I have strange memories of this movie. Not because that I think this movie is strange, but instead because I can’t really remember when I first saw it. It’s confusing to me, because I KNOW I had toys of Oliver and Dodger and Fagan’s cart from some fast food restaurant (BK or McDs, of course!). The question that I don’t know the answer to was did I see it in theaters? I would have been 3 at the time, so I’m doubting I did. Knowing me, I just saw animal toys with a Happy Meal and I was sold.
So with that in mind, the first time I saw this movie and REMEMBERED it wasn’t until middle school. We never owned it growing up, and I have the one and only Disney Channel to thank for why I know this movie. There was a period when they played it all the time. I just have one thing to say: I am so happy they did.
I’m going to say this up front: this movie is not to be missed, especially if you are a fan of Disney. Is it a masterpiece? No. Not at all. The animation isn’t that great, the characters are hit or miss, but oh my goodness is it entertaining and hilarious and has some heartfelt moments. First of all, this movie is so 80s I want to cry (in a good way). We have boom boxes, Bette Midler, Billy Joel, and awesome 80s music in New York City. Billy Joel (along with Madonna, the Eagles, and Phil Collins) was one of the first artists I ever listened to (thanks mom and dad!), and the fact he’s in this movie just makes it that much better.
This movie is a strange twist (no pun intended) on the classic book Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens. Instead of humans, half our characters in this movie are animals. Oliver is a kitten that starts in a box wit his brothers and sisters on a street corner. They all get chosen, and he doesn’t and finds himself on the street. Starving, he enlists the help of a suave dog named Dodger to steal some hot dogs. After realizing that Dodger wasn’t planning on sharing, he follows him back to an old boat on the docks, where he meets the rest of the dogs that call themselves the “gang.” From here we see our human leader, Fagan, get in trouble with our villain, Sykes. He’s not able to pay him back the money he owes him. Sykes gives him 3 days to come up with the money, or else. Oliver slashes one of his Doberman pinchers on the nose, Fagan sees, and the cat is officially in the gang.
The next day they’re off searching the streets for money or items that Fagan can pawn to pay back Sykes. They spot a limo, and knowing it might be a good shot, come up with an elaborate plot to stall it. However it goes a bit wrong, and in the process of fleeing, Oliver gets stuck and the little girl who was sitting in the back of the limo, Jenny, rescues him and takes him home. She decides to keep him, names him Oliver, and they have a fun time. Jenny also has a poodle named Georgette, who is exactly NOT thrilled to have the addition of a cat to her home.
The Gang decides they’re going to rescue Oliver, and they do, although oliver exclaims he was happy there. upon realizing Oliver came from an upscale house (via his new collar), Fagan decides to ransom the kitten for money to pay Sykes back. Jenny gets the message, and she and Georgette head out to get Oliver with the little bit of money in her piggy bank. Fagan tells his plan to Sykes, and he sees potential for more, so when Jenny runs into Fagan and he realizes he can’t take money from a little girl, Sykes instead kidnaps the girl. It’s now up to Fagan and the Gang to get her back.
I’m a fan of the musical Oliver! and I have to say that I actually understand this version better. Although that might be because I haven’t seen the musical in years, but it’s much more focused on the relationships of the adults as opposed to the animals/kids. This is something that always annoyed me with the musical. It gets REALLY boring. This movie? not so much. I’m not going to compare the stories, because it’s worthless. I’m just taking this one as it is.
That being said, I don’t know. If I had seen this as a smaller child, I don’t know that I would have completely understood it. I would have gotten that the gang was trying to steal from the rich people, and Oliver didn’t want to go, and then the bad man kidnaps the girl, but I don’t know that I would have understood everything about Sykes and Fagan. I still don’t really understand exactly what Sykes does. Is he a loan shark? a mobster? He hangs out in a broken down old warehouse but has really nice stuff. How did Fagan get mixed up with this guy? As a villain he’s ok. He’s evil and kidnaps a kid and ransoms her. He has two domermans who are pretty evil. He’s a different type of villain in my eyes. We don’t see him much, and he’s not threatening our main character until later in the movie. We know he’s bad, but we don’t really care until Jenny gets kidnapped.
Our other characters are pretty good for the most part, although I wouldn’t call any of them “deep.” Oliver is a cute little orange kitten who’s not afraid to speak his mind and has a knack for being brave (and voiced by a baby Joey Lawrence!). He’s a good character, but honestly, even though the movie is named after him, I don’t know that I would call him the “main” character. This really is an ensemble cast. But look how cute!
Dodger is a smooth-talking dog who ends up getting a soft spot in his heart for Oliver after tricking him. He’s some sort of Terrier mix (yeah, the dog trainer in me is figuring out cartoon dogs again) that’s voiced by Billy Joel. It’s as great as it sounds. Dodger is definitely my favorite in this movie. He’s not willing to give up on his friends. He’s sweet but puts on a bad boy exterior. Plus he can wear sunglasses:
Our other dogs in the gang all have their own quirks: there’s Einstein the incredibly dumb great dane, Francis the bulldog who is well taught and loves Shakespeare and ballet, Tito the chihuahua that’s hilarious and falls in love with Georgette, and Rita, our least developed character, who just seems like a token female. Then we have Georgette, the pedigree, 6 time national champion poodle owned by Jenny. She’s a girly girl (voiced by Bette Midler), who is a spoiled brat of a dog. She does get a bit annoying, as does Tito’s constant wooing of her. But it’s not that bad.
On the human side we have Fagan (voiced by Dom DeLouise in apparently his personal favorite roll), the dim-witted but big hearted criminal. His character design is great, as he looks like a cross between a homeless person and a sailor. Jenny is a cute girl and actually not that annoying.* She’s just a typical kid who loves her kitten and will do anything to get him back. I do have to give her credit for heading to a seedy part of town to get him though! (although that might be stupid… why didn’t she tell her butler Winston?). You get the feeling that she acts older than she actually is because he has to. Her parents are gone, and we get the feeling that that happens a lot. They’re not going to make it home in time for her birthday. Yeah. These people win “parents of the year” awards. Our last human character worth mention is the butler, Winston. He’s pointless except for the fact he’s watching Jenny while her parents are out, and he loves wrestling to the point where it’s kinda hilarious.
This was Disney’s first musical since The Fox and the Hound (apparently their definition of a “musical” is 3 or more songs, FYI). In all honesty, these songs are really hit or miss for me. “Once upon a time in New York City,” performed by Huey Lewis, is great! It sets the scene of the beginning and takes us through Oliver’s demise in the box as everyone he’s with gets adopted. Then there’s Dodger’s song, “Why Should I Worry?” Oh my god I LOVE this song. I’m a Billy Joel fan, and geez, this song is so catchy you have to start singing. I also enjoy “You and me,” the song Jenny sings to Oliver on the piano. It’s short and cute. There are a few other songs, like “streets of Gold,” and Georgette’s song (which I don’t know know the name of), which are ok. They’re not awful songs per se, just not as great as the first two. All in all, these are good songs and I’m glad Disney decided to include them.
This movie has heart and it’s hilarious. It’s not perfect, but it’s here to stay and certainly shouldn’t be missed. I love the characters and some of the music. Even if the plot’s not perfect, the characters and jokes are enough to stay for. It’s not one of my “underrated” movies, but it’s definitely one that often gets overlooked. I’m glad The Disney Channel played it over and over in the mid 90s, and I hope they’re still doing stuff like this now. It’s a good way to show off their less known movies and introduce a bunch of kids to them. It’s great.
I give Oliver & Company (1988) a 3.1 out of 5. It’s not perfect, it’s not a classic, but it’s good. Still has one of my favorite songs ever 🙂
Up Next: The Little Mermaid (1989)
*This movie was actually originally supposed to be a sequel to The Rescuers and Jenny was supposed to be an older Penny, hence why they look the same and have similar names.