Oliver and Company (1988)
Ryan and I are making our way through the library of Disney animated film, and we’ve made our way up to this re-imagining of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. The action is transplanted from Victorian London to modern-day New York, and Oliver is an orphaned orange cat that no one wanted. He’s befriended by Dodger, a stray mongrel who lures him into Fagan’s petty theft operation. Fagan is…a homeless guy?…who owes a ruthless businessman named Sykes a whole lot of money. Sykes menaces Fagan, while his two dobermans menace the gang. This being a Disney movie, things work out for the best, but not before the characters move through a lot of complications.
This movie is pretty heavily 80s, with Billy Joel providing the voice of Dodger and so many of the songs — which are deeply influenced by the pop music at the time. In a way, it’s kind of endearing; so many movies that aim for the “latest and greatest” in terms of attitude are usually the ones that end up being the most dated, and this film is no exception. It is very much a love letter to 80s entertainment.
I think that attitude is what makes the movie stick with you; the story is what it is, and it moves through the beats about as well as it can for something so predictable. But the characters, whether you love them or hate them, stick with you. Dodger is the star of the show; well-designed, bristling with attitude, the dog with the emotional arc that wraps up neatly at the end. Oliver is more of a catalyst character — he has a journey that he moves through as well, but he’s pretty much the “orphan in trouble” through most of the movie.
Disney has this great “shared” universe, it feels, with movies like this that runs from 101 Dalmatians, through Lady and the Tramp and The Aristocats, and into Oliver and Company. Who knows, maybe The Rescuers belongs to the same cinematic world? There are supporting characters in one movie that will pop up in the background of another — or at least, their models will. It’s a fun game to see what you can notice.
Most people say that Disney had a fairly rough go of it in the 70s and 80s, and while they were doing things that pushed them away from their “Golden Age” I’ve come to admire the risks they were taking. In a lot of ways, Oliver and Company feels like a bit of a step back into safer territory. Still, the movie was successful enough to usher in a bolder leap — the very next film on the list begins the Disney Renaissance in earnest (it’s The Little Mermaid).
If you like your Dickens stories a bit more frenetic, a bit brighter, and with talking animals, I’d recommend this. You could certainly do worse!
Man of the Year (2006)
This movie definitely could have been something special; Robin Williams stars as a Bill Maher-type who ends up making an improbable run for the White House. After several instances of speaking truth to power and being disruptive in the best way, he’s taken seriously enough to be added to the debate; from there, the dominoes just keep falling.
Meanwhile, in another movie, Laura Linney is a high-level employee at Delacroy Inc., which has just been given government approval to be the sole company providing voting machines in national elections. She notices that there’s something wrong with the counting algorithm, tries to talk to her superiors about it, gets shut down. Of course, that error causes some significant stuff to go down that could change the course of the country.
Lewis Black and Christopher Walken co-star as the advisers of Tom Dobbs (Williams’ character). Barry Levinson directed a script that he wrote. This…should have been a lot better than it was. It felt like there were two great movies struggling to climb out of a merely-adequate one.
Williams does his usual ad-libby stuff here; sometimes it hits, sometimes it doesn’t. The idea of Dobbs no longer being content throwing tomatoes at politicians and showing up to change the system himself is really intriguing, and I think Williams is at his best when he presents Dobbs as someone who is genuinely interested in pushing the country through its political gridlock, using humor and tactical honesty to do it. Linney’s part of the movie is intriguing in its own way, especially considering that we were just five years removed from Bush vs. Gore and the 2000 election. Rigging was hot on everyone’s mind at the time.
But instead of really diving into a political satire — or wish-fulfillment drama — we get this sort of muddled story that tries to be a lot of things all at once. Linney is sometimes stuck in a political thriller, sometimes she’s in a movie about a woman’s slow and steady mental breakdown, and sometimes she’s in a weird political romantic comedy. Levinson has a lot that he’s trying to do here, and he doesn’t navigate the shift in tones or genres very well at all.
It’s a shame, because I love everyone involved here. They deserved better, and I’m not entirely sure what went wrong. Was Levinson’s script tampered with by producers? Was Williams simply not a good fit for what he was trying to do?
At any rate — if you miss Robin Williams and want to see one of his lesser works where he still shows promise but the movie ultimately fails, this is for you? More likely, you’re either a Barry Levinson completist or a Williams fanatic.
The Giver (2014)
Jeff Bridges was one of the driving forces trying to bring this film to the screen, and it’s easy to see why. The Giver is one of those books I absolutely loved growing up, and I could see how it would make for an excellent movie.
This adaptation isn’t quite there, but it’s pretty solid. The basic thrust of the story is this: in a post-apocalyptic world, a community had been built that works on very strict rules. A person’s life is guided through milestones that allow them independence, or purpose, or a sense of completion of their life’s work. Jonas is coming up on just such a milestone — he is about to leave childhood behind and be given his job.
It turns out that Jonas has a few special qualities that make him chosen for one of the rarest positions: The Receiver of Memory. He must hold the collected memory of all humanity, so that he may dispense the wisdom of history when it is needed. The old Receiver shows him what has come before, and why the world is in the state it’s in now. Jonas has to struggle with the crushing weight of his knowledge, and just how much it alienates him from his friends, family unit and entire community.
It’s a fascinating book that shows us the power and danger of emotion, the inherent tension in society between safety and freedom, and what happens when the balances tip too far into one corner. The movie largely gets that down through the first part, but then the second half falls into the well-worn tread of most young-adult action movies we’re seeing these days. Even though it becomes fairly generic, the performances of the child stars and the lovely world design is just enough to keep you from giving up on it.
Brenton Thwaites is just about perfect as Jonas, bringing the character from his unquestioning acceptance of his life through the series of painful, disorienting revelations that follow. He’s tremendously emotive, so even when he struggles to find the word for an emotion he’s feeling the first time, we’re already feeling it with him. His confusion about the world around him, as well as the delight he has in these discoveries, are tremendous. His first days as the Receiver of Memory are easily the best part of the film.
It’s just too bad they couldn’t bring that same energy to the resolution of the story. Once the movie begins to sink into its familiar beats, that’s all there is to it until the credits roll. It doesn’t quite finish as strongly as it could, which is unfortunate because the book ends so tremendously. Still, it’s worth your time if you’re a fan of the novel. If you want to see Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep snipe at each other, or Eric Freaking Northman as the world’s nicest, blandest dad, then this movie is for you.