When people complain about the atrocious state of most modern animation, they usually refer to the shabby technical quality that has reduced cartoons to being nothing but cheap, cynical vehicles for selling junk to children. But the thing that is even more missed--the thing that keeps the early Warner Bros. and Walt Disney shorts and features irresistible after all these years--is the heart and the humor that has been factored out by computers and shoddy overseas animation. Fortunately, Walt Disney Studios, God bless 'em, remains determined to honor its founder's memory by turning out terrific animated features, and with "Oliver & Company" they prove that, although economics have forced some corner-cutting, the soul lives on. The story is a very loose adaptation of Dickens' "Oliver Twist," with a scrappy orphaned cat named Oliver (voiced by Joey Lawrence) falling in with a good-natured pack of street-smart dogs.
Dodger (Billy Joel), the group's leader, takes a fatherly interest in Oliver, so when the wide-eyed cat is taken in by a wealthy human girl Dodger's first instinct is to rescue his new friend from what he thinks is a bad situation. The dogs stage a comical assault on Oliver's new home, despite the fact that the cat has become quite comfortable there, and they drag him back to the streets. But Sykes (Robert Loggia), a human gangster who forces the dogs to commit crimes for his benefit, learns of the young girl and kidnaps her. Oliver and the dogs are then forced to take on Sykes to get her back. Heartwarming and suspenseful in the appropriate spots, "Oliver & Company" is also a very funny movie for adults and children alike (one-time professional dopehead Cheech Marin cleans up his act and provides hilarious comic turns as Tito, a scrawny, bug-eyed chihuahua who falls in love with Georgette, a vainglorious poodle with Bette Midler's voice).
The film also invokes those warm and corny feelings of loyalty, belonging and danger that were the hallmark of all of Disney's animated hits. The music, by Joel, Midler, Huey Lewis and others, is upbeat and refreshingly hip, and the film's skimpy length, although perhaps leaving adults feeling shortchanged, is perfect for restless tots. (Quality has never been known to deter a tyke's need to wander.) Detractors, and there are always a few, will point out that some of the animation--particularly the backgrounds--has never been so static in a Disney feature. But, compared to the hack work that today's kids are exposed to daily, the vibrancy and fluidity of "Oliver & Company" will seem like a whole new universe to them. This is a great movie, made by people who have a love for both their craft and their audience, and their very hard work will certainly be rewarded by strong holiday business. -Tom Matthews