Oliver (voiced by Joseph Lawrence), a ginger kitten who does not know he is called Oliver because he has not been named yet, is part of a litter born to a New York City mother, and as his siblings are sold off around him, it becomes plain that he is not going to be one of the lucky ones, eventually left alone in the cardboard box they were kept in. The rain is pouring, and Oliver is getting wetter by the minute, so when the box collapses with the water he heads off in search of shelter and someone to take care of him. Alas, he won't find that tonight, and after being scared by fierce dogs and rejected by uncaring humans, he settles in a wheel arch to sleep...
You wouldn't know it from that introduction, but this was Disney's version of Oliver Twist, the classic novel by Charles Dickens which, as with much of the great author's works, had been subjected to much re-interpretation over the decades since it was written. This was no world-beating musical adaptation like the Oscar-winning Oliver!, however, it was more the product of a difficult eighties period Disney and every bit as underwhelming as that sounded. The tagline for this was the cringeworthy "The first Disney movie with attitude", which showed how desperate the company was to seem relevant when rap music and MTV were capturing the hearts of youth.
Not to mention the fact that animated features advertising toys, made on a fraction of the usual Disney budget, were cleaning up at the box office, as if the quality control of the public has been set to a level that didn't mind how inane the production was as long as it diverted the kids for an hour or so, and gave them much-needed ideas of what to get the tykes for their birthdays. Nobody wanted an action figure of Basil the Great Mouse Detective, but Transformers and My Little Ponies were flying off the shelves, put it that way. So the studio apparently decided to pitch Oliver down to the kind of thing you'd see on Saturday morning television.
Not necessarily in terms of the quality of animation, which even by mid-eighties Disney standards wasn't bad at all, but in terms of ambition. Yes, the plot was derived from Dickens, but everything else was trying to sell sass to the audience, as if to say, hey, we're not the creaky old codgers you might think, we can be relevant and "now" too. Naturally, with so much effort going into rendering an entertainment for the bright young things of a fast-changing decade, there was a faintly embarrassing air about Oliver & Company, not something you'd notice as a child at the time, but pretty obvious looking back on it.
There is, for example, a snatch of hip hop on the soundtrack and the kitten hero makes a few moves to breakdancing in a manner that suggests they were on safer ground with Barry Manilow on the music-writing duties, but even then there's nothing as catchy as "Could It Be Magic" or "Copacabana" to greet your ears. A compromise is reached for the dog people who would enjoy Lady and the Tramp and the cat people who liked The Aristocats, so little Oliver makes unlikely friends with a group of dogs who have been trained to steal by the human Fagin (Dom DeLuise), and Billy Joel voices the most Tramp-like character, but it's as if the animators were less interested in the story, which ends up as a rerun of The Rescuers, and more in creating cute personality moments, which translates as more sass and more schmaltz. There's nothing horribly awful about this, it's simply bland and although it did pretty well, remains one of the ho-hum efforts from the dark days of Disney animation before The Little Mermaid revived it.