What could be more Disney than staring a film with an orphaned kitten nearly drowning in a cardboard box? He’s already bloody miserable as all his siblings have been taken and rehoused (no doubt leaving him to wonder if there’s some anti-ginger prejudice prevalent in New York City) and tomorrow he will discover that most humans are in fact bastards.
Yet despite this most depressingly familiar of introductions to the 1988 film ‘Oliver and Company’, something seems to be changing. After spending months trawling through the Disney Animation Studios back catalogue, experiencing varying states of enjoyment and torture (and because I’m not a Disney fan, mostly the latter), it wasn’t until the previous film ‘The Great Mouse Detective’, that I first started to detect a few hints of something that I would best describe as “modern”. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why that is, but I suppose a sense of playfulness and awareness are making their way through the usual strait-laced, stiff upper lip of vintage Disney. I think it’s more a sign of the times in which the films were made, that lead them to be this way. Modern animations tend to be far more casual. Well they tend not to have lectures on Latin American subculture, long deviations discussing advanced animation techniques, entire films that don’t crack a single joke or a dude in full suit and bowtie explaining how the animation perfectly symbolises the 19th century classical music piece that accompanies it.
If ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ had indications of a modern approach to kid’s films, ‘Oliver and Company’ ups that considerably. Ok, the music isn’t exactly modern, but MC Hammer is still more contemporary than Big Band Swing music, and if truth be told, a style I have a soft spot for. That’s not to say that either of the films are classics, and that’s something most Disney fans and reviewers all agree with, but I’ve found them an easier watch than most that have come before. And bearing in mind that this film is an adaptation of a Dicken’s novel, it has far more plot detail than most films I’ve reviewed and that’s impressive.
Trying to review this film invokes memories of when I had to review ‘The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad’. When dealing with higher-brow literary classics, it doesn’t exactly offer many plot points that I feel compelled to rip the piss out of. Furthermore, due to the greater plot density, if I were to take my usual approach of a scene by scene deconstruction, I could be typing for days. But what I will say is that I definitely found ‘Oliver and Company’ a far easier watch than Ichabod and Mr Toad at least… Ultimately, there’s nothing particularly good or bad, nothing particularly outrageous or stupid and nothing especially memorable either.
So, forgive me for largely skipping over this film, but things are about to get far more interesting next time out for one reason or another. For starters, next time out we have ‘The Little Mermaid’, which happens to be Kerry’s favourite film of all time. The stakes are high on this one. If truth be told, I’ve rarely been so worried about disliking a film! But furthermore, we exit the creatives downturn and enter what I’ve learnt to be the Disney renaissance. What this entails for a someone like me is yet to be seen. Will the modern classics be the films to finally win me over? Considering my review of the next film may determine whether I have the respect of my wife or not, I really, really hope so…
We’re watching The Little Mermaid tonight (Monday 23rd November)!!!! I’m so excited!!!!
Still, I digress from Oliver & Company. I have to say, I didn’t know what to expect from this one, but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s actually really enjoyable. I already like the story of Oliver Twist and used to watch the musical a lot as a child (“Oom-pah-pah oom-pah-pah that’s ow it goes!”, so I already knew it would be a good narrative, but the adapted characters were good and it had some really catchy, contemporary songs.
In conclusion, I would recommend it as a solid family film.
We are now deep into the “Great Disney Depression” of the late seventies and eighties. This is an apt description for two reasons. Firstly, Disney are in a creative lull that has resulted in box office flops and reviews that aren’t just sycophantic love letters. So, if the Disney-loving critics have concluded that recent films haven’t been up to scratch, you can imagine how much I’ve detested them. Secondly, “depression” is an ideal term because recent movies have been just that. Depressing. For me, ‘The Rescuers’ had bleak undertones, yet zero humour or warmth to balance it out. ‘The Fox and The Hound’ went one better and didn’t just restrict the bleakness to its undertones. No Disney film prior had relentlessly felt so melancholy, and this is from the same company that brought you tales of attempted puppy-skinning. And Bambi… And to top it off, last time out we had ‘The Black Cauldron’, where the deliberate upping of the ‘dark and scary’ factor could have made it a memorable film for positive reasons, had it not been for the unfortunate obstacle of it being utterly crap.
Expectations then, are at possibly an all-time low coming into today’s film ‘The Great Mouse Detective’. Now, judging by the title, I have a gut feeling that this film will in some way involve a mouse, who is a detective. And is probably pretty good at it too. Just three films ago, we had the aforementioned ‘The Rescuers’, which also involved mice solving a mystery, and in about three films time, we will have ‘The Rescuers Down Under’. This leads me to believe that someone high-up at Disney HQ really gets their kicks from watching rodents solve shit. I just hope that this mouse is a lot more entertaining at doing his detective malarky than Bernard and Miss Bianca, possibly involving something that can actually raise a smile in the process….
The film starts in London circa 1897. It must be London because this is an American film, and this scene depicts cobbled streets, horse and carts and church bells which is pretty much how Americans depict London even in the 21st century. We find ourselves at a toy shop called Flavershams where we meet a sweet little mouse called Olivia and her father, Mr Flaversham. They are very Scottish. Mice don’t live very long so I find it very impressive that they’ve made it all the way from 19th century Scotland to London within their lifetime, let alone also having the time to set up a successful toy business once settled…. Mr Flaversham is giving Olivia a toy for her birthday. She’s very happy. But trouble lies ahead, can you guess what? Correct! A bat with a wooden leg swoops in and kidnaps Mr Flaversham. This is definitely Disney. A cute mouse who has clearly already lost her mother now having to witness her Father’s disappearance as well, resulting in her cries of “Daddy!” ringing out over the city… This sort of infant distress is bread and butter for the creative minds at chez-Disney. They must be moist with joy. Roll intro credits.
Next, we are introduced to a mouse who narrates with a VERY English accent. The Queens English obviously. Again, exactly how Americans always portray people in the UK. I wonder if he has a very posh English name? He’s called Dr David Q Dawson. Yes then. Plus, I imagine the Q stands for Quentin as I cannot think of any other male names beginning with Q… He may wish that we refer to him as Dr David Q Dawson, but the reality is that down the pub, his mates call him Dave.
Dave finds Olivia crying. After explaining her predicament, Dave takes her to Baker Street to see Basil, the great mouse detective. Anyone who has seen the 1980’s British cartoon ‘Dangermouse’ will be sensing some déjà vu around about now, as that also features a mouse on Baker Street that essentially rips off Sherlock Holmes. But of course, Disney will put its own inimitable stamp on this familiar scenario (less jokes and more frolicking animals with dead / wounded parents).
Initially Basil thinks it’s an inappropriate time to help Olivia. What a dick. But once he realises that Mr Flaversham was taken by a bat with a wooden leg, he suddenly becomes interested. Not because the why’s and how’s of a bat having a wooden leg (which would certainly arouse most people’s interest), but because he works for the evil Professor Ratigan, Basil’s arch enemy.
Let’s meet this Ratigan then shall we? Ratigan must be pretty damn awesome. How do I know this? Because a load of rodents declare this in a song. You don’t take the time to learn a song and dance routine unless you’re really invested in the lyrics you’re singing. He must be GREAT. Not only that, he’s also quite entertaining. Ok, so he feeds one of his drunken mouse lackeys to his pet cat (no, I’m not sure how a rat successfully has a pet cat either) because he was drunk and annoying, but there’s been far more irritating baddies than this. Of course he still possesses that typical Disney antagonist trait of revelling in doing evil things just because they’re evil, rather than the more realistic ‘doing bad shit that’s self-serving and/or mean and justifying it’s the right thing to do usually because of some self-entitlement, prejudice or pleasing some deity’.
Ratigan has a “diabolical” scheme. Basically this scheme involves kidnapping the queen and replacing her with a mechanical version that will declare Ratigan the king. I’m quite liking this plan, but more for the ingenuity than the actual questionable logic that it could work. So Mr Flaversham was kidnapped, it turns out, so that he would make this mechanical toy version of the Queen. Why is he doing this dastardly deed? Because if he doesn’t, some bad shit will happen to Olivia. Oh Ratigan you scoundrel.
Speaking of Olivia, she wants to go on the journey to upend the bad guys. Basil says no but she accompanies him and Dave anyway. By using Sherlock Holmes dog to sniff out where the Bat (who is called Fidget, apparently) has gone, they wind up in a toy shop where they discover Fidget trying to get parts to make the fake queen. Unfortunately, in what could only be described as a colossal fuck up, Fidget not only gets away, but also manages to kidnap Olivia in the process.
Now, it may seem that I have a very good handle on the storyline at this point. But that is a lie. The truth is that whilst watching the first half of the film, I didn’t. Here’s the thing, I find it quite difficult to concentrate at the best of times, but during Disney films I find I become even more easily distracted than usual. On top of that, Disney seems to have a habit of mentioning key plot points just once and then never addressing them again. Fortunately, the Disney fandom site provides a good synopsis to fill the moments that my mind goes a wondering. I also thankfully found this less of a problem during the films second half, as the pace picks up and generally more stuff happens…
Basil finds a note containing the list of things Fidget was stealing from the toy shop. He does some detective shit to discover it was written where the sewage system meets the river. So he and Dave go to a bar there, disguised as sailors. It’s a proper dive full of rough sorts who hurl abuse at the entertainment (in this case, a juggling octopus). I then wrote in my notes, “I suppose the cabaret is a juggling octopus, as the usual entertainment in a dive like that in that era would be a sexy burlesque dancer, and they couldn’t have that in a Disney film!!!”. But then out comes the singing mouse and her dancers…. If I was surprised at the sexy manner in which the mouse sings, I was even more shook at the partial striptease and sultriness of the dancing. Obviously not sexy enough to get a semi or anything. It’s a cartoon mouse and no-one gets a semi at a cartoon mouse, so stop talking about it. No-one got a semi, agreed? Good.
After spotting fidget, Basil and Dave enquire about “their old friend” Ratigan. It would seem that they were too obvious however, as Dave gets his drink spiked. In his daze, he jumps up on stage to join in with the dancing burlesque mice that caused no-one to become inappropriately aroused. In the confusion, Fidget escapes, but Basil and Dave follow him through the sewage pipes to Ratigan HQ. But alas, it is a trap. Ratigan is waiting for their arrival.
He decides to dispose of the heroes in true Bond movie villain style. Instead of a quick murder, perhaps involving the pet cat, he instead ties them up. And a whole series of murderous weapons will be triggered in the style of the game ‘Mouse Trap’, by a string that will only tighten enough to start the fucktitude of chaos once the arm of the record player it’s attached to reaches the end of the song Ratigan has written about his victory over Basil. That’s right there’s a song.
So think about this: Instead of taking 3 seconds to shoot them in the face, in the time that Ratigan knew that Basil would be attempting to infiltrate his hideout, he instead did the following: First he went to a hardware shop. There he would have bought all the materials needed to make the various weapons of mouse destruction. Then he would have to have gone on the black market no doubt to obtain a few of the more nefarious instruments required. Then, he and his team would have to laboriously set up the ‘mouse trap’ style mechanism. Next, he would have to go to the trouble of writing a song (or putting an ad out to hire a songwriter to compose some music for him), then writing the lyrics that brag about his victory. Then he would have had to have hired a studio (in those days home studios were unheard of, especially among the rat community). Then he would have needed at least a sixteen-piece orchestra to perform the piece, assuming Ratigan had scored out all the parts for the hired hands. Then he would need to mix the resulting song. Following this, he had to have the track printed onto vinyl. I truly admire the trouble Ratigan went to in order to make the most entertaining murdering device possible. Now this is a proper antagonist. And the resulting song, genuinely made me laugh. My concentration had been wavering throughout the film before this point, but this bit came as close to winning me over as anything else I’ve seen Disney churn out, strangely arousing burlesque mice included…
Ratigan is now free to kidnap the queen and put a toy replica in her place. Mr Flaversham is forced to control this toy queen. She announces that Ratigan will be the new ruler over the rodent world. Now the only way this calamity can be rectified is with a Disney trope checklist to ensure all things end the way we have come to expect:
Daring escape from near certain doom for our heroes? ✅
Stopping the bad guy in the nick of time? ✅
Overblown chase scene? ✅
The moment the bad guy meets his demise it seems like the hero is a goner too, only to for the scriptwriters to go “gotcha! He’s fine, lol”? ✅
They all lived happily ever after (except for the bad guy who drowns if the impact of falling from a great height hasn’t already turned his insides to smithereens)? ✅
So was it a classic film? No. But here’s the thing: I didn’t mind it too much. Maybe it’s because my expectations were so low, especially following ‘The Black Cauldron’. Maybe it’s because my lasting memories of the film were Ratigan’s song and burlesque mice that DEFINITELY didn’t cause a semi. I’ve seen people suggest it was the worst ever Disney film, as well as people who have a soft spot for it. The film saved Disney from bankruptcy, but on the plus side, it apparently triggered an upturn in the quality of future the ‘Animated Studios’ films, so fingers crossed on that one. Overall, I think this film feels a lot more classically ‘Disney’ then many of the recent films. The film ends with Dave discussing how after their success, he joined Basil for many more adventures, just like Watson did with Sherlock Holmes. A reminder that ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ is an adaptation of the book ‘The Great Mouse Detective’. Which is an adaptation. Of ‘Sherlock Holmes’. Frolicking orphan animals and near-death chase scenes aside, it doesn’t get more Disney than that.
That song by Ratigan was one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a Disney film in ages! Just needed to express that from the start.
I had seen parts of The Great Mouse Detective in the past, but never the whole film and I have to say, I really enjoyed it. I think Ben’s covered my thoughts in his review.
I will add that we have ONE more film until The Little Mermaid!!!!! I’m gonna try and convince Ben to watch Oliver and Company this evening, but I’m not gonna hold my breath.