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Disney's 'Oliver & Co.' marginal, at best

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Posted: March 21, 2008 8:23 p.m.
Updated: May 22, 2008 5:02 a.m.
At 69 minutes of actual movie, not counting five minutes of end credits, there's not enough room for a story to encompass all the characters in Walt Disney Pictures' 1988 animated film "Oliver & Company."

Director George Scribner and his writers Jim Cox, Timothy J. Disney (a great-nephew) and James Mangold (his first screen credit before a solid filmmaking career which now includes "3:10 to Yuma") cherry-pick certain things from the Charles Dickens classic Oliver Twist that fit what they try to do, with marginal success.

Instead of an inhuman, downtrodden workhouse for orphans, Oliver the kitten (Joey Lawrence, Blossom) tries to jockey for attention in a crowded box on a New York City sidewalk, with other kittens wanting a home. The rain pours down as '80s music icon Huey Lewis sings of there always being "once upon a time in New York City," and Oliver's box takes on water, soaking him, and eliciting a sympathetic response at least from this pet lover. It's wrenching to watch him struggle against the storm, and soon be flooded out.
In the novel, Fagin, an old man, leads a band of child pickpockets through the streets of London, teaching them the necessary tricks to be successful in making citizens of London poorer.

Here, Fagin is a thin, bony man without any luck left, voiced by portly comedian Dom DeLuise, apparently owing much money to the cigar-smoking, bespectacled Sykes, who has the temperamental growl of Robert Loggia ("Independence Day"). Sykes isn't much of a villain, as it's not made known how much power he has, and he doesn't seem to want anything else except what Fagin owes him. There's a hot-dog vendor at the beginning named Louie (Frank Welker, one of Hollywood's top voice actors) who smokes a bigger cigar than Sykes and has a worse attitude. He would have made a more proper villain, especially if he had been revealed as a manic dog-catcher using the hot-dog stand only as a cover to collar dogs, and then all the dogs band together to stop him and there would be a sense of how menacing a villain truly is.

Maybe I'm mulling that over too much.

Because the film is called Oliver & Company, the dogs Fagin lives with in his barge on the river are relegated to the "company" side. The main dog is Dodger (singer Billy Joel), who considers himself the coolest dog in New York City and in this version of the city, he is. He's got "street savoir faire," as he sings in an upbeat number called "Why Should I Worry?" He grabs hot dogs easily in partnership with the naïve Oliver, and sings atop computer-animated cabs, the major highlight of Joel's performance.

There's also the pompous Francis (the late Roscoe Lee Browne, narrator of both "Babe" movies), big gray Einstein (Richard Mulligan, "Little Big Man," "Soap," "Empty Nest"), tough Rita (Sheryl Lee Ralph, "Deterrence"), and hyperactive Chihuahua Tito (Cheech Marin, "Born in East L.A."), all of whom are seen only long enough to establish their specific personalities. Francis likes Shakespeare, ballet and great art, Einstein is protective, and Tito goes nuts, as is expected with the voice of Marin. Rita is given about three major lines, a number entitled "Streets of Gold," and part of the chorus at the end of the film, but that's not enough for this strong-willed dog.

The filmmakers make a lot of room for one pampered dog: Georgette, a diva made for another diva, Bette Midler ("The Rose," "For The Boys"), who gets her own musical number, complete with stairs created by computer that allow the camera to keep them in perspective and swing around like in a live-action movie musical. Midler's the only actor in the cast who gets something substantial. She may be outrageously spoiled and vain, but she's got a calculated mind, in brushing off Tito who likes her from the start. Her strategy takes more than a minute, and it's fun to watch.

Oliver just wants a home and is it with this band of dogs or with the wealthy child Jenny (Natalie Gregory), who would clearly get along better with Oliver than Georgette? That's the only time when there's significant feeling in the story, especially when the dogs arrive at Oliver's new 5th Avenue home and take him away, believing that he'll not be treated well there.

His home is definitely in that house, with a little girl whose parents are in another country, and who is taken care of by Winston, the butler/chauffeur in the meantime. So how will he get back?

Obviously, Sykes has to get involved before the end, but there is a nice togetherness about the voice cast, even with the lack of story. It's a credit to the animation, computer and otherwise, that one can feel how long these dogs have lived together.


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