Although it has virtually nothing to do with Dickens, Disney's "Oliver & Company," (citywide) a new animated feature "inspired" by "Oliver Twist," is a bright, upbeat comedy that should appeal to audiences of all ages.
The contemporary tone and broader, more cartoon-style animation puts "Oliver" in the tradition of "The Jungle Book," rather than "Pinocchio," and MTV seems to have been more of an influence than the European storybook illustrations of "Snow White."
Oliver has been transformed into a homeless kitten who meets (the Artful) Dodger (voice by pop singer Billy Joel), an utterly cool mongrel, on the streets of Midtown Manhattan. Although Fagin (Dom DeLuise) is human, his gang is an improbable assortment of stray dogs, including Tito (Cheech Marin), a rowdy Puerto Rican Chihuahua; Francis (Roscoe Lee Brown), a bulldog with thespian pretensions and Einstein (Richard Mulligan), a terminally dim Great Dane.
For all their savoir-faire, the dogs are utterly inept as thieves, which is why Fagin is in trouble with Sykes (Robert Loggia), an icily sinister loan shark who's accompanied by two vicious Dobermans. Sykes wants his money now, or else.
When Fagin's dogs try to rob a limousine, Oliver is caught by the passenger, a lonely little girl named Jenny, who takes him to the 5th Avenue mansion she shares with Georgette (Bette Midler), a spoiled champion poodle. Dodger's efforts to "rescue" Oliver from his new life of love and luxury, and Fagin's attempt to cash in on the kittten's new social status, lead to a climactic car chase over the Brooklyn Bridge and through the tunnels of the New York subway system.
All ends happily, but the film makers recognize that happiness in the '80s doesn't necessarily mean marriage, puppies or the small town setting of many Disney films. Dodger and the gang don't give up their street life for licenses and respectability, as Tramp did in "Lady and the Tramp." If Oliver chooses to stay uptown, that's OK; but Dodger prefers the tacky world of the Bowery. The two remain friends because they respect each other's differences.
In his debut as a voice actor, Joel shows us the gentle heart beneath Dodger's "street savoir-faire" and jauntily syncopated walk. The tension he suggests between warmth and "cool" gives the character a depth that's rare in animated features. But interesting as Dodger is, he almost has the film stolen from him by Tito and Georgette.
As the voice of Tito, the feisty, street-smart perro who can hotwire anything, Cheech Marin almost does a self-parody: He makes the expression "Check it out!" mean everything from a declaration of war to an amorous invitation. The character's impudent dance is one of the most polished bits of animation the Disney studio has produced in years.
Midler's snooty poodle is even more fun. Like Evita, Georgette believes an adoring world thrusts glamour upon her: "Not for my vanity, but for humanity," she croons in a paean to her own charms. When Georgette rises from her baroque bed (modeled on the rotating stage in "Zeigfeld Follies"), she's greeted by a chorus of admiring birds who perform aerial Busby Berkeley routines--a delicious send-up of the little birds who attend Cinderella and the other Disney heroines.
Compared with these vivid personalities, Oliver emerges as the least interesting character in the film. He looks like a cross between Tod, the baby fox in Disney's "The Fox and the Hound," and the title character in Don Bluth's "Banjo, the Woodpile Cat," and acts more like a puppy than a kitten. Oliver wins the viewer's sympathy at the beginning of the film, when he's waiting to be adopted and challenging Dodger for a string of hot dogs, but he's too passive and whiney to hold the audience's attention.
In his directoral debut, Scribner keeps the pace rapid and the camerawork unusually fluid for an animated feature. But he ends what should be the film's emotional climax before it really begins: Oliver is revived before the audience--and the other characters--has time to accept the idea that he's sacrificed his life to save Jenny from Sykes.
The drawn animation is combined with 11 minutes of computer graphics, which lets the artists use complex perspective shots almost impossible to do by hand: When Dodger sings inside a section of concrete pipe, the camera follows as a crane carries the pipe through a construction site. (The three-dimensional vehicles and backgrounds in the chase sequence were also done with computers.) The drawback to the computer-generated imagery is its sharp-edged regularity; a fleet of New York taxis without a single dent is difficult to accept, even in a cartoon.
"Oliver & Company" offers virtually ideal family holiday fare. The cartoon action will delight young children, while older ones, who usually reject animation as "kid stuff," will enjoy the rock songs and hip characters, especially the brash Tito. Check it out.
'OLIVER & COMPANY'
A Walt Disney Pictures release. Produced in association with Siver Screen Partners II. Director George Scribner. Supervising animators: Mike Gabriel, Glen Keane Ruben Aquino, Hendel Butoy, Mark Henn, Doug Krohn. Original score: J.A.C. Redford.
Running time: 72 minutes.
MPAA-rated: G (General audience).