By Peter Travers
Updated November 21, 1988 12:00 PM

Just in time for the holidays, the wizards at Walt Disney have come up with an upbeat update on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Back in 1968, Dickens’ dark tale of orphans, thieves, kidnappers and killers was sufficiently sugarcoated to become the Oscar-winning musical Oliver! Now Disney has sprinkled on more confection to calm concerned parents. The good news is, the sweetness doesn’t grate, though it helps if you’re 4 instead of 40. This new Oliver has a disarming twist: It’s animated and cast mostly with animals. Oliver, the waif hero of the book, is a kitten adrift—not in London circa 1800 but in Manhattan 1980. Though master thief Fagin and his evil boss, Sykes, are drawn as humans, the urchins they teach to steal are dogs. Chief bowwow and befriender of Oliver is the Artful Dodger, the coolest of canines as acted and sung by Billy Joel. Warbling the jaunty Why Should I Worry?, Joel is the essence of street savoir faire. When Jenny, a lonely rich girl, takes Oliver to live in her Fifth Avenue mansion, Dodger and his reformed dogs try to protect the kitten from Sykes’s kidnap scheme. Sykes is actually a less formidable foe than Georgette, a preening poodle who feels poleaxed because Jenny’s new kitten is sharing her turf. The prima-donna moxie in Bette Midler’s voice makes this poodle a pistol. Descending a staircase to a nifty Barry Manilow tune called Perfect Isn’t Easy, she’s a Joan Crawford-bitch on four legs and a diamond leash. There are other vibrant vocal contributions from Robert Loggia as the scary Sykes, Cheech Marin as a lusty Chihuahua and 12-year-old Joey Lawrence—of TV’s Gimme a Break—as the feisty Oliver. The look of the picture, following the Disney triumph with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, also merits attention. Using computer animation, director George Scribner and more than 300 artists toiled for two years to bring the people, animals and artifacts of the Big Apple to life with dazzling changes in perspective. Too slight to rank with such Disney groundbreakers as Pinocchio and Fantasia, the film is more on the good-fun level of The Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians. But why kick? With its captivating characters, sprightly songs and zap-happy animation, Oliver & Company adds up to a tip-top frolic. (G)