Loosely based on Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist, Disney's Oliver & Company is modern re-telling of the adventures of the young orphan Oliver through the eyes of the animal world. This time Oliver is a kitten left alone on the streets of New York, where he soon bumps into and is befriended by a gang of canine scoundrels led by the smooth-talking Dodger.
Modern day New York city. The story starts with the introduction of an orange kitten (who will eventually be) named Oliver, the only one of his litter who doesn't get adopted from the "Take a Kitty Home" box. An unwilling stray, he takes to the streets but doesn't quite know how to go about surviving. As luck would have it, he crosses paths with Dodger, a dog who pretty much defines the term street-wise.
Although Dodger initially doesn't think much of Oliver, the young kitten proves to have his own brand of determination, and soon is accepted by Dodger and his gang of ragamuffins consisting of the Tito, Francis, Rita and Einstein. But this gang has their own set of problems. Their "caretaker" (for lack of a better term) is a human named Fagin, who has run on the bad side of a dangerous criminal named Sykes. The gang, now with Oliver, have three days get enough money to save Fagin's life.
Then, another problem. In their first outing together as team, they accidentally lose Oliver during a commotion. Dodger and gang think Oliver has been captured by misdoers, when in fact he has been adopted by a kind young girl named Jenny.
For the longest time I had no idea that this movie was based on Oliver Twist. I was familiar with the Dickens story but Oliver & Company is so far detached from that novel that I wasn't able to make the connection. So really, there's much no point in trying to compare the two since they only share the most superficial of similarities.
Oliver & Company arrived on the scene of another one of the Disney studios' turning points. After a few less-than-stellar movie releases, Oliver & Company, with its freshness, showed that there was still life in Disney and provided just enough momentum for the release of its next full-length motion picture The Little Mermaid -- which lead into the second golden age of Disney. Whatever the case, Oliver & Company is still traditionally not considered one of the Disney classics, though it is remembered fondly by many. Myself included.
I discovered Oliver & Company during the age when I was old enough to actively choose the movies I wanted to watch (instead of just watching whatever it was my parents got for me). Being an affectionate cat lover, I knew I was hooked the moment I watched the opening sequence and saw little Oliver, drenched in the rain and alone on the streets.
We follow the movie through Oliver's eyes... Watching as he befriends Dodger and gets to know the rest of Fagin's gang, and then falls into the care of Jenny. Through this journey the uber-innocent Oliver discovers the things that he wasn't really sure he was looking for. This, I guess, is another nod to the Charles Dickens' tale: Oliver earns his happy ending simply because of his ability to love others.
Oliver & Company is a sentimental movie dressed up in sassy coolness. It's a modern Disney flick, but not with the wink-wink-nudge-nudge jokes that are typical of the later Disney movies. There's a laid-back feeling about this movie, showing us that heroism, love and friendship doesn't need to be epic... After all, just because these things exist on a smaller level, that doesn't make it less important. Other than that, it's fun without without being over-the-top. Even the crisis, involving the (actually pretty creepy) Sykes is not really that essential to the story.
As a finale note, I just thought I'd mention that the casting for this movie was particularly brilliant. The Big Names aren't there solely for the sake of being Big Names... They really are perfect in their roles. Even though Oliver is the title character it really is an ensemble movie, with an actual honest-to-goodness ensemble. In particular, Billy Joel as Dodger is inspired. He has just the right mix of charm, cool and heart to make the character work. Oliver could so easily be annoying as he plays up the cute angle, but no. The rest of the ensemble have their moments too, from the cheeky Tito to the sassy Rita to the show-stopping Georgette. Jenny, too, though she doesn't have much to do overall in the story, is more than just a typical poor-little-rich-kid.