Film review: Oliver & Company

Published: Tuesday, April 2 1996 12:00 a.m. MST

"Oliver & Company" has returned to theaters, eight years after its initial release, and it's about time.

The Disney animated feature has never been on video and is one of the most requested titles of recent years, according to trade publications. (It will no doubt receive a video release this summer or fall.)

Watching the film again, and re-reading my initial review (Nov. 18, 1988), my feelings about "Oliver & Company" remain pretty much the same. Although, with Disney's incredible succession of better-and-better post-1988 animated features - beginning with "The Little Mermaid" in 1989 - it's hard to avoid comparisons.

"Oliver's" animation is deliberately abstract, but the background drawings in particular are quite inferior. There are a number of scenes where characters on the street are painted in that stand-still, television-animation style, which really detracts on the big screen. (On video, it probably won't be as noticeable.)

And the songs certainly aren't up there with Alan Menken's work, though Billy Joel's bouncy "Why Should I Worry?" and Bette Mid-ler's showstopping novelty number "Perfect Isn't Easy" are enjoyable enough.

Still, despite these drawbacks, the film in general is quite delightful, a loose adaptation of "Oliver Twist" with a contemporary, street-smart survival story. The central character is Oliver, of course, in this case a cute little kitten who is taken, reluctantly at first, under the wing of con artist Dodger, a mutt.

Dodger gives Oliver a hard lesson in working the streets, then leaves him behind - but Oliver eventually joins up with Dodger's crew, a passel of pooches who beg, borrow and steal on Manhattan streets under the direction of a homeless fellow named Fagin. Sykes, the villain of the piece, is also a human character, though his two main henchmen . . . er, henchdogs . . . are dobermans.

During Oliver's first day on the job he is taken into the care of a poor little rich girl named Jenny, much to the chagrin of Jenny's prissy poodle Georgette. So, when Dodger and the gang, misunderstanding the situation, finagle their way into Jenny's mansion to "rescue" Oliver, Georgette is only too happy to help. In the finale, Sykes kidnaps Jenny, which allows Fagin, Dodger and friends to rush to the rescue.

The climactic chase may remind you of Disney's "Wind in the Willows" adaptation, particularly Mr. Toad's chase at the end of that film. But "Oliver & Company" isn't any scarier than other Disney cartoons, and the pace is so fast that even the youngest children should remain amused throughout.

Billy Joel is great as the voice of Dodger, and among his cohorts are Dom DeLuise as the whiny Fagin, Richard Mulligan as dimwitted Einstein, Roscoe Lee Brown as pompous Francis and Sheryl Lee Ralph as lovely Rita. Robert Loggia is the evil Sykes and young Joey Lawrence does Oliver.

But the scene-stealers are Cheech Marin's hilarious Tito, a feisty Chihuahua, and Bette Midler as the constantly preening Georgette. And their tentative romance is a definite highlight.

There are some computer-generated graphics here, about 11 minutes' worth, but they are pretty primitive by "Toy Story" standards.

In all, however, this is a funny, enjoyable family treat - and none too soon, since such recent "family" fare as "Little Indian, Big City" and "Ed" are in desperate need of replacement.

"Oliver & Company" is rated G.