I guess I can cut the Mouse House a little slack when it comes to paint-by-numbers mediocrities like Oliver & Company. By the time Walt Disney Studios was resorting to cats, dogs, and Charles Dickens, they were admittedly in full-contact war with of-the-moment animator Don Bluth, whose vermin-infested Fiddler on the Roof riff An American Tale packed ‘em in as The Great Mouse Detective languished. As if to point up the competition, Bluth’s The Land Before Time opened on the very same day as Oliver & Company. And even though the Billy Joel-voiced street pooch Dodger crooned “Why should I worry?” in the film’s umpteen McDonald’s commercial tie-ins, Bluth’s prehistoric melodrama outgrossed Disney’s shaggy, tired mongrels by three-to-two. Not that it was ever any contest; Disney adds no new twists to Dickens’s well-worn plot, and the transposition from scummy 19th-century street urchins to flea-free stray dogs and cats makes Dickens look less mawkish (Dickens!) in comparison.
Essentially, Disney’s gang of animators were being led by the nose at this point, and if Oliver & Company lacks the identifiable Disney imprint that’s in full evidence in even the least defensible of the studio’s previous cartoons (The Sword in the Stone, The Aristocats), it’s probably because the entire studio was running scared. Bluth & Company were running shit without so much as breaking a sweat, to judge the quality up there on the screen. Feigning hip cred with its modern-day Noo Yawk milieu (you know, the city Disney also subsequently had a hand in gentrifying), its FM radio-ready soundtrack (featuring Joel, Huey Lewis, and one of the Pointer Sisters), and a newly concentrated effort on interpolating CGI-spiked animation, Oliver & Company is as out-of-touch as anything the studio ever made, but considering the Disney renaissance loomed just around the corner, the movie’s flailing failure is at least breezily forgettable compared to the astronomical hubris of The Lion King.