition of celebrity voice talents and the courage to return to the Disney formula of story-telling, Oliver was perfectly suited to steal the hearts of a generation.
But the film still has its drawbacks as the studio prepared for a full-on animation rebirth. The Black Cauldron was still fresh in everyone’s memory and even with the success of The Great Mouse Detective, the best from that project were already hard at work on The Little Mermaid, slated for a 1989 release In fact, one of the lead animators and the brains behind the computer-generated clock tower sequence in The Great Mouse Detective, Michael Peraza, was tapped to lead the design team on The Little Mermaid at the wrap party for Mouse Detective. Work started shortly thereafter.
That left many of the same brains who worked on Black Cauldron, including art director Dan Hansen, director George Scribner and several story writers, as the team of second stringers working on Oliver & Company as a stop-gap until Ariel could take centre stage the following year.
Some of the darker ambitions of the Black Cauldron team can still be felt in this film. It’s difficult to place the deaths of cartoon villains on a scale of scariness and awfulness. Snow White‘s wicked witch fell off a cliff and then had a boulder fell on her. Maleficent was stabbed through the heart, though she was in her dragon form at the time. Cruella De Vil is involved in a car crash of her own making.
But overall, most Disney villains see the error of their ways and reform, or are punished without having to actually die. Cinderella’s wicked stepmother is simply abandoned. Captain Hook continues to be afraid of the crocodile and even in The Fox and the Hound, the hunter is simply injured into humility. But starting with The Black Cauldron, a trend of astonishingly morbid deaths takes over the studio. As the Skeleton King is slowly sucked into the Black Cauldron, his skin and bones disintegrate and he is burned into oblivion. In Oliver, the henchmen — a pair of intimidating dobermans — are electrocuted on the subway tracks one by one until an oncoming train obliterates Sykes in a smoky, fiery wreckage. It’s easily the most violent piece of animation to ever grace a Disney feature production to that point.
But unlike Black Cauldron, the music and characters of Oliver & Company are upbeat and loveable. The opening number, “Once Upon a Time in New York City,” is the first contribution from lyricist Howard Ashman to the Disney family, a man who would later contribute such timeless tunes as “Under the Sea” and “Be Our Guest.” Star voices from Bette Midler and Billy Joel added a celebrity attraction to the film and personality that made the characters all the more enjoyable. “Why Should I Worry?” is still a recognizable song today.
The company also continued to integrate computer animation into the film. While the character animation remained hand drawn, Fagan’s scooter and Sykes’s car were both drawn entirely on computers and then hand-drawn characters were placed on top of them. Much of the chatter around the film’s release was centered on the new technology being used in animation, as The New York Times boasted in an interview with Jeffrey Katzenberg that there are up to 11 minutes of “computer-assisted imagery.”
Critically, the film, based on the Charles Dickens classic about an orphan recruited by a group of street thieves, was a bit of a flop. With only a 44% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s far below most other Disney animated feature releases. Critics disagreed with the style of animation and the script-writing, which they said lacked focus and originality.
The box office, however, didn’t care. On a $4-million budget, it recouped the entire amount in its opening weekend, eventually totalling a life-time gross of $74-million. However, its opening weekend at the end of November, 1988, saw Oliver beaten by Ernest Saves Christmas, Child’s Play and The Land Before Time — rival Don Bluth’s latest work.
Oliver & Company is not the studio’s best work. But it did see a second string of animators, writers and directors taking their stab at leading a team, and in that they succeeded tremendously well, providing a nice infusion of cash and publicity in advance of the next major release in less than a year. With a playful attitude toward characters, being a bit more adventurous with setting and design and re-embracing the musical format, even Disney’s second-best were again learning how to lead the industry.