Mixing lavish production numbers with a tale about 19th century social injustice may seem like an ill-fated match, but that is exactly what Lionel Bart accomplished when he put Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist to music. Adapted to the big screen in 1968, under the direction of Carol Reed, Oliver! went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The movie follows the master storyteller's plot about a young orphan (played by Mark Lester) who wonders, "Where is love?" Toiling in a British workhouse while daydreaming about food, glorious food, Oliver barely subsists on a diet of gruel. Then one day the hungry laborer approaches the institution's cook and begs, "Please sir, I want some more." For his audacity, the meek rebel is expelled and sold to the highest bidder.
Escaping from this next and equally unpleasant situation, Oliver sets out to make his own fame and fortune. Arriving in London, the naive waif meets a street-wise chap known as The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). When his new pal offers him the hospitality of a kind gentleman named Fagin (Ron Moody), the run-away happily considers himself at home, unaware that Dodger and the rest of the lads residing in his dilapidated warehouse pay for their room and board by performing petty thefts for the fatherly fence. Nor does he realize the entrepreneurial crook has his greedy fingers clawing at bigger dealings, thanks to his association with the brutish Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed).
Innocently believing pick pocketing is just a game, Oliver eagerly tags along with his experienced chum for some on-the-job training, until a not-so-artful slip of the hand leaves the blond novice taking the rap for Dodger's bungled crime. As he is dragged off to the magistrate's office to face his punishment, the scared child unwittingly solicits the pity of his accuser, Mr. Brownlow (Joseph O'Conor). In an act of charity, the wealthy man invites the delinquent youth to come and live at his house.
Although this appears a happy outcome, it is not welcome news for the boys back in the 'hood. Fearful Oliver may betray their guilty secrets, the gang needs someone to lure the possible stool pigeon back behind the bars of their dark world. The obvious choice is Nancy (Shani Wallis), Bill Sikes' live-in girlfriend, because she developed a motherly bond with Oliver while he was living amongst them. However, persuading the softhearted barmaid may take more than Fagin's appeal to her loyalty, or Bill's murderous threats.
Covering some complex issues, such as poverty, neglect, abusive relationships, and the ethics of breaking the law in order to survive, Dickens' story may seem an unlikely candidate for family entertainment. Yet the use of song and dance in this adaptation helps to soften some of the violent incidents, deepen the emotion of the desperate characters, and even lighten the mood with its infusions of humor.
Between the musical diversions and the decision to allude to (rather than portray) objectionable content, Oliver! presents a version of this classic literary work that most parents should feel comfortable sharing with their kids. (Very young viewers will still be frightened by moments of peril, some beatings dished out by a bully, and the depiction of a man being shot and hanged.) Reviewing the situation, the great novelist offers valuable insights into the powerful human need to love and be loved, as well as a providing a better understanding and sympathy for those who live a less-than fine life.