"Oliver & Company" feels like an absolute stepping stone from Disney's floundering attempts at finding itself to the Disney renaissance for a few reasons. It's a film that has a modern feel, not so much in location but in its storytelling, hitting the typical story beats and full with a colorful cast of offbeat characters, and throwing in a few choice songs for good measure. It almost seems like Disney's test-run to see if this format would work, not fully committing to all its elements, just throwing it out there. Well it worked, and what would follow would change the industry, but what's to be made of this one, the precursor to it all?
Oliver is a little orphaned kitten in the Big Apple, who crosses paths with a mongrel dog Dodger, and eventually gets wrapped up in his gang, a bunch of miscreant mutts who live on a decrepit houseboat. Their owner is a down-on-his-luck pickpocket Fagin, who is desperately trying to scrounge up cash to pay off a no-nonsense loan shark Sykes. Given three days to get the money, he and the dogs set out to find anything they can get money off of, but during one of their schemes, Oliver ends up in the hands of a poor little rich girl Penny, who takes him in, to the chagrin of the other family pet, pampered poodle Georgette. The other dogs "rescue" Oliver, where Fagin gets the idea that he can blackmail the rich folks to get his money, but can't go through with it when he finds out that Penny is the victim.
From the very beginning I could smell something wrong with this one, with Dodger's too-cool-for-school attitude, complete with sunglasses, rubbing me the absolute wrong way. This is like Disney's attempt to go hip, with its urban setting and then-modern soundtrack (did I mention the dog is voiced by Billy Joel?). But the set dressing can't disguise the film's relatively empty core. The gang of dogs basically consists of characters summed up to single traits: the bulldog sophisticate, the dim Great Dane, the fiesty chihuahua (irritatingly voiced by Cheech Marin), and the personality-free girl dog. Dodger is your typical 'tude character, and Oliver is basically an onlooker. Their owner, Fagin, is equally as flimsy and aggravating, never quite having enough spine to be our protagonist, nor does he seem to deserve his title. While he may be kind to his dogs, he's basically a thief, utilizing his dogs to steal to help solve his problems. Essentially his unwillingness to blackmail a little girl for her cat makes him our hero, so conversely, Sykes kidnapping the kid for money makes him our villain. It's like the bare basics of what can be considered these two archetypes.
So there's really no characters to care about here, nor is there any real direct focus. Penny shows up in the film rather late, as does the poodle Georgette, a character with no real place in the story, but she gets a showstopping music number regardless, probably because they got Bette Midler to play her and weren't going to waste the opportunity. The whole movie is kind of drab, and being set in New York isn't a real excuse. Everything looks washed out and ugly; not one set piece is appealing to the eye. In terms of character design, it's rather basic and traditional, which Disney has gotten away with in the past with great emotional acting, but here we get bare bones too, with pretty lazy acting on most everyone's parts. The dogs (and cat) are nothing to howl at, though Fagin, with his nervous over-the-top reactions, gets a pass here for being somewhat interesting to see in action. Sykes is alright too, filling the villain bill pretty well; his turn into insanity in the final chase (he PUNCHES HIS ARM through his CAR WINDOW to grab a poor innocent girl) may not make a lot of sense, but at least it's amusing to watch.
We also have Disney trying more stuff out with CGI, and I guess I can't blame it for looking dated because... well, it IS dated. The big subway chase renders the subway and Sykes' car in CG, both not looking too good, but I can give that a pass. However, the movie itself is pretty dated, with a pretty 80s looking city, be it through people's attire, the soundtrack, and the overall tone of the film. Also there is pretty blatant product placement throughout the movie, defended by the filmmakers that New York wouldn't be complete without ads. I can't argue with that, but couldn't they have flooded the film with fake ads for fake products? Perhaps, but considering how many cross-promotions Disney probably did for this movie, what's a few more, huh?
Verdict? In the wake of the Disney Renaissance, this film has ended up forgotten for most, but with its stock characters, unappealing look and sad attempts at "hipness," perhaps it's best left that way. While a story with heroes with questionable motives may have worked, squeezing it into the typical Disney format ended up with protagonists who didn't quite fit the bill, and an antagonist who was WAY too over-the-top in his methods, and ultimately it was hard to root for either of them, leaving the film to collapse under its own weight. To be frank, this is the first one so far that I can say... kinda sucked. Yep, it's happened. But the Disney Renaissance is coming up, and everyone loves those, right? I guess we'll just have to see, won't we...