Clash of the Animation Titans
When Disney and Bluth went head to head
Most people probably don't remember, but at the time, November 18th 1988 was a huge day for animation fans. The reason for this was because two of the biggest rival animation studios at the time, Walt Disney Studios and Don Bluth Studios, were going to be going head to head with each other by releasing their latest film on the same date. Those films in question were Disney's Oliver & Company (which was the studio's 27th animated feature) and Bluth's The Land Before Time (which was the follow up to the director's extremely successful last film, 1986's An American Tail).
Don Bluth in 1989, with some of his animated friends.
What made this battle interesting is the bad blood that existed between the two studios. Before going off on his own, Don Bluth was one of the top animators at Disney, working on projects like The Rescuers and Robin Hood. However, Bluth grew tired of the Disney system and the films that he was making. He wanted to make his own films, and when the studio rejected his ideas, he left and took a huge amount of animation talent with him, who were also fed up with working for Disney. This is still remembered to this day as a dark day for the Disney Studio, which was fledgling at the time, and was having trouble coming up with a hit film. If you want to know the full story behind the split and the impact it had at Disney, I highly recommend watching the documentary film "Waking Sleeping Beauty", which talks about Disney trying to reinvent themselves and returning to power in the animation industry back in the 80s and 90s.
Both films are remembered as nostalgic childhood classics, so I thought I would look at both of them, and see how they have held up over the years. I will also look at both of their box office performances, and figure out which one came out on top at the end.
OLIVER & COMPANY
Disney really liked these guys back in the 80s...
Disney's feature was a modern day 1980s take on the Charles Dickens story, Oliver Twist. However, aside from some character names and a few plot elements, the movie has very little in common with the story. What most people don't know is that the film was originally developed to serve as a sequel to The Rescuers, which was one of Disney's bigger animated hits at the time. Disney actually had a lot of failed Rescuers spin off ideas. Heck, the TV show Chip 'n Dale's Rescue Rangers was originally supposed to star the two mouse heroes of that film, instead of the Chipmunk duo.
This was the reaction most people had to Disney's films at the time...
In 1988, Disney was far from being the unstoppable animation powerhouse that they had once been. Their last two features, 1985's The Black Cauldron and 1986's The Great Mouse Detective, had not exactly been box office hits. They were vulnerable, and they needed this film to hit really big if they were going to survive. In order to do that, they needed Oliver & Company to stand out. Their decision on how to do this was to make the film a musical, something that their last two animated projects were not. And because at the time MTV had really exploded with the popularity of music videos, Disney decided that the film should feature contemporary music acts like Billy Joel and Bette Midler not only doing music for the film, but also lending their voices to the characters. 80s pop singer, Huey Lewis, was also featured on the soundtrack.
Oliver and Fagin's gang.
But Disney did not stop there with finding the vocal talent for the film. They also rounded up comedians Cheech Marin and Dom Deluise for the cast. Deluise's involvement was actually kind of weird, since he was known for appearing in Bluth's projects at the time, such as The Secret of NIMH and An American Tail. Maybe putting him in was their way of sticking it to their rival. All this talent had been assembled to tell the story of an abandoned little kitten named Oliver (voiced by a young Joey Lawrence) who gets wrapped up in a group of dogs who serve as pickpockets working for their master, Fagin (Deluise). Fagin owes a lot of money to a violent loan shark named Sykes (Robert Loggia), so he sends his dogs out into New York City to steal from the locals and tourists, so Fagin can pay Sykes off. Oliver joins up with the gang, and ultimately befriends the lead dog, Dodger (Billy Joel). But one day, Oliver gets found by a lonely little rich girl named Jenny (Natalie Gregory), and gets adopted by her. He must now choose between the world of his friends, and the world of comfort and home that Jenny has introduced him to.
In the novel, Fagin ends up alone in prison, sentenced to die. His fate is different in Disney's version.
While the film shares a few very basic qualities with its source material, Oliver Twist, it's obviously very different. For one thing, there's a lot less death. In Dickens' novel, most of the characters are dead at the end. Here, the only on screen fatalities are the evil Sykes and his two guard dogs. Speaking of Sykes, one of the weirder changes is that Disney changed the spelling of his name for whatever reason. (It's spelled "Sikes" in the original novel.) They also made a lot of the characters, such as Fagin and Dodger, more sympathetic in the film. They are thieves like they are in the original story, but they're generally good people who try to do the right thing when they can. Of course, Disney changing a lot of stuff from the original source material is nothing new. Just try comparing Disney's recent megahit, Frozen, to the story that inspired it, The Snow Queen.
Regardless of the purists balking at the changes, and the critical reception of the film being lukewarm at best, the movie did prove to be successful enough with kids that Disney was able to continue making animated films, and actually started a goal of releasing one new film just about every year. This trend led to 1989's The Little Mermaid, which as we all know started the big Disney boom of the 90s, such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Oliver & Company is considered a fairly minor entry in the Disney film catalog these days. But without it, they might not have had the strength to make it through a difficult time for the studio.
Now let's take a look at the competition - The Land Before Time, which was released on the same day to compete with the film.
THE LAND BEFORE TIME
If Disney's strategy with Oliver & Company was to go contemporary and include a lot of current musical acts, then Don Bluth's strategy with his film was to give audiences a more simpler and classic-styled animated story. At it's core, the film's plot is about as basic as an animated film can get. A group of young dinosaurs are separated from their families and herds, and must put aside their differences and work together in order to survive the harsh conditions of the land, as well as the vicious predator that they keep on running into.
The lead characters are quite simple. Lead hero Littlefoot the Apatosaurus (Gabriel Damon) is the serious "leader"-type who keeps the group together. Cera the Triceratops (Candace Hutson) is a brat and a bit of a troublemaker. Ducky the Saurolophus (the late Judith Barsi) is the "cute" one. Petrie the Pteranodon (Will Ryan) is the silly one. And silent Spike the Stegosaurus (who never talks) is the hungry and lazy one. Even the adventures they go on are quite basic. The movie seems to be designed for young children, probably younger than Oliver & Company. Despite this, the film does have its share of dramatic and darker moments, starting with the death of Littlefoot's mother early in the film. There's also the issue that the kid dinosaurs are constantly being threatened with death, whether it means at the hands of a predator known as Sharptooth that is constantly pursuing them, or from starvation if they do not find the Great Valley, the last place on earth that still has green trees that they can feed on.
The kid who played Littlefoot went on to play a psycho killer kid in Robocop 2. Wrap your head around that.
Unlike Disney's film, there are no big names in the cast. The kids who play the lead characters are pretty much all we have for the entire film, since they don't meet many characters outside of their group during the course of the film. Fortunately, these are talented kids who are strong enough to carry the film by themselves. Of the child actors, Gabriel Damon went on to do the most work, as he would later do the voice of the title character in the animated film Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. Believe it or not, he also played Hob, the violent and foul-mouthed psychopathic child criminal in Robocop 2. Kid's got some range, you have to give him that.
The film reunited Don Bluth with producer Steven Spielberg, who had produced his last animated feature, An American Tail. George Lucas also joined on with this production as well, most likely after he saw the money that the last film made. Originally, Spielberg and Lucas wanted this to be a silent film, and not have the dinosaurs talk at all. This was eventually shot down, but the opening 10 minutes of the film contains little to no dialogue, other than an off camera Narrator setting up the story, so this might be a glimpse as to what the film was originally intended to be. Actually, quite a bit of the film was originally considered too dark or scary to be considered "family friendly". Around 11 minutes of the film was cut before release, in order to secure a G-rating, instead of a PG. Due to the cuts, the film feels incredibly short, as it's just a little over an hour long.
When the film came out, it actually proved to be a bigger hit critically than Oliver & Company. At first, Land actually was making quite a bit more money than Oliver, though this was likely due to the fact that Bluth's movie was playing on more screens early on. However, Disney's film, despite having a slower start, actually wound up out-grossing it at the box office in the end. When all was said and done, Land Before Time wound up grossing $48 million, while Oliver ended up with $53 million during its initial theatrical run. (It was re-released in theaters in 1996.) On video, however, it was a completely different story. Land Before Time proved to be so successful on video that it led to an endless series of uninspired straight to video sequels (which Don Blue had no participation in), and even a TV series. Oliver was not even released on video until 1996, and hasn't gotten nearly the amount of attention that Land did over time. In fact, it's kind of been forgotten by today.
Does Oliver deserve to be overlooked? Should Land Before Time have won at the box office? Let's compare the two films side by side...
There's something about this dog that just screams "late 80s".
Overall, there's really no comparison when it comes to a "timeless" feeling. Land Before Time has aged gracefully, while Oliver seems dated and very much a product of the time it was made. One only needs to compare the music in both films to come to this conclusion. While Oliver has a very 1980s music video MTV feel to its musical numbers, Land Before Time instead relies on a gorgeous instrumental score composed by James Horner. The score used in the film is, in my opinion, one of the better ones by the prolific film composer. It's haunting, kind of sweet, and contains a lot of melodies that are likely to be stuck in your head after watching the film.
Not only that, but I think Land Before Time is the much better looking film of the two. The animation has stood the test of time better. They Disney movie uses a very modern and kind of grungy look, which I guess is appropriate, given the 80s New York theme. But at the same time, it looks somewhat simplistic at times, and the background don't have the detail you come to expect from the Studio. There's a lot of static elements to the backgrounds that just don't move, or haven't been drawn in much detail. On the positive side, the movie does have some pioneering elements, such as combining CG with hand drawn animation. Disney had been experimenting with the process a lot with their films back then, but Oliver easily contains the most of it for its time, particularly during the climactic car chase scene.
I prefer the softer look of Land Before Time, myself.
In comparison, Land Before Time uses a much softer look that resembles watercolors. Not only is it more detailed, but it's more pleasant to look at, at least in my opinion. And while the story in Land may be simpler, I do think it's the more effective of the two. The characters are more likable, and don't seem as "in your face" as the characters in Oliver do, who are constantly screaming of making wisecracks. Despite this, I also find Oliver to be the more violent of the two films. Yeah, Land Before Time gets a lot of attention for killing off Littlefoot's mom, and the trials that the dino kids have to go through. But most people forget how dark and occasionally violent Oliver & Company can be.
In the film's opening scene, little Oliver is abandoned and alone after his kitten siblings were all adopted, except for him. He must then endure a raging rain storm, where he almost drowns, and is then chased by three very scary dogs who try to kill him. In a later scene, Sykes threatens to kill Fagin, and even nearly chokes him to death by trapping Fagin's tie that he wears around his neck in his car's automatic window. And during the film's final moments, Sykes' two vicious guard dogs are killed when they are dropped onto the subway tracks and electrocuted. Sykes meets his own end when his car is struck by an oncoming train, and we see it explode in a fiery mass as it falls into the East River with Sykes inside. Gotta love that family "magic" that only Disney can provide!
So, yeah, looking back I do see Land Before Time as the better of the two films. But, you know what? When I was 11 years old and saw both of the films at the theater that year, I remember liking Oliver better. I found the film funnier and faster moving. So, this is probably just maturity talking. Today, being a huge animation fan, I can admire Land Before Time's artstyle, music and simple but effective storytelling. That's not to say there's nothing to admire in Oliver. While I find the film dated today, I still enjoy the voice acting, especially Cheech Marin as Tito the Chihuahua. I just think that Bluth's movie has stood the test of time better.
Of course, the final answer is subjective. Land Before Time is definitely the most fondly remembered, but that doesn't mean that Oliver doesn't have its supporters out there. In their own way, both films played early parts in the current animation boom that we are enjoying today. Whatever film you end up enjoying more, that's something that cannot be ignored.