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Carol Reed
Ron Moody, Shani Wallis, Oliver Reed, Harry Secombe, Mark Lester, Jack Wild
Writing Credits:
Charles Dickens (freely adapted from "Oliver Twist"), Lionel Bart (book), Vernon Harris

Much more than a musical!

Experience the high-spirited adventures of Oliver Twist in this Oscar-winning musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic tale!

Young Oliver is an orphan who escapes the cheerless life of the workhouse and takes to the streets of 19th-century London. He's immediately taken by a band of street urchins, headed by the lovable Fagin, his fiendish henchman Bill Sikes and his loyal apprentice The Artful Dodger. Through his education in the fine points of pick-pocketing, Oliver makes away with an unexpected treasure ... a home and a family of his own.

Box Office:
$10 million.

Rated G

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Portuguese Dolby Surround 2.0
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 153 min.
Price: $134.95
Release Date: 11/18/2008

Available Only as Part of “Columbia Best Pictures Collection”

• “One of the Gang” Dance and Sing-Along
• “Fagin’s Den” Quizzes
Oliver! Interactive Map
• “Charles Dickens: A Life” Featurette
• “Meeting Oliver!” Featurette
• “Meeting Fagin!” Featurette


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Harman/Kardon DPR 2005 7.1 Channel Receiver; Toshiba A-30 HD-DVD/1080p Upconverting DVD Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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Oliver!: Columbia Best Pictures Collection (1968)

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!

The DVD Grades: Picture B-/ Audio B-/ Bonus C+

Oliver! appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Much of Oliver! looked pretty good, but some nagging issues caused distractions.

For the most part, sharpness seemed satisfying. Partially due to mild edge enhancement, wife shots could appear a little soft and tentative. Otherwise, the movie was generally crisp and well-defined. I noticed no issues with jagged edges or shimmering, and source flaws remained minor. Occasional specks and bits of debris appeared, but these failed to present real problems. Grain was a bigger issue; I didn’t think the grain was excessive, but it appeared a bit heavy at times.

Colors varied. Sometimes the hues looked warm and vibrant, but they could be a little heavy and murky. Skin tones came across the worst, as they seemed slightly ruddy. In general, the colors were fine; they just felt like they were amped up a wee bit too much. Blacks were dark and tight, though, and shadows worked quite well; despite the grain, low-light shots demonstrated nice definition. I wasn’t wild about the transfer, but I thought it seemed strong enough for a “B-“.

Similar thoughts greeted the mildly ambitious Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Oliver!. Audio quality was the weak link. Dialogue and effects sounded clean, but the music seemed tinny and less full. The music didn't appear terrible, but it definitely should have sounded more robust and dynamic. Effects also could be somewhat rinky-dink, but they weren’t as important to the mix, so I didn’t mind their trebly tones as much.

The front soundstage was nicely broad; music and some effects emanated from the right and left channels in a positive manner. The surrounds also got a fair amount of attention. Oliver! reserved the rears for occasional effects like rain, street scenes or tweeting birds as well as for vocal choruses during songs; no actual music other than massed vocals appeared to come out of the back speakers. I admit that I found the sound to be a bit disappointing. Still, while the audio wasn't great, it's definitely pretty good for a 40-year-old film.

How did the picture and audio of this 2008 “Columbia Best Pictures Collection” edition compare to those of the 1998 edition? The audio appeared similar for both. I thought the new release was a little louder, but overall fidelity and the soundfield remained similar.

Visuals differed, however. On the negative side, the 2008 transfer seemed grainier and suffered from slightly muddier colors. However, it boasted better definition, less edge enhancement, and significantly fewer source flaws. The 2008 disc wasn’t great, but it acted as a definite improvement over its decade-old predecessor.

A handful of new components accompany the movie. We start with a Dance and Sing-Along feature. This provides the traditional Karaoke presentation of lyrics on the bottom of the screen but adds an interesting twist: on the side, a dancer demonstrates the steps for each number. The feature accompanies “I’d Do Anything”, “Food Glorious Food!”, “Be Back Soon”. I have no idea how many viewers will want to dance along with the flick, but it’s kind of a clever component.

Three Quizzes come with varying levels of difficulty. These go from “Oliver’s Nice and Easy Quiz” to “Fagin’s Tricky Quiz” to “Bill Sikes’ Fiendishly Hard Quiz”. Is one actually tougher than the others? I don’t think so. I took all three without having seen the film in at least eight years, and I got identical 10 of 12 scores on all of them. They give you no reward for successful completion.

Next comes an Oliver! Interactive Map. It allows you to click on various parts of London and learn a little more about them via video clips. These provide interesting basics about the locations found in Oliver! and their use in the film.

Three featurettes complete the DVD. Charles Dickens: A Life goes for five minutes, 12 seconds and includes facts about the author. Actually, it simply presents a running video of a timeline. This shows dates and Dickens’ accomplishments in those years. It delivers rudimentary details in a tacky, cheap format.

For the final two featurettes, we concentrate on the movie’s lead actors. Meeting Oliver! goes for 14 minutes, three seconds, and looks at Mark Lester, while Meeting Fagin! runs 12 minutes, 44 seconds and concentrates on Ron Moody. Each one offers an interview with the respective actors. The performers talk about their casting in the flick and their experiences during the shoot. Both men give us many interesting and fun thoughts about their time on the film; you should definitely check out the interviews.

Does the 2008 release drop anything from the 1998 disc? Yup. It loses a short vintage featurette, a nice photo gallery, a trailer, and production notes. None of these materials were essential, but they were useful, so it comes as a disappointment they don’t reappear here.

If one were to write a short list of “Worst-Ever Oscar Best Picture Winners”, 1968’s Oliver! demands to land on it. Even when I try to account for my general dislike of musicals, I can’t find much here to appeal to the viewer. The DVD offers decent picture and audio as well as a few minor extras highlighted by some informative interviews with the lead actors.

As I write this in November 2008, this particular edition of Oliver! can be found only as part of “The Columbia Best Pictures Collection”, an 11-movie set that also includes It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It With You, All the King’s Men, From Here to Eternity, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, A Man for All Seasons, Kramer Vs. Kramer and Gandhi.

Because of that, Oliver! fans face a potential dilemma. The film comes with a moderately improved new transfer, but partisans will have to decide if they want the other movies as well; obviously no one will spend $135 just for one flick. The 2008 disc offers a step up in quality, at least, when compared to the original 1998 DVD.

Footnote: in addition to Oliver!, the “Columbia Best Pictures Collection” includes four other exclusive transfers. The versions of From Here to Eternity, On the Waterfront, All the King’s Men and Kramer Vs. Kramer all appear here and nowhere else.

As I write this in January 2009, the 2006 transfers of It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take It With You may or may not be bound to “The Premiere Frank Capra Collection”; Columbia released remastered editions in December 2008. I expect those are the same as the “Premiere” editions, but I don’t know that for a fact. Kwai and Lawrence provide the same versions found in their 2008 Special Editions, while A Man For All Seasons and Gandhi come from 2007 SEs. At least this means the “Best Pictures Collection” never relies on transfers from the early 2000s or earlier; none of the set’s editions were produced before 2006.

To rate this film visit original review of OLIVER!

Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main