'Oliver & Company' Is a Sketchy Movie
Disney's last pre-Renaissance film demonstrates that it's always darkest before the dawn.
The first Disney animated movie I saw in a theater was Oliver & Company in 1988. It was also the last Disney animated movie before The Little Mermaid became part of our world, pulling the studio out of the depths and into a Renaissance.
Unaware of the greatness to come—unaware of many things, really, considering I was 5 years old—I loved Oliver & Company when it came out. But I don’t think I ever rewatched the movie in full. The highlights were included on one of the Disney Sing-Along Songs videos, which I watched repeatedly as a child. But not the full movie. I barely remembered anything beyond a couple of songs.
So, I watched it recently. And how does it hold up?
Well, I correctly remembered that Billy Joel’s song, “Why Should I Worry?,” is the high point of the whole movie. It occurs early on, and it is wonderful.
Enjoy that excellent song, because it’s all downhill from there.
Oliver & Company isn’t terrible, and it has some nice moments. However, the animation looks like something a fledgling studio cobbled together to start making a name for itself. This is definitely not Disney in its prime.
The movie opens with a sketch, more or less.
And no, that’s not just a clever way of fading in.
Some scenes continue to look a little sketchy at various points throughout. The early Disney films were labors of love, and it shows in the elegant animation. But 1988 doesn’t look nearly as good as 1937 did.
In the interest of fairness, though, many scenes do incorporate various background details, such as litter.
Spoilers ahead, in case, by astonishing coincidence, I caught you moments before you were about to watch the 35-year-old movie for the first time.
Oliver & Company is basic kiddie fare. The songs are good fun—it’s got Billy Joel and Bette Midler, so they clearly weren’t skimping in the music department. Otherwise, there’s little effort to appeal to adults too, which certainly isn’t a requirement of a children’s movie (though it is always appreciated).
Young kitten Oliver searches for a home and winds up joining a group of dogs. These dogs help their human friend, Fagin, steal stuff so he can pay off his debts to the criminal Sykes, who threatens Fagin by choking him in a car window.
Like I said, basic kiddie fare.
When one job goes awry, a little girl from a wealthy family takes Oliver to her luxurious home. Girl and kitten bond during a musical montage as they both fill the hole in each other’s life.
But after the dogs mistakenly “rescue” Oliver from his happy new home, Fagin sees an opportunity to pay off his debts. He ransoms Oliver, but the wealthy grown-ups never get the ransom note. Instead, young Jenny shows up to the meeting spot, which of course is located in a dangerous part of town. After talking with this sad, innocent child, Fagin’s heart grows three sizes and he returns Oliver at no charge.
Naturally, Sykes arrives at that very moment and kidnaps Jenny. He holds her hostage while he makes ransom demands of her family (or her family’s butler, rather, as it’s implied that Jenny’s folks aren’t exactly helicopter parents). Fortunately, Oliver and Company show up and save the day. And during their escape, a train runs over Sykes and he dies a violent, fiery death. You know, exactly like you’d expect in a kiddie movie. But don’t worry. They don’t show his charbroiled, decapitated remains—they leave that to kids’ imaginations.
So the movie gives us gritty late-’80s New York City, theft, kidnapping, extortion, brutal death, and heartwarming friendship.
Take note that the villain is an ordinary criminal while the heroes are highly sophisticated animals who possess human cognitive functions. So the bad guy is someone you could potentially encounter out in the real world, but the heroes are pure fantasy, leaving us with the following message:
Villains = Real.
Heroes = Imaginary.
But why should we worry? Why should we care?
I thought the old Disney movies were dark by today’s standards, but I evidently failed to remember my own childhood. How dark is too dark for a movie aimed at young children? What’s the balance between respecting kids’ intelligence and not giving them nightmares for the next few years? Fraggle Rock, perhaps, but beyond that, I don’t know.
This movie apparently didn’t scar me for life when I watched it as a kindergartener. Nevertheless, I’m guessing that Oliver & Company is probably not a good candidate for a live-action remake.
Speaking of Sketchy …
The YouTube algorithms decided I needed to see this:
Remember, kids: If a strange man tries to sell you a number 8, tell him you already have other numbers. It’s even more effective than just saying “no.”
The musical is great, and the book is better:
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I remembered loving "Why Should I Worry" as a kid, but I recently sat down to rewatch Oliver & Company with my daughter and had to turn it off. I forgot how dark it was! It was a little much for her current age.
Great pop culture analysis as always, Daniel. You're right about this Disney entry's core problems. Truly one of the weakest entries in the "Disney canon."