Cartoon features give a lift to the year's end

'Tis the season to be animated! Feature-length cartoons have long been a sideline in Hollywood, where they've never been as popular as their live-action cousins. But it's a poor year that doesn't give us at least one, usually around holiday time. This has turned out to be a pretty good year, delivering a pair of quick-witted cartoons made by some of Hollywood's most gifted fantasy specialists. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas teamed up to present ``The Land Before Time,'' while ``Oliver & Company'' comes from Walt Disney Pictures, the premier animation studio of all time.

Cartoons, of course, usually fill their leading roles with animals. (Is that why they're called animations?) The hero of ``The Land Before Time'' is a doozy: a baby brontosaurus who's hatched in a prehistoric age when Earth is still quaking and heaving into its final shape.

The story follows him and his lizardy friends on a dangerous journey from a bleak, hungry land to a valley they've never seen - where, according to a bit of wisdom their clan dimly remembers, they'll be able to live in peace and plenty. Of course, we know their whole species is doomed to extinction, but this G-rated movie tactfully forgets to mention that grim fact. What it does give us is a sweet and sometimes clever story with delightful characters and even a bit of high adventure. It also makes a comment on racial prejudice: The characters think they're supposed to live with their own kind, but they learn it's much easier to be happy if you learn to cooperate with others.

If you're a Spielberg fan, you'll recognize quite a few of his trademarks: having the hero lose his mother early in the plot, for instance, and giving another character the personality of a bratty little sister - who also happens to be a triceratops, in this land of dinosaurs. ``The Land Before Time'' was directed by Spielberg prot'eg'e Don Bluth, who made ``An American Tail'' and ``The Secret of NIMH'' a few years ago.

``Oliver & Company'' is even better. The hero is based loosely on Oliver Twist, one of Dickens's most appealing characters. But now he's (a) a cat and (b) homeless in New York City, which isn't too hospitable to down-and-out felines. Fortunately, he gets picked up by some lovable scoundrels, and helps them defeat a not-lovable scoundrel in time for a triumphant finale.

The cartooning is superb, the music lively, and some of the dialogue laugh-out-loud funny. The situations and characters seem borrowed from earlier Disney pictures, such as ``Lady and the Tramp'' and ``101 Dalmatians,'' at times. But the quality of the film is so high overall that it's easy to forgive a few moments for being too familiar.

Year after year, the Disney magic lives on. ``Oliver & Company'' could become a classic.

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