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USA Today's Review

Revisiting Disney's artless 'Oliver'

Coming a year before The Little Mermaid, the box-office splash that restored Disney as king of the animation sea, 1988's Oliver & Company (**1/2 out of four) was more colorful miscue than cartoon milestone. Re-released Friday, it's best seen as a harbinger of better entertainment to come.

The hip, urban tweak on Dickens' Oliver Twist stars a kitten (with a preadolescent Joey Lawrence's pipsqueaky voice) adopted by a gang of waggish canine con artists (led by Billy Joel's "abso-tively, posi-lutely" cool Dodger) before finding the owner of his dreams, rich moppet Jenny.

The true achievement arrives in the first 10 minutes or so. The camera dramatically swoops from skyscraping rooftops to teeming avenues, and visuals and sound combine to vividly capture the Big Apple crunch from a feline's-eye view. As Dodger notes, there's a beat to the city, and for a while Oliver snaps right along.

But the now-familiar showstopping formula that began with Mermaid isn't quite perfected here. Despite three screenwriters and 13 names credited for the story, the script quickly sinks into a predictable "girl-meets-pet, girl-loses-pet, girl-and-pet-reunite" sap-trap.

Oliver isn't exactly a howl in the humor department, although chihuahua Tito (Cheech Marin), with his droopy headband and mangled ear, has his manic moments - especially when he woos a haughty, out-of-his-league show poodle (Bette Midler).

And except for the catchy Why Should I Worry?, musical numbers aren't packaged with enough pizazz.

Potentially intriguing characters get lost in the shuffle, like Dodger, or are ill-defined. Oddly, Dom DeLuise's Fagin, the human ringleader of the dogs, is a simpering soft touch instead of a charismatic conniver. And Oliver's bland cat jinks can't compare to Simba's inspired playfulness in The Lion King.

But even lesser Disney has its charms. You can safely bet this reissue, with its then-cutting-edge, computer-enhanced scenery, will make the new All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 (not shown to critics) look like stale puppy chow. (G)

By Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY