01 August 2012

Disney Daze: Week 27: Oliver & Company

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

If The Rescuers can be viewed as the Disney studio's "seventies picture" with its drab demeanor and stilted delivery, than 1988's Oliver & Company is undoubtably the film that most effectively encapsulates the following decade. All of the excess, greed, and bad style associated with the eighties are on full display in Oliver & Company. The film would feel as woefully out of place playing to audiences of the thirties or fifties--who to their immense luck were bestowed with such great works as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Alice in Wonderland--as it would be to audiences discovering the films just a few short years after its release, following the heralded artistic renaissance brought upon by Oliver & Company's immediate successors. 

The film is a retelling of Charles Dickens' canonical Oliver Twist, which by the release of Disney's take had been told in practically every conceivable medium and style. The twist (ahem) of Disney's version is as to expected, simply turning the protagonists into animals. Oliver is portrayed as an unwanted alley kitten who is picked up by a gang of mangy dogs led by the cool mutt Dodger. If you want proof of the film's eighties essence look no further than the roll call of talent providing the voices for these characters. Oliver is given life by none other than Blossom heartthrob Joey Lawrence, while Dodger gets immortalized by the Piano Man himself, Mr. Billy Joel. Bette Midler plays a preening poodle and Dom DeLuise plays Fagin as a nervous and clumsy bum. Worst of all, Cheech Marin appears, overstays his welcome as an irascible, annoying, amplified ethnic stereotype of a chihuahua named Ignacio Alonzo Julio Federico de Tito. Yep.

The film opens on a shot of the island of Manhattan, the twin towers prominently displayed on the skyline as are numerous advertisements for Coca-Cola, USA Today, Kodak and other multinational corporations. Seeing product placement in live action films is at worst distracting, but in an animated film it provides discomfort on a completely different level. One thinks of the poor animator who adored cartoons as a kid and had one simple dream--to work for the creators of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. He or she probably went to Cal Arts, where they excelled with their expert draftsmanship or fluid style. Shortly after graduation their dream was realized and they were invited to work in Burbank at the studio that Walt Disney himself designed following the booming success of Snow White. However, the stark reality soon set in as one of the first assignments for this fresh-faced young animator was to accurately copy the corporate logo of Ryder rental trucks at the studio's behest, all in the name of "realism". Realism in a film with talking animals that commute through a bustling metropolis by standing on the hoods of moving vehicles and belting out terrible songs.

This early musical sequence above is the worst scene in this thoroughly lackluster film. This is where all of the bad ideas that went into this gargantuan undertaking of human endeavor came to a head. As usual, there is an episode of The Simpsons that sums it up best. The perennial afternoon cartoon Itchy & Scratchy is losing viewers, so the producers decide to introduce a new character to drum up interest in the show. They want a character that speaks to the youth of today, what with their skateboards, their rap music, and all of that nascent attitude oozing out everywhere. They engineer a creation named Poochie, a dog that every kid witnessing his awkward debut immediately despises. Poochie is Dodger at the beginning of Oliver and Company. Dodger sums up his Weltanschaaung by singing (remember this is Billy Joel rocking out) a truly terrible tune called "Why Should I Worry?" while wearing sunglasses and wreaking havoc upon New York City commuters. The scene is cut like a music video which reminds one of Paula Abdul's "Opposites Attract" video more so than say, "Someday My Prince Will Come".

As a bit of backhanded fortune, the musical number, as previously mentioned, is the worst section of the film. From there the movie has nowhere to go but up. The only question is, how much higher? Unfortunately there are only a few bright spots that distinguish themselves in the ensuing hour. There is another musical number, "Good Company", which is sung by the rich child Jenny who takes Oliver in after he is separated from the gang, that transcends the canned pop of the other tunes on the soundtrack. The song is reminiscent of "Scales and Arpeggios" from The Aristocats which shares a conceit of being borne from rudimentary piano lessons. The song is a far cry from the masterpieces previously associated with the studio but when the pickings are slim, the gems are a little more rough around the edges.

The animation is mostly rote but there are a couple of interesting, if not necessarily inspiring, elements on display. There is an increased use of computer-generated animation that allows for some interesting panning and camera angles. At one point a behemoth of an automobile engulfs the frame, the camera trained on its lines and massive body. The most worthwhile animation however is the design of the human characters. The creations, particularly Fagin and a food vendor seen briefly in the beginning, are exaggerated in a way reminiscent of the look of a classic Warner Bros. short. There is a playfulness to the lines that gives the characters a looser, more elastic feel.

The film ends in surprisingly violent fashion. The villainous loan shark Sykes kidnaps Jenny and end up chasing the dogs and Fagin through the city streets. The action sequence is mostly squandered due to really poor editing and staging. One never gets a sense of where exactly the characters are in relation to one another or their surroundings. However the scene shocks a complacent viewer when Sykes's two Dobermans are thrown onto the subway track's third rail and are seen electrocuting in the distance. Sykes himself meets a similarly brutal demise shortly thereafter when his car smashes into an oncoming train, bursting into a fireball before falling off a bridge and down into the Hudson River. It is rather odd how flippantly these gruesome deaths are dealt with by the protagonists. The heroes just cheer their victory and they all live happily ever after, never once commenting or reflecting on the violence they were partly responsible for. As Dodger intones once more in a reprise of the opening song, "why should I care? I've got street savoir faire". The question is an appropriate one for those watching the events onscreen. Why pray tell, should we care?

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