Starring (voices): Joseph Lawrence, Billy Joel, Cheech Marin, Dom DeLuise, Natalie Gregory, Robert Loggia, Bette Midler
For a long time, before the billion dollar movie obsession took hold of Hollywood and they bought Marvel and Pixar, the Walt Disney Company was known for its regular output of splendid family animated movies. While their 1988 film, "Oliver & Company," isn't at the level of their greatest works, it's magic is hard to resist.
A little kitten (Lawrence) is waiting in a box on the streets of New York City, hoping that someone will pay the five dollars and bring him home. Alas, even after his brothers and sisters have gone, he is left all alone. By chance, he meets the super suave Dodger (Joel), who shows him how to get food. However, he neglected to tell the feline that the stolen hot dogs wouldn't be split. Feeling screwed, the kitten follows Dodger home to his pack of dogs, and his owner, Fagin (DeLuise). Fagin, as it turns out, is in debt to a sinister man named Sykes (Loggia), and is using his pets to help pay the bills. But an attempt to scam a limousine driver ends up with the kitten being adopted by a little girl named Jenny (Gregory). And things are just getting started...
What really sets this film apart is the look and feel. Due in part to the way it was written and staged, it feels like a Broadway musical come to life. For example, during Dodger's first song, he gets all the nearby dogs to strut to the beat in the middle of the road. The film also captures the personality of New York City surprisingly well. Every frame feels alive, and that contributes significantly to the film's energy. It also helps that animators took photos of the New York City streets from inches off the ground to capture the look from a dog's level.
The voice acting is uniformly strong. Joseph Lawrence, in one of his first roles, makes for an adorable Oliver, giving the character plenty of spunk while keeping his naiveté. Billy Joel, best known as a rock singer, is also effective as the cocky Dodger. This is one cool dog, but as confident as he is, he has his vulnerable spots. It's not a great performance, but it works. Cheech Marin is hilarious as the feisty chihuahua, Tito, and his conversations with Jenny's super pampered poodle Georgette (Midler) are the comic highlights. Even more heart is added to the film by Natalie Gregory as Jenny. And Robert Loggia makes for a truly evil villain (never has a black car looked so intimidating).
For a movie that's barely pushing 90 minutes, "Oliver & Company" covers a lot of ground in its story. But there's never a sense that anything was shortchanged or rushed. In fact, I wanted more.
But I'll take what I can get, and "Oliver & Company" offers plenty.