This 1988 Disney movie was the last animated feature before the Disney Renaissance that began with The Little Mermaid in 1989. As such, it was an important experiment, featuring the first major use of computer animation for the company and the first film to have significant musical numbers in a decade. Think of it as a trial run for the elements that led the company to later success.
Based on Oliver Twist, it’s the story of an orphan kitten (Joey Lawrence, of Blossom fame) in then-modern-day New York. Billy Joel is the voice of Dodger, the mutt who takes the kitty under his paw. This leads to one of the two most memorable sequences in the film: the number “Why Should I Worry?” in which Dodger teaches the cat how to rip off a hot dog vendor. (As a note for animation buffs, Frank Welker voices the vendor, which is funny, because he usually plays dogs himself.) The kitten gets adopted by a lonely rich girl, only to have them both swept into a kidnapping plot with a loan shark and his Dobermans.
Additional notable cast members include Cheech Marin as a headband-wearing chihuahua and Bette Midler as the pampered poodle Georgette. Her hilarious “Perfect Isn’t Easy” is a number so over-the-top I can’t see anyone else doing it. (That’s the other stand-out sequence.)
However, it’s a movie made up of pieces that, while well-done, never quite fit together. Those two numbers stick in my head, certainly (perhaps helped by my owning the soundtrack as a kid and being able to sing them word-for-word), but much of the non-musical plot was too familiar and let my attention wander.
Then there are the images. The front animation is traditional, which means flat, sharp-edged art is placed against beautiful computer-generated backgrounds. At times it looked like they tried to animate from snapshots, which results in some unusual takes on perspective that look overly skewed. The two approaches fight each other, with the foreground too slick for the background. This film lacks the depth and shading of later movies, but the effects animation, such as the opening rainstorm, is very good.
Also, please note: for a family film, the final chase scene is both ludicrous and surprisingly dark. Be warned that younger ones may need some questions answered or reassurance after seeing it.
Portrait of an Era
The movie is stuck in the 80s. In addition to the big names in the cast, Huey Lewis sings the opening song, “Once Upon a Time in New York City” (the first Disney song written by lyricist Howard Ashman, before he went on to write music for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin). One of its chorus lines, “Keep your dream alive. Dreaming is still how the strong survive,” sums up that era: it’s inspirational, suggesting anyone can succeed with enough will, but with a competitive, dog-eat-dog edge.
In addition to the “poor little rich girl” character and the plot being all about owing money and how to get more, there are the smaller things. The extensive opening sequence shows a Times Square that features a breakdancer with boom box, for instance. I’ve got a certain amount of nostalgia for that era, already so far bygone, and a fondness for the movie due to remembering seeing it in the theater. To someone not predisposed with such background, its Saturday-morning-cartoon-level animation won’t be inviting.
The only new feature (not carried over from the previous DVD release) is a game. The rest are as expected, including an on-screen art scrapbook; a small set of trivia screens (that annoyingly use the wrong form of “its”); two Pluto cartoons; and the ability to watch just the songs “Why Should I Worry?” or “Streets of Gold”. (I’m not sure why “Perfect Isn’t Easy” wasn’t included as well.) “Disney’s Animated Animals” is a couple of minutes of clips put together for the movie’s 1996 theatrical re-release.
Also included are the original movie trailer and TV spot as well as the re-release trailer and “Return of a Classic”, about Disney’s re-release policy, now obsolete. (Time capsule alert!) The making-of is a five-minute promotional reel from 1988, slight but interesting for several reasons: It reminded me what the voice cast looked like back then, including seeing Joel in jeans, white T, and sunglasses inside the recording studio. It shows clips of the unrestored movie, which demonstrates just how bad the film would have looked without its digital cleanup. And there’s a short discussion of the computer technology of the time and how it was used.
Overall, animation historians will want this film represented in their collection, although if they have the previous edition, I see no need to re-buy it. For the general public, there are better Disney choices.
(A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the studio.)