What pleases me so about this movie is the sheer spectacle that is brought to the screen. Oliver! is one of the few movies where you can always look at every corner of the screen during the musical numbers and discover something new. The choreography makes sure that everyone on the screen knows what to do and there is always going as much going on in the background as in the foreground. ‘Consider yourself’, ‘It’s a fine life’ and especially ‘Who will buy’ are wonderfully executed musical numbers that, unlike most other movie musicals, don’t want to fascinate with a certain choreography in the center but rather overwhelm the viewer with the sheer size that fills every part of the frame.
The weakest part of Oliver! is, ironically, Oliver himself. The character and the actor who portrays him. As a character, Oliver is so awfully passive – I know he’s only a little boy but it’s a rather frustrating movie experience if the central character gets pushed around constantly without ever doing anything for his fate himself (okay, he went to London, I give him that). And why Mark Lester, a boy who could neither act nor sing, was cast in this part will forever remain a mystery. Sure, he looks like every grandmother’s dream but seriously – there must have been somebody else. But apart from Mark Lester, the cast in Oliver! is top-notch. Ron Moody is extremely amusing as Fagin while Oliver Reed provides the darker moments of the story with his threatening portrayal of Bill. As Nancy, Shani Wallis steals the show and would certainly have been a deserving winner of this year’s Supporting Actress Oscar. And considering how much I usually dislike children in movies, Oliver! does its best to change my opinion with the members of Fagin's gang – especially Jack Wild is pure delight.
Of course Oliver! the musical is not Oliver Twist. Since this is a musical, everything has been made more amusing, more entertaining, less dark and disturbing but I still think Carol Reed deserves a lot of credit for maintaining a lot of darkness in this movie. Especially in the second half, the more serious tone of the story begins to cover the cheerfulness from the earlier parts. The number ‘Oomh-Pah-Pah’ is maybe my favorite in the whole movie since the tension of the situation wonderfully underlines Nancy’s desperate attempts to help Oliver escape.
I can totally understand why so many people dislike Oliver! nowadays – I used to be among them. But somehow, the unusual style of the movie, that used to disturb me in the past, now fascinates me more and more and the wonderful spectacle, the catchy tunes, the surprisingly dark plot mixed with many witty moments create a strong and wonderfully entertaining movie musical – at least for me.