November 21, 1988
In the past five years, the resurgence of Disney Studions has been tied to adult entertainment, not the animated features it won countless Oscars for. Well, with â€œOliver & Co.,â€ the studio shows it hasnâ€™t forgotten its roots.
Forsaking the sugary pseudo-philosophy of the George Lucas-Steven Spielberg â€œThe Land Before Timeâ€ animation feature, â€œOliverâ€ is a funny cartoon that keeps its lessons in the periphery of the main story.
As the film opens with a virtuoso aerial drawing of Manhattan and swoops down to focus on a boxful of abandoned cats, the message is clear â€” life in the city is hard.
When the forlorn feline meets a streetsmart spaniel named Dodger (using the voice of Billy Joel), its implicit that the cat has found a home with Dodger, his master Fagin and a multi-breed gang of pooches.
Borrowing liberally but not whole hog from Charles Dickensâ€™ â€œOliver Twist,â€ Disney animators and director George Scribner create a wonderful, yet often scary portrait of the Big Apple as Oliver the cat goes from rags to riches.
Unlike the more sanctimonious â€œ Land Before Time,â€ â€œ Oliver always remembers to entertain and the film is chock full of musical numbers (animated in the spirit of a Michael Jackson video) and one liners.
A kidnapping plot involving a crime kingpin named Sykes (Robert Loggiaâ€™s silky-evil voice) provides breakneck entertainment as well as one of the best chase scenes ever.
Celebrity voices help sell each character and itâ€™s hard to imagine Fagin as anyone other than the whiny Dom DeLuise. Joel is suitably hip as Dodger and Roscoe Lee Browne imparts a great dignity to a bulldog named Francis who fanciesÂ himself a great actor. Richard Mulliganâ€™s voice animates the stupid hound Einstein and Richard â€œCheechâ€ Marin steals the show as a feisty Chihuahua with an eye for poodles.
Oliverâ€™s forlorn innocence is captured well by Joey Lawrence and Bette Midler is hilarious as the voice of Georgette, a pampered poodle. When the dog sings â€œPerfect isn t Easyâ€ Midler sells it with fur to spare.
The folks at Disney make sure thereâ€™s something in the film for everyone. They have rap music, huge production numbers and star solo numbers. Even the human characters have foibles. Winston, the butler of Jenny, Oliverâ€™s kindly owner, spends his afternoons watching professional wrestling.
Although sometimes the movie comes close to stereotyping (Marin’s Chihuahua is almost a parody of Chicano machismo andÂ two threatening Dobermans have black-sounding voices), the story overcomes any shortcomings with understated brilliance.