BootLeg Betty

BetteBack November 21, 1988: Bette Is Hilarious in Oliver

Altoona Mirror
November 21, 1988

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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 “Oliver & Co.,” the studio shows it hasn’t forgotten its roots.

Forsaking the sugary pseudo-philosophy of the George Lucas-Steven Spielberg “The Land Before Time” animation feature, “Oliver” 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 — 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 Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” 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 “ Land Before Time,” “ 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 Loggia’s silky-evil voice) provides breakneck entertainment as well as one of the best chase scenes ever.

Celebrity voices help sell each character and it’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 fancies himself a great actor. Richard Mulligan’s voice animates the stupid hound Einstein and Richard “Cheech” Marin steals the show as a feisty Chihuahua with an eye for poodles.

Oliver’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 “Perfect isn t Easy” Midler sells it with fur to spare.

The folks at Disney make sure there’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, Oliver’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 and two threatening Dobermans have black-sounding voices), the story overcomes any shortcomings with understated brilliance.

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