Oliver and Company (June 16/02)
All through the '80s, the traditionally animated films produced by Disney were in decline - both financially and creatively. But that changed with the 1989 release of The Little Mermaid, the movie that helped the studio regain its long-lost title of the foremost purveyor of animated entertainment. However, the movie released prior to that success was Oliver and Company, the virtual nadir of the Disney oeuvre.
This essentially plotless story tells the tale of an abandoned kitten named Oliver. As the film opens, Oliver finds himself struggling to survive in the big city (in this case, New York). A sassy and street-smart mutt named Dodger spots him, and takes pity on the kitty. After successfully using the clueless feline to steal some sausages, Dodger takes him under his wing and introduces the cat to his posse of pooches (which consists of expectedly wacky characters). But after a plan by the gang to steal a limo goes awry (their owner owes a big chunk of change to an evil gangster named Sykes, so they figure they'll steal a limo to make some dough), Oliver finds himself the new pet of a little girl named Jenny. Soon, though, Oliver's two lives clash and he finds himself caught in the middle…
Oliver and Company doesn't really work on any level, especially when compared to most other Disney cartoons. The characters, while likable enough, never become three-dimensional enough for us to root for them. Though the animals (mostly dogs) certainly look different and have various quirks of their own, none of them ever really stand out among the pack. It's the usual Disney ragtag bunch, but the only difference is, these characters never exhibit any characteristics other than the cliched mannerisms we expect (example: the hyperactive little dog voiced by Cheech Marin provides the film with its comic relief, but not much else).
And, unlike most Disney flicks, most of the songs here are unmemorable (putting it kindly). One ditty, sung by Billy Joel, is somewhat catchy but the rest are instantly forgettable. The real problem here, besides the lackluster songs and lame characters, is the structure of the film. The first half essentially coasts along on the perceived charm of these various animals, but since they really don't have any, the movie falls flat during that portion. And even when the half-baked plot kicks in, involving the struggle to thwart the evil Sykes, it's just too busy and over-the-top to be enjoyable. But really, with this batch of characters, there's nothing the animators could have done to salvage the movie.
Oliver and Company isn't quite as terrible as it might sound; it is, at the very least, semi-entertaining and mercifully short. But it completely falls apart when held against the high standard of other Disney cartoons.