Fun fact that I just learned: if Oliver & Company had been released one day later than it was, it would have come out the same day I was born. Like My Neighbor Totoro, this is yet another movie that’s been there my entire life, and as a result, I have an immense soft spot for it in my heart. Unlike Totoro, however, Oliver & Company doesn’t hold up nearly as well when viewed through a feminist lens. The movie has a lot of problematic material, and really, if it weren’t for the nostalgia factor, I doubt I’d like it as much as I do.
Oliver & Company, which is based on the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, follows the tragic story of an abandoned kitten in New York, who eventually falls in with a group of dogs in order to get by. The group is led by Dodger, whom Oliver meets while trying to steal some food from a hot dog vendor. Dodger agrees to help Oliver, but ultimately swindles Oliver out of his fair share. Not willing to give up, Oliver chases Dodger all the way back to his home, where he meets all the other dogs and their human Fagin. Fagin finds himself in trouble with a loan shark and with only three days left to pay back his loan, the next morning, he, the dogs, and Oliver head out to steal some money.
In the process, Oliver gets caught by a young upper-class girl named Jenny, who’s lonely since her parents are out of the country. She decides to take Oliver home with her and adopt him, much to her dog Georgette’s irritation. Despite Oliver being happy with Jenny, Dodger and the others steal him back, and then Fagin attempts to ransom Oliver back to Jenny in order to solve his loan problem. However, upon meeting Jenny and seeing that she is just a young girl, Fagin has a change of heart and decides to give Oliver back to her for free. Unfortunately, the loan shark shows up and kidnaps Jenny in order to ransom her instead. Fagin, working together with Dodger, Georgette, Oliver, and all the other dogs, save Jenny, and in the end everything works out for the best.
Jenny celebrates her next birthday with all her new friends, and what’s more, her parents call to let her know that they’ll be heading back to the States soon. As for Oliver, Jenny gets to keep him, but now that she’s friends with Fagin and the other dogs, Oliver also gets to stay in touch with everyone as well.
All in all, I love this movie. Oliver & Company wasn’t too well received by critics, though, and I understand why perfectly. Compared to other Disney movies, the story is really rather simple and predictable, and it just doesn’t have that same grand feel that something like The Lion King or other classics have. I know a lot of people probably found the story predictable since it’s based on Oliver Twist, a popular novel that I have not read, but even without knowing the original story, this is a sentiment that I have to agree with. Once we see that Jenny and Oliver are happy together—they were both abandoned and found each other despite that—it’s not hard to guess early on that they’re going to get to stay together in the end. What’s worse is that they also don’t have to lose anything in the process.
Some of the characters are also not that well written, and are little more than stereotypes. Georgette’s character is a snobbish socialite who’s petty. We’re clearly supposed to look down on her for her vanity and obnoxious personality. This is in direct comparison to the other female characters. Rita, one of Dodger’s gang, is more tomboyish and open to Oliver’s presence, and then there’s Jenny, who’s presented as a picture of innocence. Of course, not only is female representation lacking, I can’t say racial representation is all that great either, despite the movie taking place in New York. Tito, another one of Dodger’s crew, is a Latino chihuahua who is more or less relegated to the role of comic relief and annoying one-liners. His ethnicity is called out in almost every scene he’s in, he’s stereotypically horny, and his accent is clearly meant to be part of his comic relief. Partway through the movie, he meets Georgette and his actions toward her are nothing short of sexual harassment. Even though she wants nothing to do with him—she makes some comments that could easily be taken as racial slurs—Tito more or less “wears her down” and in the end it’s implied they have sex, because that’s what we really need in a children’s movie. I can’t say I was too impressed with either him or Georgette.
Probably the main reason I love this movie, though, is because of Jenny’s relationship with Oliver. Jenny is unhappy over her parents’ seeming neglect of her and having Oliver around helps her fill that void. I would hardly go so far as to say that Jenny suffers from any kind of mental illness like depression or that her parents are intentionally abusive, but the movie does go out of its way to show how much having a pet around can help people cope with issues like loneliness and isolation. This is the part of the movie that really hits home for me, as I suffer from depression, and it never occurred to me how much having a cat helped with that until she passed away. To that end, I would say that it’s kind of nice that Jenny and Oliver don’t have to give anything up in order to be happy together. Their relationship is pure wish fulfillment, and while from a writing standpoint I want more, from the standpoint of someone who just wants to escape reality for a little bit, I’m perfectly happy. Just take a look at this scene:
Oliver & Company is a simple and fun movie for anyone who’s a dog or cat lover and just wants to relax for an hour and a half. The story is also a musical, which is always a plus. I wouldn’t say that the songs in it are my favorite in the world—Georgette’s song exists just to showcase how horrible a person she is—but they’re not bad. Ultimately, other than a few issues here and there, the movie is more or less harmless fun if it’s something you want to check out.