The director has created a rich vision of a squalid but lovely Nineteenth Century London populated by a variety of distinctive persons. The least interesting character in the film is, in fact, the lead, who is little more than a cipher, an empty point around which a constellation of fascinating individuals revolves. Happily, these supporting characters really are almost all tremendously entertaining. Sikes, for instance, is frighteningly vicious and lends every scene in which he appears a poignant sense of dread. Fagin is shameless and wicked, but is, at the same time, surprisingly likeable, and the Artful Dodger is a mischievous and cunning little rogue who is invariably fun to watch. Oliver himself, however, is just forgettable. He stares in wonder, joy, or terror at the events happening around him, but he rarely contributes much that is positive to them himself. What is more, he is so painfully adorable that he sometimes suffuses the movie with a sickly and distasteful sweetness.
Even the film's songs are better when performed by these supporting players than they are when sung by the lead. Mark Lester's singing voice is so weak and so saccharine that it is actually annoying. Fortunately, his fellow cast members usually make up for his failings. There are, consequently, numerous musical numbers in the film that are absolutely delightful and sometimes genuinely funny to hear. Additionally, the dances which accompany these songs are consistently lively and well choreographed. Thanks to such virtues, the viewer is likely to find himself carried away by these routines on more than one occasion.
While I cannot say that the film is without shortcomings, Oliver! is, nonetheless, a generally entertaining work that is certainly well worth watching.
Review by Keith Allen
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