DVD Review: OLIVER! from Twilight Time @ 16 November 2013 06:38 PM

Oliver! is one of the last of the internationally successful family musical extravaganzas of the ‘60s. After Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music became such megahits (both as movies and as sound track albums), a parade of expensive, episodic movie spectaculars hit theater screens (most at higher, reserved seat ticket prices) that usually had intermissions and very long running times.

Most were financial disappointments (Hello Dolly!, Doctor Dolittle), some did very respectable business (My Fair Lady, Funny Girl) and others gained respect and admiration over the years (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Finian’s Rainbow).

But Oliver!, which had already become a Broadway and West End hit (and has since entered the canon of much-revived classics), made the very difficult transition from stage to screen. Dickens is a font of infinitely filmable stories anyway, but musicals based on stage hits did not always survive the adaptation. Oliver! succeeded beyond many of its kind.

If you like Harry Potter, Oliver! offers a rags-to-riches twist on a similarly British series of contrasting existences. It’s like Annie (or rather Annie is like it), but with bigger and more stringent messages of compassion and cruelty, haves and have-nots, cold-blooded evil and sacrificial love.

The duality of the film is exemplified most visually in its two gigantic ensemble production numbers: “Consider Yourself” and “Who Will Buy?” The former turns the poor working class labor districts of Victorian London into a kid’s playground through Oliver’s eyes. The latter is the flip side of the economic coin, without the hypocrisy of the workhouse governors and instead with the elation of a new day in a setting that suggests, again to a naïve young boy, how joyous life can be. Both are almost overwhelming in their sheer size—few if any musicals had so many musical performers onscreen at once since Busby Berkeley.

Put all this into the context of the turbulent release year of 1968 and it should come as no surprise as to why it resounded so strongly with the public, the critics and the Motion Picture Academywinning six Oscars including Best Picture. Dickens’s work railed at the injustices of society, especially the effect it had on children, but it also had humor and colorful characters.

The world of the late ‘60s saw war and unrest, yet at the same time, mod designs and wacky Laugh-In escapism. Oliver! managed to thrive within the “new Hollywood” sensibility in the idiom of the traditional popcorn-cruncher. To today’s viewers, with today’s social and economic issues (as well as the international fascination with the temporally distant yet relatable world of Downton Abbey), Oliver has lost none of its relevance.

Stylistically it’s as meticulous as the film version of West Side Story in managing to give even the grittiness a Technicolor glow. The slums have the same narrowing, “closing in” feel as the tenements where Tony and Maria sang “Tonight.”

Twilight Time’s limited edition Blu-ray is pure gold for all the above reasons and more. I’ve never seen the film's details, especially on a home screen, as on this new disc. Even in 1968, you most likely would have had to see Oliver! in a reserved-seat theater with a great widescreen print, properly projected, to see all this detail, and even that's debatable. While there is still a bit of flicker in the image on occasion, especially in the lighter scenes, I love being able to make out every square inch as much as possible.

But the real gift is in having the isolated sound track music. Oliver! had a fine, lengthy sound track album originally on Colgems Records (label of The Monkees and The Flying Nun). When RCA remastered it a decade or so later, the reverb was removed and it sounded better.

But it never had the space to fit all the music from the film, so you lost most of the opening music and parts of songs like “Oom Pah Pah” and “I’d Do Anything.” It has not proven economically feasible, at least in the near future, for a record company to release an expanded sound track album (though I keep wishing). However,  having the entire score to enjoy on this Blu-ray (even though it was not possible to find the tracks without sound effects), is a glorious thing indeed.

I was about the same age as the onscreen Oliver when I first saw this movie. We were already singing the songs in grade school and I had memorized the sound track album. Jack Wild was a star among kids who watched him on H.R. Pufnstuf each Saturday morning. The film had a profound impact on me: the immensity, the epic story, the comedy and drama, and the devastating last reel in which the film becomes like a Hitchcock crime thriller.

Being able to share the movie with my kids was among the wonderful moments in my life. It’s best to wait until the children are out of the early school years so they can handle the sorrows and the joys of the story, as well as being old enough to discuss the social setting, the wry humor, how much things have changed—and how little has changed in some ways, too.

Bonus Features:
• Isolated Score Track
• Behind-the-Scenes Featurette
• Meeting Oliver!
• Meeting Fagin!
• 8 Sing-alongs
• 3 Dance Instructions
• 3 Dance & Sing-alongs
• Original Theatrical Trailer

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