The first time I saw Oliver!, I was not too fond of it. I must have been in a foul mood that day or perhaps my younger brain didn’t appreciate the film as I do today. It’s not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a fun, harmless musical that brings the words of Charles Dickens to life-musically speaking of course. Those who are familiar with classic literature will know that this film is based of the classic Dickens novel, Oliver Twist. The novel was previously made in a film adaptation by David Lean (which I have yet to see), and that was more of a straightforward narrative, while this film acts more like a musical.
This film is a musical, and its damn proud to be one. The tone of the film is relatively dark and serious at times especially in the second act, but I was able to detect some lightness in the tone. I attribute that because of the music, which was overseen by John Green who overseen musicals at MGM during the heyday of musicals in the late 1940’s. There are just some songs here that will swell you up with happiness and wonder. Two songs that come to mind is the lovely “Who Will Buy” which is the leadoff song of the second act, and the relatively comical song “Reviewing the Situation.” Out of the other songs, I enjoyed the one called “Food, Glorious Food.” That song sounds like a cheerful song, but it’s not because it’s about the young boy who is yearning for food after suffering from meager rations. I mostly liked the songs on the whole, although sometimes they seemed a little stuffy.
Unlike the novel, the film focuses away from the main character of the story-Oliver, and focuses more on the villains and there are quite a few of them. If you think about it, there’s nothing that interesting about Oliver himself. He’s not a bad kid, but he does not elevate the story. This is where the villains come in. We have Fagin who is an elderly man who runs a group of child pickpockets. There is the malicious Bill Sykes who is a former pupil of Fagin’s and is a very dangerous man. There is the “Artful Dodger” who is a kid who works with Fagin as the number one pickpocket. It’s a very interesting cast of villains and it was a pleasure watching them develop onscreen.
Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) is a poor orphan who is kicked out of the orphanage after asking for more dinner one day. Then he is received by Fagin (Ron Moody) and his merry gang of pickpockets. He is taught the trade by Fagin and the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). After being accused of a theft, he is taken in by a kinder, richer gentleman who may know something about Oliver’s past. That raises the interest of Bill Sykes (Oliver Reed) and his love Nancy (Shani Wallis). Bill attempts to use Oliver as mean to get rich while Oliver finds an ally in Nancy.
The performances are not bad, but there are nothing truly memorable outside the performances of Ron Moody and Oliver Reed. Moody delivers a dynamite performance as Fagin and he really embodies his character through song. He is one of cinema’s most underrated and memorable villains. Reed also transcends the screen with his memorable performance as the overly violent Sykes. Jack Wild had a decent performance as the Artful Dodger, but I don’t think his character was developed as well. As for Mark Lester, well I believe his performance was bland. Not bad nor good, but just bland. I actually saw in my research that Mark Lester was awful at singing, so his voice had to be dubbed by the director’s daughter. Ouch!
The film looks amazing. The production design gave the film a moody feeling and we see the darkness arise on their makeshift cobbled London streets. The sets are great and they did a good job with the costumes. They did not go overboard with everything. They struck the perfect balance when it came to the looks of the film, so I was pleased about that.
This film was directed by Sir Carol Reed and he delivers a smooth direction, especially when it came to the tone of it. He was able to strike the fine line between the serious and light tones when needed. Despite all of the darkness, this is an excellent family film. I found, on discussion forums, that people enjoyed watching it with their families. When that happens, you know you have a successful movie on your hands. It certainly did well when it came to the awards pundits. It was nominated for eleven Oscars, and won six of them including Best Picture and Best Picture. An interesting fact is that this is the only G-rated film that has ever won Best Picture. I found that piece of trivia mind-blowing.
All-in-all, I found Oliver! to be an entertaining musical, even if it suffers from flaws. The film looks beautiful and it works due to fluid direction, solid performances, and some good music.
My Grade: B+