One of the last of the classic musicals was ‘Oliver!’ – a children’s adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel about an orphan who escapes from his life in the workhouse and finds himself working as a pickpocket in Victorian London. The cast includes Jack Wilde as the Artful Dodger, and Ron Moody as Fagin, who both received acting nominations for their performances in this film.
The story of Oliver Twist always strikes me as a interesting subject for the only children’s film to win the Best Picture Oscar, as it deals with (amongst other things) murder, theft, kidnapping, prostitution and violence. What elevates this film above other children’s films is the fact that the characters are not totally one-dimensional. We know that Oliver is the hero of the story and that Bill Sykes, the violent burglar who beats his charming girl, is bad news, but some of the others characters: Fagin, the Artful Dodger, are more interesting.
The film’s dark subject matter is lightened considerably by the wonderful music, and ‘Oliver!’ really does contain some classic numbers: ‘As long as he needs me’ is Nancy’s tear-jerking swansong and a firm favourite of mine, sung perfectly by Shani Wallis, ‘Reviewing the Situation’ is Fagin’s dark number during which he contemplates his life of crime, and ‘Who Will Buy?’ is a gloriously uplifting number, with clever interweaving parts and fun choreography. Some of the stage musical’s songs are omitted, including Sykes’ ‘My Name’, which is a shame, as well as ‘That’s Your Funeral’, which would have added some more adult humour to the film.
The acting is also pretty good for a film of this type, if a little over the top at times from the child actors. Notably good are Ron Moody as Fagin and Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes, who plays a brilliant villain throughout.
Being raised on musicals, ‘Oliver!’ is probably the Oscar winner that I have seen second most often (behind that other family favourite ‘The Sound of Music’), and it almost pains me to place this film at so far down the list. Having said that, whereas the film is thoroughly entertaining and a children’s film that adults can also enjoy, it just cannot compare to some of the greater musicals made. The film simply does not have the style and finesse found in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, ‘Top Hat’ or ‘Cabaret’ (I have deliberately not included Best Picture winners here) and I don’t think it was a worthy Best Picture winner.