The Good: Generally good Dickens plot, Moments of music
The Bad: Poor acting and musical presentation, Uninspired presentation of themes, Lack of DVD bonus features.
The Basics: A dreadfully disappointing musical, Oliver! simplifies Oliver Twist with terrible child and young adult actors who gut it of any emotional resonance or consequence.
Compelled as I have been by my current writing and enrichment endeavor to watch and review every film that has won the Best Picture Oscar (only six left!), I have found myself experiencing more and more of a genre that I am not predisposed toward at all. Yes, I've been watching a lot of musicals and the latest is Oliver! And while some musicals have surprisingly grabbed me and I would like to watch again or enjoy, this was not one of them. Indeed, the fact that this ended up as a Best Picture Oscar winner absolutely baffles me.
That said, Oliver! is a musical reinterpretation of Charles Dickens' classic novel Oliver Twist. For those unfamiliar with the work, it is a social commentary novel which does not (thematically) lend itself to a popular musical format (though an opera could certainly be pulled off for it). It has been years since I last read Oliver Twist and over a decade and a half since I last saw a stage production of Oliver! As such, this is a very pure review of the film.
Oliver Twist is an orphan living in 19th Century England and one night, he asks his keepers if he might have more gruel, which gets him sent into the street to be sold to the highest bidder. After a brief time with a family that abuses him, Oliver runs away to the streets of London where he is taken in by a thief, the Artful Dodger. In the company of the Artful Dodger, Oliver meets other orphaned children working as thieves and pickpockets working for Fagin and Bill Sikes.
While learning the trade, Oliver falls for the resident woman, the beautiful Nancy. And during one of his first attempts to pick a pocket, he is caught by the kindly Mr. Brown, who takes Oliver in when the attempt to prosecute him for theft fails. Taken in by a man of wealth and society, Fagin and his cronies become fearful that Oliver will "out" them to the authorities and they work to pull him back into the gutter with them.
Outside my appreciation for the occasional musical number - Oliver! has recognizable songs in "Food, Glorious Food!" and "I Think I Have To Think It Out Again" - the only thing that makes Oliver! even remotely worth watching are the costumes. The costumes look good and period appropriate and the street urchins have costumes that have an appropriate amount of wear. But while the costumes look good and the frantic Sikes is appropriately sweaty and greasy-looking throughout, the music is far less extraordinary. Many of the numbers are sung by prepubescent boys and they sound just terrible. This is driven home in painful contrast to the adults who sing and numbers like the one performed when Oliver looks out the window after waking up in Mr. Brownlow's house the first time where people in the street sell their wares are noticeably better than any song the children perform.
While children might be bowled over by the simple morality tale that Oliver! becomes in this interpretation, adults are less likely to be satisfied. In addition to making everything musical, the film has a troublesome tendency to simplify plot and character aspects. While Dickens did build certain 19th Century conceits into his novel, Oliver! seems only to be the conceits; the happy ending, the villains being thwarted and society being upheld, without any real social commentary. There is no real resolution to the orphanage and the simplicity of Oliver's parentage is brought up with no real foreshadowing. Even so, the film is fairly graphic for children, including multiple deaths. But even those seem to be brushed away easily with a rousing closing song.
As for the acting, Ron Moody is decent as Fagin, the greedy leader of the children's mob. His performance has some depth, especially in the final moments of the film when he emotes with his eyes. Throughout the film, he carries himself with a mix of sincerity and sneering in his facial expressions and he is a pleasure to watch, even if his character is villainous. He is also the exception to the rule in this movie.
Oliver! is an excellent example of the old Hollywood adage that one ought to avoid working with children or animals. The children are homogeneously bad. Mark Lester is stiff as Oliver and Jack Wild lacks any of the charisma I recall the Artful Dodger having in the Dickens novel. The songs often look like they are being lip synched and the sense of movement is so choreographed - even in non-musical numbers - that it looks contrived. Moreover, there is no on-screen chemistry between either Nancy and Sikes (which there is supposed to be) or Nancy and Oliver. Because Shani Wallis does not play her scenes with Lester as either inappropriately flirtatious or motherly, the role of Nancy falls flat.
On DVD, the only bonus features are a short featurette on the making of the film and a photo gallery. The featurette is not terribly informative and was disappointing. Moreover, the disc itself is strangely laid out. Despite the capacity for the entire film to appear on one side of a single disc, this film is broken into two sides of a disc with the bonus features appearing on the "b" side. Unfortunately, the disc itself is not labeled which side should be up to begin with so the viewer has some trial and error in this regard.
Oliver! will, unfortunately, be around forever as it won the top Oscar prize. It is two and a half hours viewers need not waste, though. If you want to see Oliver Twist as a musical, wait until a really talented school group performs Oliver! The kids in this, alas, aren't working at a level of competence that some middle schoolers are.
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project online here! Please check it out!]
For other musicals, check out my reviews of:
Repo! The Genetic Opera
Little Nemo: Adventures In Slumberland
For other movie reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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