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Ink & Paint
Ink & Paint is a podcast journey through the Disney animated classics! Each week, host Daniel Lammin and a special guest will look at each film in the official Disney animated canon, and talk about their artistic, historical and social context. Subscribe now to make sure you don’t miss an episode! Have comments or questions for Ink & Paint? Record a message for Daniel right from your phone, and we'll try to use it in our next episode!

Episode 31: Oliver & Company
The Bronze Age comes to an end! Daniel is joined by Dave Lee, creator of the YouTube Channel 'Dave Lee Down Under', to look at the final film of this era, 'Oliver & Company' and discuss what it tells us about Disney’s past and the classic films to come.

Daniel Lammin
Dave Lee - Content Creator, Film & Animation Historian

Producer/Editor ∷ Alex Amster
Music ∷ Sam Porter
Show Artwork ∷ Nikolaos Pirounakis
Episode Artwork ∷ Lily Meek

Show Notes
The first two animated films released after the ascension of Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg to the Walt Disney Company had been leftovers from the Ron Miller administration. They had arrived to find the dark and difficult ‘The Black Cauldron’ in need of saving and the then-titled ‘Basil of Baker Street’ getting caught up in its own complicated plot. The latter was pushed into production, if anything, to give the languishing animation staff something to do, but turned out to be a respectable critical and commercial success. They were still artefacts of Miller’s Disney though, and Katzenberg in particular was keen to put his stamp on what Disney animation would be moving into the final stretch of the twentieth century.

The stylistic, textural and tonal difference between the 26th Disney animated feature, ‘The Great Mouse Detective’, and the film to follow it would be considerable. The 27th feature would be a statement of intent, a move from the comfortable warm familiarity of classic Disney into something almost aggressively contemporary. There were still some lessons left to learn though, and just as the Bronze Age had begun with the question of what Disney animation could be without Walt, it would end with the question of what Disney animation could be as part of a major corporate entity. Could a Disney animated feature be both a work of art and a commercial product in equal measure?

Just as it had begun in 1970, the Bronze Age would end with another musically-driven feline adventure. This time though, it wasn’t the journey of a family to safety, but a journey to find a new family, a safe corner in one of the world’s largest cities, learning to worry, learning to care.

This city's got a beat, and you gotta hook into it. And once you get the beat, you can do anything.
Dodger, ‘Oliver & Company’ (1988)

A tiny ginger kitten (Joey Lawrence) finds himself abandoned in New York City, but after following a street-wise dog named Dodger (Billy Joel), finds safety with a group of street dogs and their boss, a petty thief named Fagin (Dom DeLuise). Fagin has trained the dogs to steal for him to repay a debt to nefarious loan shark Sykes (Robert Loggia), who has given Fagin three days to pay him back. While the dogs try to rob a limousine, the kitten is caught and taken into the care of a little girl named Jenny (Natalie Gregory), who adopts him and names him Oliver, much to the disgust of her family’s prize poodle Georgette (Bette Midler). The other dogs rescue Oliver, and when Fagin sees his new collar, he decides to ransom Oliver to get the money he needs. The plan goes horribly wrong when Sykes kidnaps Jenny, but after an action-packed chase through the New York subway tunnels, Sykes is killed by a train and Oliver and Jenny are saved. In the end, Oliver chooses to stay with Jenny, but still keeps close with Dodger and the other dogs.

‘Oliver & Company’, despite its contemporary setting, falls within the Disney animation tradition of adapting beloved British literature. The film is loosely based on Charles Dickens’ legendary second novel ‘Oliver Twist; or the Parish Boy’s Progress’, first published in serialised form from 1837 to 1839. The classic tale of an orphaned boy and his trials in the criminal underbelly of nineteenth century London is one of Dickens’ most cherished works, and had already been the basis for two acclaimed screen adaptations. The first, released in 1948, had been directed by David Lean and featured Alec Guiness as Fagin, but the second, a screen adaptation of the acclaimed musical adaptation by Lionel Bart and directed by Oliver Reed, had been an enormous hit and won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1968. For the American public, it was the musical more so than the novel that defined their relationship with ‘Oliver Twist’.

During their time at Paramount, Eisner and Katzenberg had developed an unusual method for generating new ideas. Based on the popular TV game show from the 1970s, their “gong shows” demanded that all those in attendance come prepared with two ideas for projects. They would need to pitch these ideas to Eisner or Katzenberg, and any ideas they didn’t like would be met with a “gong”. The first gong show for Disney animation took place not long after Basil of Baker Street was given the green light, and all the animation staff were told to attend. They were already intimidated by the ruthlessly-corporate energy Katzenberg had brought with his mandatory 7am Sunday meetings, and this dramatic process of generating new ideas, far from the gentle musings of Ken Anderson and the Nine Old Men, only added to their anxiety.

The gong show began, with the two executives positioned at the head of a long rectangular table. Ron Clements came armed with two ideas he thought could work. The first was an adaptation of Hans Christen Anderson’s fairy tale ‘The Little Mermaid’. “Gong.” went Eisner and Katzenberg, too similar to ‘Splash!’, next. What about a version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ set in space?, said Clements. “Gong”, went Eisner again, he had suggested a ‘Star Trek’ sequel inspired by the novel but the idea hadn’t worked. Besides, they wanted a new direction for Disney - no cute fairy tales or mouldy classics, they wanted something contemporary and fresh. Other rejected ideas included a series of World War II-themed projects, two adaptations of Bill Peet books, an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ and a version of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ with a Valley Girl angle.

Pete Young (centre) with Ron Clements (left) and Steve Hulett (right) © Disney

Among those pitching at the first gong show was story artist Pete Young. He had joined the studio in the early 1970s as an effects animator but wanted to work in the story department. He had been one of the first story artists picked for Ken Anderson’s story training program, and to prove his abilities, he took on the task of adapting ‘The Small One’, a children’s book by Charles Tazewell. Young worked on the story in his own time, and when the senior Disney staff approved his work, he was able to develop the project further under the mentorship of senior story man Vance Gerry. Young had worked in the story department on ‘The Fox and the Hound’ and ‘The Black Cauldron’, and with Ron Clements had pitched ‘Basil of Baker Street’ to Ron Miller, on which he would receive a story credit.

Young had come to the meeting prepared with an idea of adapting ‘Oliver Twist’ but with dogs. Rather than dismissing the idea, both Eisner and Katzenberg were intrigued. Eisner had tried to develop a new live-action adaptation of the musical version while at Paramount, and Katzenberg was keen to develop an animated film in the style of a Broadway musical. Young was given the go-ahead to develop the idea further.

‘Oliver & Company’ concept art © Disney

Jeffrey Katzenberg took a special interest in the early development of the project, tentatively titled ‘Oliver and the Dodger’. It would be the first project developed entirely under his supervision, and he was keen to make his mark in his new role at Disney. While the film is now seen as one of the lesser films in the Disney canon, it was a fruitful testing ground of new ideas for how to make an animated film at Disney, many of which would be vital for the great films to come.

At some point in production, the release date for the film was set for November 18, 1988. This would be a fortuitous decision in the continued rivalry between Disney and their greatest competition, Don Bluth. His first partnership with Steven Spielberg in 1986, ‘An American Tale’, had been a greater commercial and critical success than ‘The Great Mouse Detective’, and his studio was now preparing an even more ambitious project, once again with Spielberg and now with George Lucas. It would be an epic adventure film set in the time of the dinosaurs, a premise ripe with commercial potential… and would be released on the same day as Disney’s ‘Oliver Twist’ project.

As development on ‘Oliver and the Dodger’ began, the animation department began its transition to the Glendale facility. The team working on ‘Basil of Baker Street’ were the first to take up residence, while Pete Young and his story team, including fellow story artist and friend Steve Hullett, worked on the ‘Oliver’ project at Burbank. Soon into production, ‘The Black Cauldron’ director Richard Rich and animator George Scribner were chosen as the directors of the film.

When Ron Clements, John Musker and the team on ‘Basil’ had pitched the project to Eisner and Katzenberg, they had been confused by the story development process. Disney animation relied entirely on storyboarding, with several artists working as a team to develop the narrative, characters and dialogue. Both men were more familiar with the traditional filmmaking process, where a project began with a screenplay. With ‘Oliver’ the first new animated film developed since their joining Disney, they encouraged the animators to adapt the process to accommodate for a screenplay rather than storyboards.

“The real difference between this and the way it was done in the past,” said Katzenberg in an interview with ‘The Morning Call’ in 1987, “is Walt Disney was the walking screenplay... he literally had in his mind, every scene sequence of the movie, and he would walk from section to section, and animator to animator, and tell them what that sequence that they were working on was as a part of the whole. He was a living screenplay. He was unique. And that process and his brilliance really resulted in extraordinary work. We don't have Walt Disney.”

For ‘Oliver’, a compromise was reached. The storyboards and screenplay would be developed at the same time, the two processes complementing one another. “I personally feel that there is a huge role to be played by good writers working in tandem with story people,” recalled Scribner in 2009, “and that’s how we started on this. We spent quite a bit of time actually working out the structure on paper, because, frankly, in my opinion, it’s a lot simpler to work out the story structure in pages than it is to try and board everything.”

While Eisner and Katzenberg encouraged the artists to embrace the advantages of a screenplay, the artists likewise advocated for their process as well. “That was their background and they were used to it”, said Scribner. “We kept pushing back saying: ‘we get it and we appreciate the need for it. But don’t discount what really strong story people can do in a series of sketches. They have gifts that really can complement the work of a writer”’ You know, they were learning as well and Jeffrey certainly picked up very quickly the benefit of both and he let us do what we wanted to do.”

‘Oliver and Company’ storyboard by Vance Gerry © Disney

Despite having Dickens’ novel as a starting point, story development on ‘Oliver’ proved tricky. Young and his team toyed with a number of ideas, but they were now not only answerable to Eisner and Katzenberg, but Roy Disney, who was chairman of animation. The artists all loved and respected Roy, but weren’t always enthusiastic about his ideas. At one point, he suggested that the story should hinge on a sub-plot where Fagin kidnaps a panda from a zoo. Young wasn’t fond of the idea, but in deference to Roy, agreed to develop it.

Young was under enormous pressure to deliver with the project, often working long hours and taking on an enormous amount of stress. His working relationship with Steve Hullet began to suffer as a result, and the two friends began to grow distant over the project. Early in the process, Eisner and Katzenberg asked to see the storyboards, with Young frantically working to finish them before the Saturday presentation. Young was the only member of the team present to show the work done so far to the two executives. To his horror, they tore the boards to shreds, dismissing any idea that wasn’t connected to the original novel, including Roy’s panda subplot. Once again, Young was forced to go back to the drawing board.

In late October 1985, the animation department was rocked by shocking and unexpected news - Pete Young had died. He had gone home with the flu, and a week and a half later his throat had closed up. He was only 37 years old. In his short time at Disney, Young had established himself as one of their most talented story artists, and his loss was a devastating blow for his colleagues.

With the loss of Pete Young, creative control of the project transitioned to Scribner and Rich, though this partnership would be short lived. There was an air of unease in the animation department, with staff members being consistently laid off. Richard Rich and Steve Hulett found themselves being left out of story meetings and their workload dramatically reduced, and in early 1986, both men were fired. It had been in the works for a number of weeks without their knowing, part of a department restructuring overseen by the newly arrived Peter Schnieder.

Scribner was now sole director on the film, a situation only Wolfgang Reitherman had ever found himself in. The story was still in active development, with a number of ideas on the table. One idea had Oliver being a rare Asian breed of cat, a reason for Fagin to hold him for ransom. In another much darker draft from March 1987, Oliver’s parents were killed at the beginning of the film by Sykes’ terrifying dobermans, driving the story as an act of revenge. During development, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Ward Kimball were asked to look over the material, but none were particularly enthusiastic about the work.

‘Oliver & Company’ concept art © Disney

To get a better understanding of the world from a pet’s perspective, the production team adapted a technique used during ‘Lady and the Tramp’. Layout artist Claude Coats had built scale models of the environments for that film and positioned cameras within the models to approximate the perspective from a dog’s height. For ‘Oliver’, Scribner and his team went to New York City and shot reference footage at the correct height to get an idea of what the city might look like for Oliver, Dodger and their gang. “Our biggest goal, when we went to New York,” he later recalled, “was to try and capture as much of the texture of it as possible, but from 12 inches height. So, the camera was always shooting at very, very low angles. It was an entirely different perspective. You really have to force yourself to get into it. We took countless photographs and saw so many different environments and colors. There were the smells and all that the different locations could bring to you. I think it really brought a lot to the film.”

In the end, more than twenty artists would contribute to the story development of ‘Oliver & Company’, with the final animation screenplay credited to Jim Cox, Timothy J. Disney (Roy’s son who had been part of Pete Young’s story team) and future feature film director James Mangold.

Despite music being an integral part of the legacy of Disney animation, very few of the feature films since Walt’s death had been musically driven. With the exception of ‘The Aristocats’ and ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’, songs tended to comment on the action rather than drive it forward, in many cases not even sung as part of the main action. Jeffrey Katzenberg was keen for music to play a stronger role within the films, influenced by the recent resurgence of musicals on Broadway with blockbusters like ‘Cats’ and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’.

Katzenberg decided that, rather than having one composing team for all the songs, each would be written and performed by a different popular artist. This would make for an eclectic and contemporary sound akin to 80s New York, and also offer tremendous commercial possibilities for hit singles and a soundtrack album. Peter Schnedier wasn’t sold on the idea. His background had been in theatre, and he worried this approach would make for inconsistency. Katzenberg insisted though, and Schneider committed to the idea.

Billy Joel and Mike Gabriel during the recording sessions for ‘Oliver & Company’ © Mike Gabriel

For the pivotal role of Dodger, they decided to aim high. “When George Scribner conceived of the character,” said Katzenberg in 1988, “and when we said to him . . . anybody in the world - pick somebody who you think really gets across that New York street-smart, savoir-faire attitude that you want, he said, Billy Joel.” One of the best-selling music artists of all time, Joel had been offered a number of film roles, including a part in Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in America’, but had always turned them down. Disney offered him the role of Dodger regardless, and to their surprise, he said yes. “Of course, I had just had a little girl,” he said in 1988. “It's a great way to do something that my little girl could see that she could relate to right away… I always thought the old Disney movies, the ones with the old-time animation, were magic.”

Animator Mike Gabriel was part of the team overseeing the recording sessions, and much of the character of Dodger began to evolve as a response to Joel’s performance, even adopting his trademark Ray Ban sunglasses. “They wanted to see how I walked and moved my shoulders,” he said, “head moves and how my facial expressions were when I talked. . . . They wanted to get a flavor of me to put into the animation of the dog.”

‘Oliver & Company’ concept art by Andreas Deja © Disney

The centrepiece of Joel’s performance would be a new song for the film, but while Joel was asked to write one himself, he was busy writing his next album. Instead, the song “Why Should I Worry?” was written by songwriters Dan Hartman & Charlie Midnight. It would be the first time Billy Joel would perform a song he hadn’t written.

The songs in ‘Oliver & Company’ were intended to reflect the artistic diversity of New York City. “Billy gave us the tone,” said Scribner, “but it wasn’t right for some of the other characters, and it felt like the variety that we could bring to it would just add sort of a texture to it that would be just as strong.” Barry Manilow delivered the Sondheim-style Broadway number “Perfect Isn’t Easy” for Bette Midler as Georgette, which he co-wrote with Jack Feldman and Bruce Sussman, while the ‘Footloose’ songwriting team Dean Pitchford & Tom Snow wrote the pop-driven “Streets of Gold” for Ruth Pointer.

Along with Joel and Midler, a number of recognisable voice talents rounded out the cast. Comedian Cheech Marin was cast as Tito, the fidgety chihuahua. “I was encouraged to ad-lib,” he said in 1988, “but I'd say I just gave about 75% of the lines as they were written. The natural energy of a Chihuahua played right into that feeling. George was very encouraging as a director: He kept the energy level high at the recording sessions.”

‘Oliver & Company’ character model sheet © Disney

For the villainous character of Sykes, beloved actor Robert Loggia was cast, but in George Scribner’s original concept for the character, his face was never seen. “I was the one who pushed for not seeing him,” said Scribner, “that he was more powerful and more threatening if you never quite ever really saw him. Viewers’ imagination is probably more powerful than literally depicting somebody. The animator of Sykes, Glen Keane, felt very differently. He felt very strongly that the only way to show his strength and his power was to actually reveal him. And, I have to say, he was probably right. You have to be a little more literal in an animated film. You maybe could get away with it in a live-action picture that is a little more subtle. These pictures tend to be not exaggerations, but broader colors. You have to be a little clearer and a little broader.”

For the orchestral score, in-house composer J.A.C. Redford had the tricky task of tying the various musical languages of the film together. “The songs of Oliver & Company had very different styles,” he later recalled. “So, my job was to create a world in which all of the songs felt at home, like they all belonged to the same tapestry. I think that’s why the score has as much eclecticism in it. But it’s also part of my personality. I just really enjoy that! I had a lot of fun doing all the different styles and techniques.”

As well as introducing new processes for story development, groundbreaking work was being explored during production on ‘Oliver & Company’, much of it building on the discoveries made on ‘The Great Mouse Detective’. To build the animated world of New York City, the animation department made further use of computer generated imagery.

“We built the cars and buildings in the city for ‘Oliver & Company’,” recalled Tina Price, one of the team developing computer animation at Disney in the late 80s, “but there was not even a name for what we did. No one knew what to call it so we just said ‘Tina’s Department’ and we started to ‘plug ourselves in.”

Michael Cedeno and Tina Price during the making of ‘Oliver & Company’ © Disney

“We were not legitimised or included in the production line,” said Price, “but we had our own digital checking system. For those of us who were under the hood, we would sit together for hours and try to figure out how we were going to make this thing work. Then we would figure it out and then show the production team. They would see it and it would always be great but they never really knew all that went on behind the scenes.”

In 1988, Price presented the work they were doing on the film at the Walter Lantz Animation Conference. “We’re just beginning to explore the advantages a 3-D computer can offer us to better our stories,” she said in her presentation. “In ‘Oliver & Company’, we have twelve minutes of computer animation. Every frame that I generate on the computer is run through a process called “hidden line”. We print it out on paper; if there’s any character animation involved, the whole scene will go to the Character Animator. They’ll draw right on top of my trike, or car, or whatever it is, and then it’s shot under an animation camera stand, just like the rest of the film.”

One of the most complex shots for the CGI animators was Georgette’s walk down the grand staircase, the challenge making sure that the digital printouts would match the character’s movements down the stairs. In many ways, it would be a precursor to the iconic ballroom shot to come in ‘Beauty and the Beast’. In the years following production on ‘Oliver & Company’, Tina Price was named the first Department Head of Computer Animation.

‘Oliver & Company’ production cel © Disney

For the city itself, the background and layout artists decided to return to the technique pioneered by Walt Peregoy and Ken Anderson in the early 1960s for ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’. Peregoy had taken advantage of the distinctive Xerox line, laying outlines of architecture and objects in thick black lines over backgrounds painted in blocks of colour. The effect was seen as a huge artistic success, but Walt Disney’s distaste for it had ended its development. ‘Oliver & Company’ would be the first film since 1961 to make extensive use of the technique.

“We knew we wanted to go with that Xerox lines look over washes and simple gouache paintings,” recalled George Scribner, “because it would add a grip, it just gave us more of an edge to it. We were trying to get a little more variety, a little harder edged to the tone of it, so as to replicate New York... It was going to be a little more urban, not a lot of colors, more in terms of value. And there was a deliberate decision to go that strong Xerox line for that reason.”

As a result of the move to the Glendale facility, the inking and painting department had found it necessary to move away from the gum-based paints they had been producing in-house since the 1930s. While these paints offered a wide variety of colours and were well-suited to the animation cels, they were heavily dependent on perfect environmental conditions, and when the department had needed to find space outside of the specially-built painting facilities on ‘The Black Cauldron’, they discovered that when the paint was used outside of the department facilities, it had a tendency to streak. With the move from Burbank to Glendale, the need to find an alternative became necessary.

In 1985, the department decided to transition to vinyl paints, the industry standard outside of Disney. Commercially available vinyl paints only offered a limited range of colours and could damage a cel if the paint needed to be removed, so they began to develop their own in-house vinyl paints. This new system utilised sixteen organic and inorganic masstone pigments to forumate and maintain more than a thousand standard colours, created to better suit the needs of the Disney paint artists.

‘Oliver & Company’ production cel © Disney

These new paints were first used on ‘Oliver & Company’, a difficult trial on such a large production. “Because of the short amount of time,” recalled painter Gretchen Albrecht, “we had to produce such a large amount of footage. On the plus side, with the new paint, we were able to put Painters everywhere since we did not have the climate-control issues of gum paint. There were Painters in the Paint Lab, there were Painters up in the loft area, over the mill, outside the Tea Room - they were everywhere.”

In all, 238, 243 individual cels were used on ‘Oliver’, with the Ink & Paint staff growing to 131 artists in order to keep up. “We successfully covered about two-thirds of the film in the last three months of production,” recalled Albrecht. Once work was completed, the staff returned to their core team of 24 artists, maintaining and resupplying the department before the next project.

‘Oliver & Company’ storyboards by Mike Gabriel © Disney

Over the course of production, artist Mike Gabriel had emerged as a driving force on the film. Gabriel had joined the studio in October 1979, one of the rare young artists who wasn’t a CalArts graduate, and over the next few years worked on the development of a number of projects including ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ and ‘The Black Cauldron’. When he was invited to work on ‘The Great Mouse Detective’, he transitioned from animation to story and character development, and these were the skills he would initially bring to ‘Oliver’.

“I don’t think any animators had started on [the film],” he recalled. “It was mostly in storyboards and [Head of Story] Roger Allers said, “Would you like to storyboard?” I was flattered that he thought I had something to add to that…”

For his first pitching session, Gabriel found himself in front of a team of Disney executives. Though initially terrified, he quickly found his feet with the process. “I got into character,” he said. “You have to act out the dialogue and all the different character voices. I just got completely swept up in the moment of the movie, because I boarded it, so I knew it really well. And I just absolutely loved it. I got a round of applause after I pitched it. It went over really well.”

Supervising animator Mark Henn, Don DeLuoise (Fagin) and Mike Gabriel during the recording sessions for ‘Oliver & Company’ © Mike Gabriel

Gabriel soon found himself working across a number of departments on the film. As well as storyboarding and character design, he supervised animation on a number of sequences and was heavily involved with the recording sessions with the actors. His hard work didn’t escape the notice of Peter Schnedier, and after the film was completed, Schneider approached Gabriel to direct the upcoming sequel to one of their most successful films, ‘The Rescuers’, launching Gabriel’s career as a director.

‘Oliver & Company’ had taken two and a half years to complete, with a team of over 300 artists working on the production, but as it neared its release date, enthusiasm for the film within the studio was tepid. Jeffrey Katzenberg decided to launch an aggressive publicity campaign driven by audience familiarity with the original Dickens story and the musical talent involved. He had good reason to want to be aggressive - on the same day ‘Oliver’ would reach cinemas, so too would another major animated film, one predicted to be a colossal hit.

Theatrical Poster, 1988 © Disney

Following the enormous success of ‘An American Tale’ in 1986, expectations were high for Don Bluth’s next project. He and Steven Speilberg came up with an intriguing idea, a film about growing up and mortality akin to ‘Bambi’, but with dinosaurs. Bluth and Spielberg brought on George Lucas as a producing partner, and the initial plan had been to make the film without dialogue, similar to the ‘Rite of Spring’ sequence in ‘Fantasia’, but it was decided that speaking characters would be more appealing to children. This need to appeal to a younger audience would recur in the editing process, when the film, titled ‘The Land Before Time’, suffered a similar fate to ‘The Black Cauldron’, with Spielberg asking for cuts to be made to make the film less frightening. In all, 11 minutes of completed footage was removed and the now-recut film recut secured a G rating.

‘The Land Before Time’ concept art © Universal

Nearly a decade after Don Bluth and his team had defected from Walt Disney Productions, the two studios went head-to-head with ‘Oliver & Company’ and ‘The Land Before Time’. Industry expectations were that Bluth would prevail; Disney’s track record had been lacklustre during the 80s, while Bluth had one blockbuster hit and two major Hollywood producers behind him.

The two films opened on November 18, 1988, and while reviews for ‘The Land Before Time’ were strong, those for ‘Oliver & Company’ were more muted. On their popular television program, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both gave the film a thumbs down, with Siskel complaining that “the story is too fragmented… because Oliver’s story gets too sidetracked from the story in the film that gets convoluted, too calculated for the Bette Midler, Billy Joel crowd as well as little kids.” The general critical consensus was that, while the film didn’t stand up to the early Disney classics, it had its charm, with Desson Howe writing in ‘The Washington Post’ that the film “retrieves some of the old Disney charm with tail-wagging energy and five catchy songs.”

On their opening weekend, ‘The Land Before Time’ had also beaten ‘Oliver’ at the box office, debuting at number one with $7.5 million against Oliver in fourth place at $4 million. By the end of their theatrical runs though, ‘Oliver’ would earn a domestic gross of $53 million, surpassing the $46 million for ‘The Land Before Time’. The film would eventually become the first animated film to earn over $100 million at the worldwide box office, and secured a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song for “Why Should I Worry?”

‘Oliver & Company’ concept art © Disney

It appeared that the film had survived the threat posed by Don Bluth, but while the reputation of ‘The Land Before Time’ as an animation classic has continued to grow over time, ‘Oliver & Company’ is now considered one of Disney’s lesser animated films, leaving very little cultural legacy. This may be due to its lack of availability for many years, not making its home video debut until 1996, but perhaps more likely is its proximity to the Disney films that followed it. Compared with the films in the 90s, or for that fact the other films in the Bronze Age, ‘Oliver & Company’ feels messy, unclear and erratic. Peter Schneider had been right, that having different artists compose each of the songs would lead to inconsistency. The final film is hard to follow, has very few memorable characters or sequences and, despite having Dickens’ novel as a foundation, a story that never feels fully formed. All of the classic Disney elements are there - a protagonist isolated from family, searching for home and a sense of belonging - but with the exception of the opening and the superb “Why Should I Worry?” sequence, it leaves very little impression in the end.

When considered within the Disney canon, the films of the Bronze Age are often thought of as lesser works, relics from a dark period in the studio’s history where a lack of clear artistic direction resulted in a series of critically and commercially underperforming projects. In truth, the films of the 70s and 80s were amongst the most successful animated films in Disney’s history at that point, and many were seen as a significant evolution of the Disney style. Audiences were charmed and critics even penned a number of the films as contemporary classics. They may not be as warmly remembered now as the films that came before or after, often absent from histories on Disney and animation, but this does not make them any less deserving of praise or attention.

The Bronze Age was a period of reflection and exploration. Disney’s identity had been intrinsically tied to Walt Disney himself, and in the wake of his death, they needed to unravel the mystery of who they were, what kind of stories they told and how they told them. Technical innovation in animation during the 70s and 80s was subtle, but developments in storytelling were far more pronounced. The films of this period are often melancholy, serious and mature, with characters navigating more complex emotional journeys. The traditional Disney narrative of lost souls in search of home, family and salvation is ever-present, but this search feels more grounded, shaped by loss and abandonment. A sadness crept into the films, but not in an inorganic way, or even in a manner that reflected the state of the studio itself. On the one hand, this was the result of the great masters of the form coming to the end of their careers, reflecting on the work they had done and the stories they still felt the need to tell. On the other, it was the generation about to take over, determined to stake their claim on an art form they revered and carve a place for themselves in Disney’s legacy. And woven within the films themselves was, perhaps, Disney animation itself coming to grips with the devastating and sudden loss of Walt Disney, a need to comprehend, understand and process their grief through their art. The films of the Bronze Age are amongst the most powerful in the Disney canon, and even with their flaws, they still have the ability to move us in ways we don’t expect.

It was also a period of tremendous unrest, an erratic tussle over Disney’s perception of itself, both internally and within the entertainment industry. What began as a family business in the 1920s was, by the end of the 80s, a corporate entity with responsibilities to shareholders as much as art and audiences. Within the company, artists wrestled with this change. Some were able to adapt, gently massage their practice to accommodate, but for others, this shift from the artistic to the commercial was too much to bear. No two animated films within the Bronze Age are alike, and this is reflective of the fundamental question at the heart of this period - what is Disney Animation? How does it work? Why is it so beloved? And what is its future? You can see those questions being asked in each of these films, written not just in their moments of the sublime but in the scars all of them bare. These films are diamonds in the rough, often unpolished or unrefined but dazzling nonetheless.

By the end of the 1980s, Walt Disney Animation Studios had descended to their lowest point and somehow, somehow managed to pull themselves back again. The financial and emotional cost of ‘The Black Cauldron’ had been considerable, but at the point where the axe could have fallen, they were saved once again. Roy E. Disney was their champion, a link to the enduring legacy of Walt himself. They had also found an unexpected cheerleader in Jeffrey Katzenberg, the combustible Hollywood executive who had charged into the department with no knowledge, guns blazing, but soon won over. These two men believed that animation was the backbone of The Walt Disney Company, a view not always shared by their superior Michael Eisner, and they were determined to return Disney animation to its former glory.

Around the release of ‘Oliver & Company’, Katzenberg announced an ambitious plan - to release a new animated feature film every year. This had been an ambition of Walt’s all the way back in the late 30s, but his demand for perfection had made this impossible. Katzenberg was determined to make that dream a reality, to realise what Walt Disney could not. A number of projects were put into development at once, often determined by their commercial prospects, and the animators who had hoped to inherit the art form from the Nine Old Men were finally being handed the keys to the kingdom.

Unbeknownst to them, a decision Katzneberg had made during the making of ‘Oliver & Company’ would have staggering repercussions on the future of Disney animation. While scouting for recording artists for the soundtrack, he had been given a recommendation by his friend David Geffen. Founder of the enormously successful Geffen Records, he encouraged Katzenberg to approach an emerging lyricist from New York who had written and directed a successful off-Broadway musical Geffen had produced. Katzenberg liked the man, and hired him to write the lyrics for the song “Once Upon a Time in New York City”, performed over the opening titles by Huey Lewis. He seemed to have a good eye for story, so after the work was completed, Katzenberg asked if he might be interested in looking at other Disney projects. The young man agreed, but only if he could bring his composing partner along with him. There was one project, an idea from Ron Clements that had initially been dismissed in the first Gong Show, that they thought they could do something with. Together, these two men would reshape the identity of Disney, the films they would make and animation itself. The young lyricist in particular would blow the rules of Disney animation apart and elevate them to the heavens.

And so we come to that most legendary decade in the history of Disney animation, a period of critical, commercial and artistic success beyond even Walt Disney’s wildest dreams. It was a period of great achievement and staggering loss, of cultural revolution and internal turmoil. The films they would make would break box-office records and be counted amongst the finest of the decade, grounded so firmly in popular culture that they continue to cast enormous shadows across cinema to this day. If the Bronze Age had been a question of identity, the next ten years would carve that new identity in marble. It is the story of the battle over the crown of Walt Disney, of three men determined to establish their legacy as his successor. It is the story of the man who perhaps could have been his true successor, were it not for one of the greatest tragedies in human history. And it is the story of ten monumental films, the standard by which all animated films that came before and after would be judged, for better or for worse.

Tales as old as time, forged in heaven’s light and hellfire and the colours of the wind, of poor unfortunate souls, determined to go the distance, to answer the call, to find strangers like them, to see their true reflection, to see whole new worlds, to take their place in the great circle of life.

Walt Disney animation was entering its Renaissance.

The 1996 U.S. VHS release, the 2001 U.S. DVD release, the 2009 20th anniversary US DVD release and the 2009 25th anniversary U.S. Blu-ray.

  • Despite its box office success, ‘Oliver & Company’ did not make its home video debut until September 1996 after its successful theatrical re-release in March. The film was released on VHS and Laserdisc as part of the Walt Disney Masterpiece Collection.
  • In June 2001, the film made its DVD debut as the final entry in the Walt Disney Gold Collection, along with a new VHS release.
  • For its 20th anniversary in February 2009, the film was released once again on DVD. Special features included archival promotional material, a selection of classic shorts and interactive games.
  • The film made its HD debut with a Blu-ray release in August 2013 for its 25th anniversary. Many of the special features from the 2009 DVD were carried over.
  • The film is available on Disney+.

The Disney Renaissance begins with one of their most beloved films, ‘The Little Mermaid’.
  • Wikipedia on Oliver & Company, Oliver Twist and The Land Before Time.
  • They Drew As They Pleased: Volume VI - The Hidden Art of Disney’s New Golden Age (The 1990s to 2010s), Didier Ghez, 2020
  • Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, Mindy Johnson, 2017 Disneywar, James B. Stewart, 2005
  • Remembering Pete Young (1948 - 1985), Floyd Norman, Jim Hill Media, June 4 2007
  • ‘Mouse in Transition’: A Gong Show with Eisner and Katzenberg (Chapter 16), Steve Hulett, Cartoon Brew, January 23, 2015
  • ‘Mouse in Transition’: The Trials of Oliver & Company (Chapter 17), Steve Hulett, Cartoon Brew, January 3, 2015
  • ‘Mouse in Transition’: Goodbye Disney (Chapter 18), Steve Hulett, Cartoon Brew, August 3, 2015
  • 'Disney Gearing Up For More Animation', Paul Willistein, The Morning Call, November 22, 1988
  • Once Upon A Time In New York City: Oliver & Company’s Director George Scribner!, Jérémie Noyer, Animated Views, February 3, 2009
  • Once Upon A Time In New York City: Oliver & Company’s Composer J.A.C. Redford!, Jérémie Noyer, Animated Views, February 2, 2009
  • A New York State Of Voice In Animated Film, Billy Joel Speaks For Dodger The Dog”, Paul Willistein, The Morning Call, November 19, 1988

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