Disney Does Dickens: Oliver and Company

Despite my love of animals, I hadn’t seen Oliver and Company until this project. It never really appealed to me, for some odd reason. Perhaps I could tell by the previews and trailers that it just wasn’t up my alley. There are a lot of wonderful aspects about it, but it isn’t one I think I’ll watch again and again, like many of the other films from this project.
            I haven’t read “Oliver Twist” so I can’t say how much Disney strays from the original. I think it’s a nice thought to imagine that perhaps some kids, who liked this film, will one day read the original. Disney specializes in adaptations; they truly make the material available to a wider audience and introduce the original to that same broad audience. They have to adapt the material for young kids, but saying Disney butchers any classic is unfair. Many people, trying to set themselves apart as different, say they dislike Disney because their adaptations alter the original material, often adjusting adult topics to be suitable for young audiences. First of all, every adaptation will differ from the original; that’s why it’s called an adaptation. Different mediums require different adjustments. Many who read a book and then see a movie based on the book prefer the book version. That doesn’t always mean the studio destroyed the original in adapting it; it means more people are now aware of the original. Secondly, how many kids could tell you the basic plot of classic fairy tales, books and folk lore without the help of Disney? From Snow White to Dickens to Johnny Appleseed, these characters have come alive in children’s imaginations and inspire them, as they grow, to seek out the original. Different isn’t bad, it’s just different.
            Back to Oliver, the cuddly little kitten who finds his way into a thieving band of outcasts. The opening of the film is heartbreaking, as each of Oliver’s brothers and sisters find new homes, with only him remaining. His struggle during a rainstorm and finding food and safety in New York City are equally heartbreaking. Then Dodger comes along, and you have a little bit of hope. The problem is that one song later, that hope is dashed and you want to bump Dodger on the behind with a newspaper for being such a meanie-face.
Poor sad little Oliver.
            Dodger tricks Oliver into helping him, then refuses to share the reward. Oliver, being the spunky cat that he is, refuses to be ignored, and follows Dodger home. He finds his way into this family of homeless dogs, and a man (the voice of Itchy from All Dogs Go to Heaven, actually), who trick and thieve to stay alive. The man owes money to the villain, who has two scary looking Dobermans that are equally mean to the misfit gang.
            When the film was originally pitched, it was meant to be a sequel to The Rescuers. When that didn’t work out, all that was left was a New York setting and a little girl who looks remarkable like Penny, except her name is Jenny and her rich, jet-setting parents are never home. Her sadness is palpable, which makes the gang’s ‘rescue’ of Oliver, after Jenny finds him and sings the one good song in the movie to him and clearly loves him, all the worse. Oliver is separated from his person, which in every film with animals always makes me cry, and has to tell his old new-friends that his new-new friend needs him and is where his heart really lies. So sad.
Jenny and Oliver during the one good song in the movie.
            The downside is the Broadway-esque show dog that lives in Jenny’s house. I’m not sure whose pet she’s supposed to be, but Georgette does not like Oliver and helps to rid the house of him. Then a misguided Fagin, the homeless owner of the dog gang, decides he’ll ransom Oliver, since he’s there and Fagin is desperate. Sadly, Penny brings her piggy bank, and Georgette as protection, to the docks to Fagin in order to get Oliver back. She is then kidnapped by the villain, who is always smoking and was apparently a linebacker before becoming a loan shark, which also made me sad. Children being kidnapped is just too real these days, and I have trouble watching films that contain it without being heartbroken for the families it happens to. On top of that, Oliver and Jenny have just been reunited when their happy moment is destroyed by further separation.
            It’s always eerie to see films, live action or animated, set in New York before 9/11. The presence of the twin towers now is as jarring to me as their absence was after that tragic day. The look of the film is supposed to be reminiscent of 101 Dalmatians, but just looks outdated and sloppy. More CGI use was pioneered during this time, but it’s still not used frequently. Rotating camera shots, as opposed to straight-on shots, also occur during this film, improving the cinematography. Cinematographers also spent time photographing New York as a dog would see it—18 inches off the ground. This helped make the film much more believable. During Dodger’s first singing-in-the-street scene, dogs from the other Disney features make cameos. Pongo (101 Dalmatians)is most obvious, followed by characters from Lady and the Tramp.
            The music is very 1980’s, which dates the movie significantly. Music from the classics, such as Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Lion King are all still enjoyable to listen to, regardless of what decade you’re living during. But Oliver’s music is decidedly 80’s, which honestly I really don’t like. Sorry, Billy Joel, but your Disney music let me down. Billy Joel also voiced Dodger, which is great. It’s just the music that’s lacking, and it’s only because after living during the 80’s and both mini-comebacks, I’m rather 80’s’d out.
            The one thing I really enjoyed about Oliver is the characterization. Each dog and person you meet is clearly an individual, from the Shakespeare loving Francis, to the salsa loving Tito, to the intellectually challenged Einstein. The characters are much more real because individual dogs do have individual personalities; it was especially nice to see that in a film.

            I love animal movies, especially dog movies, and while Oliver was enjoyable, it wasn’t repeat-enjoyable for me. I liked it well enough for once, but I don’t feel like I’ll be losing anything by not watching it again for a few years or decades.

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