Memories are a funny thing. What we choose to remember and forget really isn’t up to us. The brain just kind of erases and deletes things as it sees fit without any conscious thought or action. And when it comes to what we see and how we perceive our world, the brain has more say in that than we are often aware. The eyes allow one to see, but it’s the brain that has to decode the feed like a receiver and actually tell the body what is there. As a result, we can often remember things not how we saw them, but how we perceived them. It gets really interesting when trying to recall a first memory. I have a few that could be considered my first memory and they’re all from around age 2. The thing is though, I don’t know if these memories are real or if I’ve created them in just trying to reach back or from hearing a story. It can be kind of wild to really think about it, and perhaps I’m better off just accepting what my brain says are my earliest memories.
One early memory I’m pretty confident in is my first trip to a movie theater. I don’t know what went into it, where it was, or even what we did when there, but I do know that the first movie I ever saw in a theater was Disney’s Oliver & Company. Oliver & Company came out in 1988 so I would have been around 4 years old. Now everyone is used to films coming out on DVD or Blu Ray around six months after a film debuts in theaters. When I was a kid this was not the case at all. Some were released in about a year, but with Disney it was several years or not at all. Disney spent a ton of money on its animated films and many did not turn a profit during the initial theatrical run. Disney banked on theatrical re-releases to stay afloat so the company was very careful in what it released for the home market. This philosophy was in place until The Little Mermaid was released and the home video market was thriving. At that point, Disney had made a bunch of money already off the film and figured to make a whole lot more if it was available for Christmas. The Little Mermaid was the film that followed Oliver & Company. As such, Oliver & Company didn’t see a home video release until 1996, long after I stopped caring about Disney movies.
Because of Disney’s home video release schedule, when I sat down recently to watch my newly purchased copy of Oliver & Company on Blu Ray it was the first time I had seen the movie since I was four years old and in a theater for the first time. It was kind of a surreal experience as I watched this film. There were things I remembered, like Tito’s “Hey man, check it out,” line, and there were things I forgot I remembered like Dodger’s memorable “Why Should I Worry?” song. There were also many things I had completely forgotten. Before I sat down to watch the film a second time I could not have even begun to speculate on what the villain looked like. I probably would not have remembered the name of the little girl (Jenny) and I certainly would not have been able to recall any of the names of the other dogs in the picture. In many ways I felt like I was seeing the film for the first time, but there was an old familiarity there as well that created a rather warm experience.
Oliver & Company is probably not a film remembered by many. I wasn’t even aware of the Blu Ray release and I’m someone who is pretty plugged into these kinds of things. That’s not to say the film isn’t noteworthy for a few reasons. Most notably, it was the film that basically laid the groundwork for all of the Disney animated features to follow. Films that would prove to be far more successful than Oliver & Company (not that Oliver & Company wasn’t a success, it just wasn’t as big as the films to follow) like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. It was the first to really utilize that Broadway format of interspersing narrative and song in a very MTV like fashion. Sometimes the plot feels almost ancillary, as if it exists simply to move the film to the next music video. I’m not a fan of this approach, and as a result, I tend to prefer Disney’s older films to the modern ones but there are films that are able to succeed with this approach. Oliver & Company does, but on the most basic level. It’s harmless entertainment and it has a good heart but there’s no deep undercurrent to the plot or there really aren’t any big visual moments. The villain of the film is only ever lurking on the periphery. He’s menacing, but not on the level of any of the big villains to follow. This is partially due to the film’s short running time (74 minutes) and due to the fact that the story is a fairly simple one.
The protagonist of the film is a small orange kitten named Oliver trying to find a place for himself in the world. As indicated by the title, this is an adaptation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist but only loosely so. There are quite a few celebrities on the cast for this one including a young Joey Lawrence as Oliver. Billy Joel plays Dodger, a street-wise dog who is basically the alpha of a pack of thieving canines doing the bidding of the mostly harmless thief Fagin, played by Dom DeLuise. Cheech Marin plays Tito, the wise-cracking chihuahua and Bette Midler is a pampered poodle named Georgette. The cast does a good job with what they are given with Marin probably showing the best. The music is obviously a big part of the picture and the opening number “Once Upon a Time in New York City” is performed well by Huey Lewis. Joel’s number “Why Should I Worry?” is the star of the film. It starts off as a smooth jazz number before the heat gets turned up. It’s infectious. The rest of the musical numbers fall pretty flat though. Midler’s “Perfect Isn’t Easy” is supposed to be another big number that makes use of some early CAD technology but it just isn’t there. The film kind of meanders along for the last half of the picture as a result.
Visually the film resembles a lot of the other Disney works that utilize the Xerox technology that debuted with One-Hundred and One Dalmatians. The edges of the characters are rough and sketch-like. Some of the backgrounds are as well. It works when the film is trying to present some of the grimier locations in New York but it doesn’t work for the glitzy Times Square. Disney’s animation, like its profits, took off after Oliver & Company and the company was willing to invest a bit more into each successive picture. This isn’t a bad looking movie and it has its own visual charms, but it does lag behind Disney’s better works.
Oliver & Company is a really unremarkable movie but one that does hold a lot of nostalgic value for me. If I didn’t have such a unique relationship with it I probably would not own it. That’s not to say that it’s bad or anything. I did enjoy watching the film for what it is, but it is mostly disposable entertainment. For adult animation fans, this is hardly essential viewing, but if you have kids that will consume anything Disney then they will have some fun with Oliver & Company.