This may be my last musical to review here, and what a note to end on. Oliver! is one of those rare musical films that carries enough whimsy and charm to make the songs a delightful interjection to the action. And through this charm, the film becomes universally enjoyable. Children will enjoy watching the kid characters have just as much at stake as the adults, and adults will enjoy the large scale quality and details of the film.
The plot is a musical interpretation of the Dickens classic, Oliver Twist. Oliver (Mark Lester) is a charming, angel-faced boy who is simply a victim of his circumstances and the actions of the adults around him. From the dreary work house, to the seedy streets of London, he seems tossed along the waves like a buoy. Besides being the innocent kid whose well being is constantly put at risk, Oliver is not the most interesting character in the film.
Nearly all the other characters are unforgettable. Mr. Bumble (Harry Secombe) steals the show from the start with his iconic bellowing, “More?” The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild) embodies the perfect young rascal with a whimsical sense of style. Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed) establishes a fearsome, brutish villain and Nancy (Shani Wallis) helps create balance with her feminine charm and sensitivity to Oliver.
Best of all the characters is Fagin (Ron Moody), the elderly man who mentors dozens of young boys and turns them into pick-pockets. There’s a distinct flair of charm and energy Moody channels to bring out the best and worst qualities of Fagin all at the same time. While he’s a scraggly-bearded scoundrel encouraging these poor boys to become petty thieves, he also seems to have an invested interest in seeing that the boys are safe and fed (even if they drink gin with their moldy sausages).
The large production value is what makes the film soar, especially during the musical numbers. To match the array of characters, the sets have a wonderful sense of whimsy while still portraying the Victorian time period. These visual elements make characters like the Dodger and Fagin much more realistic and the shifts into song less jarring. There’s a lot of great timing, especially in the musical numbers, and creativity put in the sets and choreography (which won an honorary Oscar) that help put this film at the top for 1968. This also seems like one of those films where you can find a new fun detail with every viewing.
“You’ve got to pick-a-pocket or two.”