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Monday, November 21, 2011

Monday Matinee - Oliver & Company

What is your first impression when I mention the word Disney?

It's funny. Depending on who you speak to on your day-to-day travels, the word Disney can be a word which can polarize people straight down the middle.

Some people hear the word Disney, and they immediately think of Disneyland and Walt Disney World as being fun places to experience a vacation. They equate the word Disney to everything that is good and wholesome in the world, where morals and ethics are doled out in heaping spoonfuls, and where every ending is a happy one. To some people in the world, the word Disney is one to be celebrated, and has a lot of special meaning to them.

Then there are those people who see Disney as nothing more than a cash cow that just keeps mooing. A heartless corporation which brings pain and misery to all those who dare challenge it. A corporation which purposely peppers its animated features with images and symbolism that is completely inappropriate for children. A company that people have blamed for the cancellation of the soap opera 'All My Children'.

(And, no, I'm not kidding about that last one either...since ABC and Disney merged, soap fans have boycotted everything Disney since that soap opera went off the air two months ago.)

Certainly everyone has a right to their own opinion about the company, and my take is as long as one is respectful in presenting their stance about something, and why they may disagree with someone else, they're free to agree or disagree to their heart's content. It's only when they launch into profanity filled rants and posting disgusting insults towards others that it stops being okay.

I've heard lots of arguments from the pro-Disney and anti-Disney camps, and I can probably come up with arguments that I agree with on both sides. I'm certainly not a fan of Disney's meddling in the music industry lately to produce sub-standard cookie-cutter pop tarts that fill up the charts with bad cover versions of popular songs from before they were born. I find a lot of the recent television projects that Disney has produced to be filled with inane jokes that aren't funny and that are so overexposed in the media that you want to throw a boot through your television screen. Think Hannah Montana, Shake It Up, I'm In The Band, etc. In those ways, I can see how Disney has jumped the shark.

But then there's also the part of me that looks at all the movies that Disney has produced over the years, and I end up falling in love with the company all over again. Mostly I loved the Disney cartoons of yesteryear, like Cinderella, The Aristocats, Snow White And The Seven Dwarves, and 101 Dalmatians. But there was also a ton of great films that took place during Disney's Renaissance period which lasted from 1989-1999. The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King being three of my favourites.

Then there was the period that was in between the Golden Age and the Renaissance period. Films that were produced by Disney that were perfectly good films, but somehow have been forgotten within the depths of the Disney vault. Back in those days, Disney seemed to be more focused on developing their Disney Afternoon block with animated shows. Shows like Winnie-The-Pooh, DuckTales, and The Adventures Of The Gummi Bears. Their movies admittedly got pushed to the side, prompting Don Bluth (who ironically enough worked for Disney until 1979) to strike out with his own animated features, such as An American Tail, The Secret of NIMH, and All Dogs Go To Heaven (which likely amped up Disney's effort to make their features shine even brighter).

And a lot of these movies that were released between 1978 and 1989 by Disney were critically panned, and garnered a lot of mixed reviews. And today's blog entry is all about one of these movies.

Yet ironically enough, this Disney movie is probably one of my favourites. It's not at the top of the list, mind you, but it's definitely in my own personal top ten list.

That movie is Oliver & Company.

The movie was released in November 1988, and it is widely regarded as the last Disney film made before the beginning of the 1989 Disney Renaissance. It was the 27th film in the Disney library of animated films, and it made a respectable $74 million at the box office. However, it took eight years for the movie to be officially released on VHS, and another six after that for it to be released on DVD. The reviews were mixed. Siskel and Ebert, for instance, were split in their assessment, with Siskel thumbing it down, while Ebert gave it his thumb of approval. It also didn't seem to have a lot of promotion surrounding it compared to past and future Disney releases. Sure, McDonald's once sold Christmas ornaments that featured characters from Oliver & Company during the 1988 holiday season, but other than that, were there many other promotional gimmicks? I was seven when the film was released, and I can't seem to recall there being a huge rush for Oliver & Company themed toys and games that year.

There's actually a lot of trivia surrounding the development of the film. When the idea was pitched in late 1987, and animated throughout 1988, it was originally designed to be a sequel to the 1977 film The Rescuers (though an eventual sequel, The Rescuers Down Under was released in 1990). It was also the first animated feature to be made since the original braintrust of Disney animators (affectionately known around the Disney company as 'The Nine Old Men' had retired, making way for a group of brand new animators at the helm. It was the first Disney film to fully utilize the art of computer animation, which had been used sparingly in previous films. It was also Disney's first attempt at a musical themed animated film since 1981's The Fox And The Hound. The film was also notable for having logos and real-world advertising from such companies as Ryder Truck Rental, Sony, and Coca-Cola. Disney defended this by stating that they did not do this for product placement. Rather, they did it for realistic purposes.

Which to me makes sense. When you consider that the film takes place in New York City circa 1988, you can't really walk down a street in that city without seeing some sort of billboard or neon sign advertising something, especially in places like Times Square.

And Oliver & Company's first few scenes are set right smack dab in the middle of Manhattan, New York. At the beginning, we meet an orange kitten who goes by the name of Oliver (the name being chosen due to the story's similarity to the classic Charles Dickens novel, Oliver Twist). Oliver is shown with quite a few other kittens in a box on a New York City street, where one by one, the other kittens are adopted by people walking past.

Every kitten, except Oliver (who was voiced by child actor Joey Lawrence).

Poor Oliver is left to wander the streets of New York City, looking for some place to call his home.

But along the way, Oliver ends up crossing paths with a street-wise dog named Dodger (voiced by singer Billy Joel), who sees Oliver as being 'fresh meat'. Dodger manages to trick Oliver into stealing hot dogs from a hot dog vendor's cart, and in this scene, you'll hear Dodger sing for his supper.

Oh, by the way, Dodger eventually flees the scene with the grub, leaving poor Oliver hungry and alone. But despite the fact that Dodger basically used him to get a free meal, Oliver makes the choice to follow him to his hideout, a barge owned by a petty criminal named Fagin (Dom DeLuise).

It's here that Oliver comes face to face with Dodger's buddies. There's Tito the chihuahua (Cheech Marin), Einstein, the Great Dane (Richard Mulligan), Rita, a Saluki (Sheryl Lee Ralph), and Francis, a bulldog (Roscoe Lee Browne). It takes a while for the gang to accept Oliver, but after a while, they welcome him with open paws.

Of course, Oliver's timing could not be more wrong. Almost immediately after Oliver arrives, Fagin is confronted by an evil and creepy loan shark named Sykes (Robert Loggia). Apparently, Fagin borrowed money from Sykes some time ago, and now Sykes has come to collect what he is owed. For protection, he has brought his two Dobermans, Roscoe and DeSoto (Taurean Blacque and Carl Weintraub), who immediately try to attack poor Oliver. Luckily, Dodger and the rest of his gang fend the vicious dogs off. But Sykes means business with Fagin. If Fagin doesn't pay off the debt that he owes him within the following three days, Sykes would take possession of Fagin's home and destroy it.

Now with their backs and tails against the wall, Fagin and his pets grow determined to save their home. With Oliver on their side, they feel as though they have an extra mind to work with them. The group take to the streets of New York City, hocking counterfeit goods to unsuspecting people, and resorting to stealing from others to pay off the debt. Tito and Oliver break away from the group in an effort to sabotage a nearby limousine. Their plan is to stall the limousine so that they could steal something valuable from its owners. But somehow, Oliver accidentally slips on the ignition key and falls over the dashboard while Tito electrocutes himself. The resulting electrocution causes the wiring in the limo to go haywire, and in the confusion, Oliver ends up getting caught by the passengers of the limo...a young girl named Jenny and her butler.

Oliver is taken to Jenny's home, which could best be described as luxurious, gigantic, and filled with everything money could buy. It makes sense, given that Jenny's parents are rich and loaded, and therefore spend their money by going all over the world visiting country after country. Unfortunately, their frivolous spending has lead Jenny to feel like the 'poor little rich girl' who feels incredibly lonely. All she really has for companionship is her butler, and a French Poodle named Georgette (Bette Midler). Now that Oliver has come into Jenny's life, Jenny is overjoyed to have a new friend to play with, much to the chagrin of the incredibly jealous Georgette, who wants the cat gone.

At some point, Dodger and the rest of his gang manage to track Oliver down, and Georgette is more than happy to assist the group with not only finding Oliver, but getting him out of the home so he can go back with them. To Dodger's surprise though, Oliver proclaims that he didn't want to leave. He was well taken care of there, and he grew to adore Jenny. Dodger at first is hurt by Oliver's revelation, and feels as though Oliver was being very ungrateful towards him and his group, but does allow Oliver the opportunity to leave.

But before Oliver can come to that decision, a depressed Fagin arrives back home, seemingly accepting of the fact that he is about to lose everything. But then he discovers that Oliver was being taken care of by an owner who was extremely rich, and that he could maybe hold Oliver for ranson so he could raise enough money to pay off the debts he owed Sykes. He fills Sykes in on the plan before hand, and leaves the note. Jenny, who by this point is extremely heartsick over Oliver's disappearance, discovers the note, and taking Georgette with her, heads over to Fagin's barge in hopes that she can negotiate the demands that the ransom note stated. Once Fagin locks eyes on Jenny, and hears her story, he immediately has feelings of guilt, and pangs of conscience. The more Jenny tells Fagin how much she loves Oliver, the worse Fagin feels. Fagin is so moved by the little girl's pleas that he decides to renege on the deal he had made with Sykes earlier, and offers to give Oliver back to Jenny, free of charge.

It was supposed to have been a happy ending, but unbeknownst to Fagin and Jenny, Sykes watched the whole transaction unfold, and wasn't too happy. He pops out of the shadows, kidnaps Jenny, and makes off with her, telling Fagin that the debt was cleared provided he not say a word.

So now Fagin is feeling even more terrible about himself, letting Jenny get abducted, and he makes the choice to finally set things right and rescue Jenny from Sykes. Dodger, Oliver, and the rest of the gang follow along in the hopes of saving Jenny, and making Oliver's dream of finding a real home come true in the process.

All I'll say is that the last half hour of the movie is really worth watching, and karmic retribution seems to work in overdrive on both the positive and negative meters.

Now, rewatching this film, I don't quite understand why the film didn't get the recognition and the accolades it deserved. Yeah, the film had some parts in it that didn't make sense (I mean, why the heck would Fagin tell Sykes about the plan before it even happened...yeah, that worked out well). But even so, it was a great movie, with great character development, and had a great message. And really, when you have a movie like that, does it really matter what company produces it?

Not in my book.

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