I’m a sucker for anything with kittens, so Oliver and Company earns my good will by virtue of its opening scene. It’s New York City, and Oliver (Joey Lawrence), an adorable orange tabby, watches as his littermates are adopted one by one till he is left alone, forced to fend off rain and human foot traffic by himself. When a scruffy street dog, Dodger (Billy Joel) tricks him into stealing sausages but doesn’t share the loot, the sight of the maltreated kitty brings about another surge of oxytocin.
Loosely based off Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, it’s a story primed to take advantage of all your charitable instincts anyway. Oliver quickly falls in with Dodger’s ragtag gang of canine thieves, which includes sultry Rita, dim Einstein, theatrical Francis, and Tito, the scrappy, heavily accented, not at all politically correct Chihuahua. Their loyalty lies with a human caretaker, Fagin (Dom DeLuise), who in this iteration is a sympathetic ringleader compelled to a life of crime more by circumstance than by pure maleficence.
The major conflict revolves around his debt to Sykes (Robert Loggia), a ferocious, cigar-chomping hulk of a man flanked by two snarling Dobermans. In order to repay the money he owes, Fagin devises a kidnapping. After a robbery gone wrong, Oliver has found his fortunes reversed and is taken in by a lonely and very wealthy girl, Jenny. Fagin bets that the girl’s affections for her new pet will help him secure Sykes’s money and holds the kitten hostage.
While never soaring to the artistic heights of its source material or other Disney classics, Oliver and Company is plenty satisfying for a slight seventy-odd minute diversion. It’s true that the animation rarely jumps out and sometimes veers towards Saturday morning cartoon quality. There are also brief moments of theatricality that could be used to better effect. Billy Joel and Bette Midler, who voices Jenny’s prima donna poodle, give the film some serious Big Apple attitude, but their musical numbers deserve something showier and more Broadway than confined set pieces or a succession of close-ups and medium shots. The spunky characters make up for those deficiencies, however. For a film populated with unwanted pets and thieves, there’s a lot of warmth and love, and it’s something young audiences can appreciate without judgment.
Feel that 80s vibe! “Once Upon a Time in New York City” by Huey Lewis:
“Why Should I Worry” by Billy Joel:
“Streets of Gold” by Ruth Pointer:
“Perfect isn’t Easy” by Bette Midler:
Dir: George Scribner
Writer: Jim Cox, Tim Disney, James Mangold
Cast: Joey Lawrence, Billy Joel, Cheech Marin, Richard Mulligan, Roscoe Lee Browne, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Dom DeLuise, Robert Loggia, Taurean Blacque, Bette Midler, Natalie Gregory, Ruth Pointer
Time: 73 min
Country: United States