With the mega-mega success of animated features these days, the studios are likely to pull any old dog out of the closet and throw it into the theaters. This weekend we find two such mongrels, "Oliver & Company" and "All Dogs Go to Heaven 2."
"Oliver & Company," Disney's 1988 cartoon release, was "inspired by" Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist." The press kit says that this canine-meets-feline story was "the studio's most successful animated feature up until that time," one that roped in "moviegoers of all ages" who "turned out in record numbers to see it." (Hello! How about "Snow White," "Pinocchio," or even "Dumbo" ?)
Despite these Michael Jacksonian claims, "Oliver & Company" was a modest success, one that has never gone to video. Since the home video market brings in big bucks for kiddie flicks, you can bet that this re-release is Disney's attempt to raise the profile of one of its forgotten children before sticking it in the stores. Maybe in '88 "Oliver & Company" was dazzling enough for one critic to deem it "another Disney classic," a sentiment echoed by USA Today, which gave it an incomprehensible four-star rating. This was back in the days before "The Little Mermaid," when Disney got hip by upping the camp factor and bringing back the kind of story that could speak to adults as well as kids.
Seen today, "Oliver & Company" comes across as a rather shabby transitional work, one that lacks the sophistication of today's 'toons and doesn't hold up to the Disney classics of yesteryear. Although the press kit says it was the first animated film to extensively use computer-generated imagery, you wouldn't know it unless you read it. The backgrounds are uninviting (and loaded in the first few seconds with shameless brand-name placement), the story uninvolving. During a recent kiddie-intensive screening, most tots were gabbing their mouths off.
The plot tells the tale of Oliver (the voice of Joey Lawrence), an orphan kitten lost in the streets of Manhattan until he meets up with the street-wise bow-wow Dodger (Billy Joel), who introduces him to his pals Tito the Chihuahua (Cheech Marin), snooty bulldog Francis (Roscoe Lee Browne), mutt diva Rita (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and dopey Great Dane Einstein (Richard Mulligan). This doggy gang works the streets, hustling what they can and bringing the goods back to Fagin (Dom DeLuise), a down-on-his-luck loser who owes loanshark Sykes (Robert Loggia) a debt he can't pay back.
The only interesting aspect of the story is how the dogs through their playfully deviant nature tell kids it's OK to steal as long as your motives are good and you do it with style. On the plus side is Georgette (Bette Midler), a pampered pooch whose song-and-dance number "Perfect Isn't Easy" suggests the wit and panache of gay sensibility that Disney would embrace with great success in "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast."
Surprisingly more satisfying is "All Dogs Go to Heaven 2," the sequel to Goldcrest's 1989 hit and the first feature from MGM Animation. Charlie (Charlie Sheen) and Itchy (Dom DeLuise again) are reunited in Heaven, a pastel place where - to quote the Talking Heads song - "nothing ever happens." Charlie jumps at the chance to go back to Earth in search of Gabriel's stolen horn.
Charlie's mission takes him to a vibrant San Francisco, where he meets the sultry Irish setter Sasha (Sheena Easton), battles with the devilish feline Red (George Hearn) and his bulldog assistant Carface (Ernest Borgnine).
The animation is artful, the musical numbers impressive and the entire project does what a cartoon should: tell a story - in this case, a supernatural morality tale - that would be impossible to portray with real-life actors and natural settings. "All Dogs Go to Heaven 2" can't compare with Disney's recent best, but it sure puts "Oliver & Company" where it belongs - in the doghouse.