watched March 4, 2012
Admittedly, I have not read the classic Charles Dickens novel on which this movie is based. However, my research (aka skim of wikipedia), as well as my familiarity with Disney, tell me that this adaptation does not retain much more than a couple of character names and very basic story elements. So, with that in mind, I shall treat this film as its own work and not get too caught up in comparisons with the novel.
As is so often the case in Disney movies, Oliver & Company tells the story of an orphan looking for a place to belong. Though it's a tried and true formula, it only somewhat works in this instance. It's very easy to root for the main character, Oliver, a cute and innocent young cat. However, as the fifth in the canon to be set in present time, the film feels quite dated. While it may have worked for 1960s London in 101 Dalmatians, a 1980s New York City just isn't as timeless as Disney was perhaps hoping it would be. The most telling aspect is the music, featuring the talents of Billy Joel and Bette Midler. "Why Should I Worry" is catchy, but it's by far the best song of the soundtrack, which isn't saying much. The style of clothing and use of color also comes off as garish (bright blue eye shadow, anyone?).
The plot unfolds when Oliver finds himself in company with Dodger, a street smart dog, and his gang, who all work for Fagin. In this version of the story, Fagin is a hopeless thief, who currently owes a huge debt to Sikes, a ruthless bad dude with unusually large hands (seriously, they were humongous!). During one of the gang's street raids, Oliver is found by a kind girl who lives on 5th Avenue. As Jenny and Oliver take to each other, the dilemma for Oliver is whether to stay in the comfortable, safe home of Jenny's family, or to return to the gang.
It's an easy choice for Oliver, but his decision is hurtful to Dodger and the rest of the dogs. When Jenny is kidnapped by Sikes, however, the gang does not hesitate to come to her rescue. (Granted, I'm not sure the storytelling fully communicates the real pain of betrayal here, but it was a good idea nonetheless.)
Fagin has his shining moment as well. In a scheme to make some money, he sends a ransom note to Jenny's house for Oliver. When he discovers Jenny is the recipient of the note, his sympathy causes him to return Oliver without requiring payment, even though it means he still owes his debt and will likely be punished for not paying Sikes on time.
If you're willing to look past the scratchy animation and uncomfortably dated music, it's possible to grow fond of Dodger's gang, Fagin and Jenny, who each show courage, compassion and kindness to the helpless orphan cat. The themes of sacrifice and selflessness show up in a most surprising way. While this isn't Disney's best, it certainly still has some redeeming qualities, if only to serve as a preface to a truly significant era of animation.