Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 22, 2009)
As I recall, I took in a screening of 1968’s Oliver! as a very young child, and it was something I'd remembered semi-positively, largely because my father thought it was such a great movie. I didn't see it again until it was shown to us during my eighth grade English class.
Well, whatever positive thoughts I had about the film prior to that time went straight out the window. This was 27 years ago now so I don't remember what specifically I disliked about Oliver! other than I just thought it sucked. (Really, what more do you need when you're 14?)
Surely age has mellowed me somewhat and I'd be more receptive to the giddy charms of Oliver! at this stage of my life. And you know what? I still dislike the film as much as I did when I was 14. (Had you going for a minute there, didn't I? You saw that "but you know what" and thought I was going to say I liked it, didn't you? Hah!)
Clearly I've matured over the last 27 years since I can now better articulate why I disliked Oliver!. When I was 14, all I thought was that it "sucked." Now that I'm 41 I can fully recognize that it "really sucks."
As strange as it is to say this about a film "freely adapted" from a classic novel, Oliver! seems frightfully thin on plot and it also appears radically overextended. It doesn't seem like a whole lot happens during the film's two and a half hour running time, certainly not enough to sustain such a length; we get maybe an hour's worth of actual story at best.
Otherwise, the movie's 14 - yes, that's right, 14 - musical numbers dominate the affair. The cloying little ditties of Oliver! are absolutely inescapable. Let's see... 153 minutes divided by 14 songs equals one song every ten minutes or so. But these aren't brief, two or three minute quickies, so it's not like you get one song for every seven or so minutes of story. No, lots of these numbers go on and on (and on, and on); literally the first two-thirds of the film consist almost totally of music with very little spoken dialogue.
I suppose this is okay if you enjoy musicals. Unfortunately, I maintain a general distaste for the format. I think they work okay within a Disney framework but they usually seem ridiculous when portrayed in the live action realm. Oliver! appears to be an even more egregious offender than most musicals simply because of the sheer volume and the pointlessness of most of the songs. It's clear many exist simply to fill space. Most of them go on far too long, as well; almost every number tries to be a "show stopper" as the cast of thousands dances and warbles across the screen. Maybe musical fans eat this up, but I'd think even they would get tired of it. I certainly know that I did.
If the excessive amount of time devoted to music wasn't enough to turn me off Oliver! the acting would have done the trick. Oliver! was adapted from a stage musical, and it shows in the performances; it's unclear to me how many of the actors got their start on the stage, but almost all of them over-emote and use tricks that seem much better suited to the broadness required by the stage.
In this regard, I found almost all of the adult actors to be at fault. Ron Moody as Fagin, Shani Wallis as Nancy, Harry Secombe as Mr. Bumble – you could practically see them pause as they wait for the laughter or applause to die down before they deliver their next lines. I doubt they could have made a sequel to Oliver!; they would have wanted to reuse the sets, but they were destroyed by the scenery-chewing of these actors. It looked to me like they all needed Ritalin.
The only adult who fared acceptably was Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes because he offered an appropriate air of menace and danger. Well, at least until he opened his mouth; he worked much better as a looming presence than as an active - and verbal - threat. It didn't help that he socks Nancy with one of the least believable movie punches I've ever seen - I don't think his hand was within a foot of her face! At least Reed gets off without a song, which may have been the only bit of conservative thinking in this production; clearly it would have been much harder to view Sikes as much of a villain if he spent his time singing and dancing.
The remainder of the lead cast features two children, Mark Lester as Oliver and Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger. Lester is a fairly bland kid who seems to have gotten the role mainly because he's so darned cute, but he made for a mildly compelling presence; I almost sort of cared about him from time to time. Wild is less successful, if just because he has the more interesting character; his Dodger lacks the charm and magnetism that he needs, and he largely tends to blend into the scenery.
Really, the best piece of acting in the film comes from the dog who plays Sikes' sidekick Bullseye. Toward the end of the movie he sees just how brutal Sikes really is and he turns on him; that dog truly conveyed his conflicting emotions as he decided to do the right thing. He's the scraggliest looking mutt I've ever seen, but Bullseye is the only participant who shows any realistic emotions or any actual character development. Bullseye rules!
Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the film. It's an overly long, uninteresting mockery of a classic novel. What was the Academy smoking when they saw fit to name Oliver! Best Picture of 1968, and can I get some? That must have been some good stuff!