The Land Before Time/Oliver and Company

The fact that Oliver and Company and The Land Before Time opened on precisely the same day represents a real clash of the titans. In the world of animation, that is.

Oliver and Company is the latest offering from the recharged Disney animation folks and Disney, after all, is supposed to set the standard.

But Land Before Time comes from former Disney animator Don Bluth, whose An American Tail was one of the big cartoon hits of this decade. (Land Before Time also carries the considerable backing of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas as executive producers.)

The surprise here is that Bluth has managed to out-Disney Disney. Land Before Time is really a homage to the classic Disney animation, to the soft, luscious visual style of Fantasia and Bambi. It’s about the adventures of a group of baby dinosaurs who trek across a continent in search of a fabled land of milk and honey.

It’s a slight story, not so much written as cribbed together, but the visuals are so lush and the baby dinos so adorable that it all works very neatly. The film doles out the expected behavioral lessons in an unforced and charming way, with the little characters clearly and winningly delineated.

Oliver and Company, by contrast, catches the Disney animators in an upbeat and modern mode. The story is loosely based on Dickens, but Oliver Twist is merely a jumping-off point.

Oliver is a stray kitten lost in the streets of contemporary New York City. He’s taken in by “New York’s coolest quadruped,” a hip hound, Dodger (whose voice is provided by Billy Joel).

In this version, Fagin is a homeless rogue who, somewhat disconcertingly, speaks in the voice of Dom DeLuise. Fagin has a bevy of dogs working for him, an entertaining batch of canines who furnish the movie’s best moments. (A peppery chihuahua is given voice by Cheech Marin, who has fun.)

Oliver also falls in with a rich little girl who needs a friend. The little girl’s other pet is a pampered, blue-haired poodle named Georgette – vocal by Bette Midler, who knows what to do with such an opportunity.

Oliver, directed by George Scribner, is a spirited outing. There are some interesting angles and effects in it, and a dramatic chase on subway tracks that is quite good. At the very least, it continues the upswing in energy at the Disney studio, which became sluggish and something of a dinosaur itself by the 1970s.

It seeks to be light and jazzy, and it succeeds at that, but the movie’s fundamentally soulless. Even the quality of the animation is a bit off; the jaggedness of the drawing is nowhere near as lovely to watch as the round shapes and subtle colors of Land Before Time. In the battle of the cartoon giants, Bluth and company came out on top this time.

First published in The Herald, November 24, 1986

Big Thanksgiving showdown here. Just checking out the stills from Oliver, the film really looks like a relic of Disney’s past; The Little Mermaid would bow in ’89 and change everything. Bluth returned in ’89, too, with the so-so All Dogs Go to Heaven.

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