Oliver, an orange tabby kitten, is lost in the streets. He was the only kitten of his fellow kittens not to be adopted. Left alone in the rain in a cardboard box, he escapes and lives in the streets. He steals some hot dogs from a hot dog vendor with the help of a dog named Dodger. Together they are successful, but Dodger runs off, attempting to leave Oliver behind.
Dodger eventually arrives at the barge of his owner, a petty criminal named Fagin, along with his meal, to share with his friends: Tito the Chihuahua, Einstein the Great Dane, Rita the Saluki, and Francis the Bulldog. Oliver sneaks into their home, located below the city's docks, and is discovered by the dogs. At first, they, except Dodger, think that he is a spy but when he explains his involvement in Dodger's hot dog theft, they begin to develop respect for him. Later, Fagin comes in and explains that he is running out of time to repay the money he borrowed from Bill Sykes, a shipyard agent and ruthless loan shark. He and his Dobermans, Roscoe and DeSoto, arrive. Fagin tries to appease Sykes with leftover items located from the streets, but it does not work.
While DeSoto is sniffing around the barge, Roscoe flirts with Rita. When Tito tries to attack him; after Roscoe threatens Francis after he insulted him, he is held back by Einstein, who tells Roscoe to pick on somebody his own size, but Roscoe is not intimidated by him. He is asked by Dodger about whether he lost his sense of humor or not and in reply, Roscoe smashes their television. It is then that DeSoto finds Oliver. He scratches his nose after DeSoto attempts to eat him and Roscoe and DeSoto both intend to tear him apart when the dog gang gets between them. Before further violence can ensue, Sykes calls his dogs back to his car, and they leave while making threats towards the gang and Oliver.
After this, a soaking wet Fagin returns to the barge, lamenting that he has only three days to find the money he owes Sykes. He discovers Oliver and, considering that they all need help, accepts him into the gang.
Next day, Fagin sets out into the city with his canine menagerie and Oliver. While he tries to sell his wares at a pawn shop, the animals come face-to-face with a limousine driven by a man named Winston. He is the butler of the exceedingly wealthy Foxworth family and is taking care of their daughter, Jenny, while they're out of the country on business. The dogs stage an elaborate ruse in order to get Winston out of the car. Einstein hits it to make it look like Winston had hit someone and Francis (being the only member of the gang with a passion and love for the art of acting and the theatre) comes in his place to play the role of the hit dog. While Winston tends to Francis, Tito and Oliver slip in and attempt to steal its radio so as to give it to Fagin in order to sell it and earn some money in return as partial payment to Sykes. In doing so, Tito gets shocked by the electrical system, due to Oliver's mishap, and Jenny finds Oliver tangled up in the wires near it. Oliver finds a good home and a caring owner in Jenny, to the chagrin of Winston and the Foxworths' spoiled poodle, Georgette.
The next day, Fagin's dogs go to Jenny's house to "rescue" Oliver; thinking he is in danger and being tortured. After some initial disputes, Georgette is very happy that they are here to collect him, and helps them take him back, convincing them that he's been traumatized by the whole experience and wants to go back to them. When he is taken back, he is sad because he was happy living with Jenny. Dodger is upset, nevertheless, he allows him to leave. The gang is sad to see him leave and he, full of sadness and sorrow, is sad to leave them. Before having the chance, Fagin comes in, takes him back in, and sits in his chair, full of sadness, because of his lack of hope and luck of earning some money. Later, he sees Oliver's new golden tag and the wealthy district he got it from, and sends Jenny a map and a letter requesting "lots and lots of money" as a ransom. He then goes to convince Sykes that his plan will work. While he intends only to ransom Oliver, Sykes believes that he is "thinking big" in an attempt to kidnap and ransom the cat owner, and gives him 12 more hours.
Jenny receives the letter and takes Georgette with her to go and retrieve Oliver, but Fagin's poorly drawn map leaves them both totally lost, although they do unknowingly arrive at their destination. Being distraught that his "wealthy cat owner" is only a little girl with her piggy bank, Fagin decides that he might as well return Oliver to her, and pretends to find him in a dumpster. However, Sykes, who was unknowingly watching the whole thing, kidnaps Jenny, intending to hold her for ransom to her wealthy parents, and tells Fagin to keep his mouth shut and to consider their account closed.
Fagin, who was not expecting Sykes to use him to perform a for-real kidnapping, takes his dogs and Georgette to Sykes' warehouse to rescue Jenny, which the dogs, with Oliver's help, manage to do. However, an enraged Sykes and his Dobermans pursue them down the city streets and into the subway in his car intending to snatch Jenny back. Roscoe and DeSoto both fall onto the tracks in their fight with Dodger and Oliver, and get electrocuted. Jenny is thrown onto the hood of Sykes' car and Fagin tries to snatch her back while the dogs (mostly Tito) drive. Fagin manages to save Jenny while Oliver and Dodger fight off Sykes. They emerge onto the Brooklyn Bridge, where Sykes' car collides with a train and he is killed. Tito manages to steer Fagin's scooter onto one of the bridge's cables and they emerge unscathed. After the incident, Dodger, who along with Oliver was thrown away by Sykes before his untimely death, hands Jenny a "thought to be dead" Oliver. Everyone else thinks he's dead until Jenny hears a soft meow, meaning that he is alive. Everyone is rejoiced and accepted as Jenny's new best friends, except Georgette who is still in great shock from the chase.
The next morning, Fagin and the entire group celebrate Jenny's birthday at her home. That same day, Winston receives a phone call from her parents in Rome saying that they will be back tomorrow, while making a bet with Fagin on wrestlers on TV, apparently earlier than expected; probably as an unexpected beautiful surprise for Jenny. Fagin and his dogs finally drive into the streets to make a new start while leaving Oliver at his new home with Jenny.
- Oliver, voiced by Joey Lawrence, is the main protagonist and an orange Tabby kitten who wants a home. He joins Fagin's gang of dogs before being taken in by Jenny. He also saves her life from the black-hearted loan-shark, Sykes.
- Dodger, voiced by Billy Joel, is a carefree, charismatic mongrel with a mix of terrier in him. He claims to have considerable "street savoir-faire." He is the leader of Fagin's gang of dogs, and becomes Oliver's closest best friend amongst them. He serves as the deuteragonist.
- Fagin, voiced by Dom DeLuise, is a petty criminal who lives on a houseboat with his dogs. He desperately needs money to repay his debt with Sykes. Because of his economic situation, he is forced to perform criminal acts such as pick-pocketing and petty theft, but in truth, he has a heart of gold.
- Jenny Foxworth, voiced by Natalie Gregory (singing voice by Myhanh Tran), is a kind, rich girl who takes care of Oliver. She serves as the tritagonist.
- Bill Sykes, voiced by Robert Loggia, is the primary antagonist and is a cold-hearted, immoral loan-shark who lent a considerable sum of money to Fagin for unknown reasons and expects it paid back.
- Tito, voiced by Cheech Marin, simply known as Tito, is a tiny Chihuahua in Fagin's gang. He has a fiery temper for his size and rapidly develops a crush on Georgette (although she is initially repulsed by him).
- Georgette, voiced by Bette Midler, is the Foxworth family's spoiled prize-winning poodle, who is jealous of Oliver getting attention. When Tito displays his attraction to her, she initially responds with revulsion. At the end, however, she displays considerable attraction to Tito - so much, in fact that she sends him running for his life when she tries to bathe, dress, and groom him.
- Einstein, voiced by Richard Mulligan, is a gray Great Dane in Fagin's gang, representing the stereotype that Great Danes are friendly, but dumb. He is the strongest member of the gang.
- Francis, voiced by Roscoe Lee Browne, is an English bulldog with a British accent in Fagin's gang. He appreciates art and theater and detests anyone abbreviating his name as "Frank" or "Frankie."
- Rita, voiced by Sheryl Lee Ralph (singing voice by Ruth Pointer), is a Saluki and the only female dog in Fagin's gang.
- Roscoe and DeSoto, voiced by Taurean Blacque and Carl Weintraub respectively, are the secondary antagonists. They are Sykes' vicious Doberman dogs and seem to have a long rivalry with Dodger and his friends.
- Winston, voiced by William Glover, is the Foxworth family's bumbling but loyal butler.
- Louie, voiced by Frank Welker, is a bad-tempered hot dog vendor, who appears early in the film where Oliver and Dodger steal his hot dogs. He is meant to be one of the "enemies of the four-legged world", meaning that he hates both cats and dogs.
After the release of The Black Cauldron in 1985, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg invited the animators to pitch potential ideas for upcoming animated features. After Ron Clements and John Musker suggested The Little Mermaid and Treasure Island in Space, animator Pete Young suggested, "Oliver Twist with dogs". Originally wanting to produce a live action adaptation of the musical Oliver! at Paramount, Katzenberg approved of the pitch. The working title of the film during production was Oliver and the Dodger. It pre-dated the Disney Renaissance. The original central braintrust of Disney animators, the "Nine Old Men", had retired in the early 1980s, which signaled the entrance for the next generation of Disney animators, including the film's supervising animators Glen Keane, Ruben A. Aquino, Mike Gabriel, Hendel Butoy, and Mark Henn. At a certain point, it was to be a sequel to The Rescuers. If this had happened, it would have given the character of Penny more development, showing her living her new life in New York City with Georgette, as well as her new adoptive parents. This idea was eventually scrapped and later shelved because the producers had then felt that the story would not have been convincing.
The film was the first Disney one to make heavy use of computer animation, since previous films The Black Cauldron (1985) and The Great Mouse Detective (1986) used it only for special sequences. The CGI effects were used for making the skyscrapers, the cars, trains, Fagin's scooter and the climactic subway chase. It was also the first Disney film to have a department created specifically for computer animation.
The film was a test run one before The Walt Disney Company would fully commit to returning to a musical format for their animated films; It was the first such film to be a musical since The Fox and the Hound (1981). For the next decade, all of Walt Disney Feature Animation's films, starting with The Little Mermaid (1989), were also musicals, except for The Rescuers Down Under (1990).
The film was one of the first animated Disney ones to introduce new sound effects for regular use, to replace many of their original classic sounds, which would be used occasionally in later Disney films. However, The Little Mermaid introduced even more new sound effects. The new sound effects were first introduced with The Black Cauldron, while The Great Mouse Detective released a year after the previous film used the classic Disney SFX. This included some sounds such as the then fifty-year-old Castle thunder and the classic Goofy holler. However, the Disney television animation studio continued extensively using the classic Disney sound effects for several years, while the feature animation studio retired the original sound effects.
The film was the first animated Disney one to include real world advertised products. Many placements of real product names Coca-Cola, USA Today, Sony, and Ryder Truck Rental were some of the most used examples. It was said on ABC's The Wonderful World of Disney that this was for realism, was not paid product placement, and that it would not be New York City without advertising.
Certain animal characters from previous Disney films make cameos in the film. Four of the dogs shown are Peg, Jock, and Trusty from Lady and the Tramp (1955), and Pongo from One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961).
Richard Rich (who previously co-directed The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron) was going to codirect the film, but due to acting very hostile towards Disney feature animation president, Peter Schneider, he was fired in 1986.
As of 2008, the film made a total domestic gross of $74 million at the U.S. box office, $53.2 million of which came from its original run. Since 1988, Disney Feature Animation has released at least one film a year, except for 1993, 2006 and 2015.
During the film's release, McDonald's sold Christmas musical ornaments containing its two main characters, Oliver and Dodger, the start of a multi-year agreement of joint promotions with licensed products.
Despite its financial success at the box office, the film was not released on home video until after its theatrical re-release in 1996; this first home video release of iteventually became part of the Walt Disney Masterpiece Collection series. It was later released for the first time ever on DVD, just one year after the Walt Disney Gold Classic Collection series was discontinued. A 20th Anniversary Edition was released on DVD in February 3, 2009.
Despite its success at the box office, reviews for the film were generally mixed from a lot of movie critics at the time. As of 2010, Rotten Tomatoes reported that 44% of critics gave it positive reviews based on 34 reviews with an average rating of 5.4/10. Its consensus states that it is a decidedly lesser effort in the Disney canon, with lackluster songs, stiff animation, and a thoroughly predictable plot."
On the television program, Siskel & Ebert, Gene Siskel gave the film a Thumbs Down. Siskel stated "When you measure this film to the company's legacy of classics, it doesn't match up" as he complained "the story is too fragmented". Roger Ebert gave it a "marginal Thumbs Up" as he described the film as "harmless, inoffensive."
The staff of Halliwell's Film Guide called the film "episodic" and "short on charm". "Only now and then," they added, "it provides glimpses of stylish animation."
The Ren and Stimpy Show creator John Kricfalusi suggested that the film was derivative of Ralph Bakshi's works, and jokingly suggested its use as a form of punishment. On IMDB, the film currently holds a rating of 6.7/10.
- Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song for "Why Should I Worry?" (Nominated)
- Young Artist Award for Best Family Feature Film - Animation (Nominated)
- Golden Reel Awards for Best Sound Editing (Won)
- "Once Upon a Time in New York City" - Huey Lewis, Barry Mann and Howard Ashman
- "Why Should I Worry" (Main Theme) - Dodger and the Chorus Dogs
- "Streets of Gold" - Rita, Dodger, and the Gang
- "Perfect Isn't Easy" - Georgette
- "Good Company" (Jenny's Theme) - Jenny
- "Why Should I Worry" (Reprise) - Dodger, the Gang and the Chrous Dogs
- This movie was released exactly 60 years after Disney's first short, Steamboat Willie.
- The working title of this film during production was Oliver and the Dodger.
- There is currently a debate whether or not this is the final pre-Disney Renaissance film to be released. However, it should be noted that it did play an important role in the Disney Renaissance for two reasons. This has lead fans and animation historians to sometimes consider it a part of the Disney Renaissance, along with its preceding film, The Great Mouse Detective which was first released two years earlier.
- It was the first musical film since The Jungle Book/The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
- The discussion of promoting the film in Europe at time gave the crew of Disney inspiration for the 1994 film, The Lion King; which went on to be the highest grossing traditionally animated film of all time.
- Despite being referred to as a mediocre film by some movie critics, the movie still has a heavily devoted fanbase and the film is mostly enjoyed by the Disney fanbase.
- The first animated Disney film to be dubbed in Quebec language.
- This was the first Disney animated film to feature a modern handgun (more antiquated firearms had been featured in films such as Pinocchio and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad).
- At a certain point, this film was to be set after The Rescuers. If this had happened, it would have given the character of Penny more development. This idea was eventually scrapped because the producers had then felt that the story would not have been convincing. This is why Penny and Jenny are so alike. Even the name Jenny rhymes with the name Penny.
- At one point, the gang was going to include a Golden Retriever called Sally who would stereotype their nature as agile family pets, but she was pulled because it was felt there would be too many dogs.
- This was the first Disney movie to make heavy use of computer animation. CGI effects were used for making the skyscrapers, the cars, trains, Fagin's scooter-cart and the climactic Subway chase. It was also the first Disney film to have a department created specifically for computer animation.
- This was the first animated Disney film to include real world advertised products. Many placements of real product names such as Coca-Cola, USA Today, Sony, and Ryder Truck Rental were used. It was said on ABC's The Wonderful World of Disney that this was for realism, was not paid product placement, and that it would not be New York City without advertising.
- Princess Aurora makes a cameo appearance.
- Several animals from past Disney films make cameos:
- When Dodger sings "Why Should I Worry", Peg, Jock and Trusty from Lady and the Tramp and Pongo from One Hundred and One Dalmatians can be seen on the street.
- Professor Ratigan from The Great Mouse Detective can be seen in Georgette's photo collection.
- Though not owned by Disney, Scooby-Doo also appears in the photo collection.
- This was the first time one of the Lawrence brothers were in a Disney project, with Joey Lawrence playing Oliver. The three brothers would star in various movies from the Disney Channel, Matthew Lawrence became the voice of Tombo in the Disney dub of Kiki's Delivery Service, and Andrew Lawrence would become the second voice of T.J. Detweiler in Recess.
- Like The Black Cauldron, the film made heavy use of sound effects made exclusively for the movie. Though some did pop up in later Disney films (like the seagull squawk sound effect).
- This was the only time Dom Deluise (the voice of Fagin) voiced a character in an animated Disney film.
- There is an unknown unidentified song on the 2002 Disney DVD commercial that you won't find anywhere else.
- The film Frankie is watching at the beginning uses lines from the Shakespeare play "Macbeth."
- After Georgette slaps Tito (off-screen), he can be heard sining "I Could Have Danced All Night" from the musical My Fair Lady.
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