OP-ED: Disney’s Next Live-Action Remake Should Be ‘Oliver and Company’

in Disney, Op-Ed

oliver and company should be the next disney live-action remake

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Last night, I pulled out a classic Disney Dark-Age movie: Oliver and Company – Disney’s animal-filled, modernized adaptation of the book Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens – and I am now thoroughly convinced that, if Walt Disney Animation is going to insist upon continuing to make live-action remake after live-action remake, this should be the next one they go for.

Actually, to be perfectly clear, I think the next film they should go for is Atlantis. I’ve been begging them to do a live-action remake of Atlantis for nearly a decade; So has everyone else who saw it. Even when the animated version came out in 2000, it screamed to be a live action movie. If Disney wants to show off their special effects and setting chops, and cast a stellar ensemble, Atlantis is right there. (So is Treasure Planet.)

However, since Disney seems determined to move forward with 1. musicals, and 2. no real challenges to their thematic form, I have an alternative suggestion for an overlooked movie that they could do a lot of favors for in live-action, and that’s 1988’s Oliver and Company.

Here’s why I think producing this movie as the next live-action Disney film would be an easy win for a company who seems determined to keep recycling older properties.

The Story Would Have Room to Expand in a Live-Action Remake

oliver and company should be the next disney live-action remake bette midler georgette
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Related: Do You Think Disney Movie Live Action Remakes Measure up to the Originals?

One of the reasons the reactions to the live-action remakes Disney creates has been so uneven is that they keep redoing their biggest movies. Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid; the reason for the massive amounts of blowback against these movies is that somebody, somewhere, is always going to get mad when you alter a classic.

There are simply too many clashing opinions out there to please everyone, especially when it comes to films that so many had deemed perfect or almost perfect already.

However, that is not the case when it comes to these lesser-known Disney properties. Despite the fact that it came out only a year before The Little Mermaid, many people aren’t even aware of Oliver and Company, and even among those who do remember it, not all of them will remember the whole story.

Thus, they would not have the same comparison issues they do when they remake films that entire swaths of children had memorized by the time they were six.

oliver and company should be the next disney live-action remake bette midler georgette
Credit: Disney

This lack of collective memory is no doubt in part because the story behind Oliver and Company is rather dark. While Disney still dressed it up compared to Dickens’ original story, there’s no getting around the fact that Oliver is about a little orphan boy who falls in with some street urchins, finds a rich family to take him in, and then is once again kidnapped by the urchins.

Disney did a lot to the story when they changed it to be about animals, but that didn’t rid it of the harrowing character of Bill Sykes, now a murderous loan shark in a big black car, or the scene where several of the characters are kidnapped, hurt, and nearly run off of a the Brooklyn Bridge by an oncoming train.

Dark themes in Disney films may play better in longer, more realistic films, however, because it gives the filmmakers more time to treat them with sympathy and care – and it also usually ensures that they are happening in front of a slightly older audience. Recreating these sequences with real actors may actually improve how people viewed the original film.

Not to mention, many of them, especially the scene I just mentioned, would look incredibly impressive when transferred to live-action.

It’s Set in New York City (We’re Looking at You, Lin Manuel-Miranda)

oliver and company should be the next disney live-action remake
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One of the most significant changes Disney made to Oliver – besides making it about a cat instead of a little boy – was setting it in New York City rather than London. This wasn’t just any New York City, either – this was the New York of the 80’s, a place well known as a grimy, crime-riddled cesspool, where you had to guard your purse to keep from being robbed, the rich lived on the Upper East Side, and the poor lived…pretty much everywhere else.

It was this stark class divide that made New York City the perfect setting for a re-telling of Oliver – where else would you find that the story of a group of pickpockets and the daughter of a diplomat would cross by coincidence?

As a New Yorker myself, I will be the first to tell you that it’s not that dangerous anymore, but there has been a violent uptick recently, in the wake of the pandemic – something that also caused the class divide to become more noticeable, as the poor citizens felt the effects of both COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis much more strongly than the rich ones.

oliver and company should be the next disney live-action remake
Credit: Disney

For that reason, even if they wanted to re-modernize Oliver and set it in today’s New York in the live-action remake, they could still do it. (And if they wanted to leave it in the 80s, that’s fine too.)

What’s important, though, is that they could get those great shots done in live action: Dodger riding on a cement pipe being lifted by a construction truck, walking Oliver through wet cement or puffing up his fur over a subway grate; yes, even the villain’s car colliding with a subway train on the Brooklyn Bridge would all be very impressive sequences in a film.

More importantly for Disney, though, setting a film in New York gives them the opportunity to bring in their Golden Boy: Lin-Manuel Miranda, who got his big break on Broadway with not one, but two blockbuster musicals about the city.

They’re Good Songs, Brett

oliver and company should be the next disney live-action remake bette midler georgette
Credit: Disney

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Speaking of the songs – Disney would have a serious opportunity to create some real bangers when it comes to Oliver and Company. Only one of the movie’s five original songs is even available on Spotify, so people aren’t likely to be particularly attached – and that means there’s room to play around with them.

Unlike in The Little Mermaid, a film in which his signature style felt a little out of place, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music would feel right at home in the urban-inspired tracks of Oliver and Company. They could easily add a rap break to the song “Streets of Gold” and have it feel completely organic – it was 1980’s New York, rappers carried boom boxes on their shoulders.

“Once Upon a Time in New York City,” the movie’s opening number, originally sung by Huey Lewis, also has the right tone and timbre to be accented by Miranda’s style – it sounds a lot like some of his more sentimental songs from In The Heights. Any new songs he wrote for the film would probably blend right in to what’s there.

The music in this film deserves a refresh, even if that just means bringing the songs everyone knows and loves out of the shadows. “Why Should I Worry,” the one song that you can listen to on Spotify, is as catchy as any Bruno Mars song – and it’s sung by a New York legend who is still around making music today.

Billy Joel is Still Around – He Could Just Do The Same Thing

oliver and company should be the next disney live-action remake
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One of the biggest draws of Oliver and Company for adults in 1988 was that the voice of top dog Dodger – named for the Artful Dodger in the story – is voiced by none other than Mr. New York, Billy Joel himself.

Billy Joel is still a major draw. The fact that his residency in Madison Square Garden is ending in 2024 is the talk of the town, and unlike many other artists, there is no generational divide on liking his music. Everyone, young and old, loves Billy Joel.

Disney would be smart to take advantage of all this New York-based fervor around Joel while people are still talking about it. We’re not sure if he could still do the voice for young hotshot Artful Dodger – he does sound amazing, but the man is 74 years old – but if he could, all the better. Even if he couldn’t, he could still collaborate on the music for the film – and perhaps even do a cameo of some kind.

Speaking of older actors to get on board – Bette Midler, despite being 77, still sounds exactly the same, and I have no doubt that she could still play the role of Georgette (essentially the poodle version of Sharpay Evans) and sing her song “Perfect Isn’t Easy” without issue.

The Cast of a Live-Action Remake of Oliver and Company Would Be Spectacular

oliver and company should be the next disney live-action remake
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The rest of the live-action Oliver and Company would be a snap to cast, especially given Disney’s current working relationships with so many of the actors: comedian Gabriel Eglasias could easily play Tito, the hyperactive little Chihuahua originally voiced by Cheech Marin; and Benedict Cumberbatch is a dead ringer for the voice of Shakespearean bulldog Francis (Roscoe Lee Browne).

Additionally, since she was originally voiced by Sheryl Lee Ralph, who better to play Rita than her Abbott Elementary work-daughter, Quinta Brunson?

There’s also the fun of this film working with real humans for the parts of Fagin, Jenny, and Sykes. Jenny could be any little girl, (just as Oliver could be a breakout role for a young voice actor,) but I think that Jeff Goldblum would make an excellent Fagin (Dom DeLouise). As far as Bill Sykes goes, he has the same quiet, menacing demeanor as Logan Roy from Succession, so I would put Brian Cox in that slot.

Also, speaking of working in live-action, I think I can anticipate one issue people might have with the concept of a remake of Oliver and Company, but hear me out…

Dogs and Cats are Easier to Work With than Lions

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Yes, Disney has a history of having major trouble when it comes to putting facial expressions on semi-animated animals in CGI films. They were universally panned for this when the live-action remake of The Lion King came out, as audiences pointed out that changes on the lions’ faces were barely noticeable, even during truly devastating scenes, like Mufasa’s death.

However, Disney could avoid this problem with Oliver and Company, by using a combination of lessons learned and things that have worked in the past.

First of all, Disney has been working with cats and dogs starring in live-action films for years. Anyone else remember the live-action 101 Dalmatians?

That film was cute, and well-executed when it came to the dogs’ roles – the script was lacking, but that was hardly the fault of the animals. Disney has proven in the past that putting real dogs and cats in their live-action movies does work. The reason they had so much trouble with The Lion King was that the lions had to be completely CGI, and so did everything else – they weren’t working with real lions on a real set.

(It’s almost like they should never have called it live-action in the first place, but that’s another tangent.)

oliver and company should be the next disney live-action remake fagin reading to dogs
Credit: Disney

If they were to cast real cats and dogs in the film to get some of the more stageable shots – things like the scene where Fagin is reading them all a bedtime story, or when Jenny plays the piano for Oliver – then the live-action remake of Oliver and Company would already have more heart than The Lion King.

All they need to do is put a little more emphasis on animating the animals’ expressions than they did in Lady and the Tramp in 2019, and they’ll not only have an incredibly sweet, touching film full of adorable animals, but they’ll also have an impressive update in a long line of movies that demonstrates continuing improvements to a very specific animation skill that there will likely be more demand for in the future.

Laid bare like that, it’s plain to see that Oliver and Company represents a huge, unnoticed opportunity for the Walt Disney Company as they continue to adapt their animated catalogue. Someone with connections, tell them: Oliver and Company should be Disney’s next live-action remake.

As The Hunchback of Notre Dame languishes in development hell and Hercules continues down an experimental path, the Walt Disney Company seems to be trying to focus on their big, beloved Disney Renaissance musicals – but if they dig just a little deeper in the vault, they’ll find some forgotten films that could really use all the extra love they’re doling out.

What would you like to see as the next live-action Disney movie? Who would you cast if it were Oliver and Company? Chime in in the comments!

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