oliver cover artI first saw this production of this classic tale by Charles Dickens when I was 10, and I loved it.

Back then, though, I hadn’t read the novel or watched David Lean‘s excellent 1948 version with John Howard Davies and Alec Guinness. This Disney TV Movie inspired me to do both, and for that I am eternally grateful.

When I found it available on DVD, I ordered a copy for old time’s sake. I wasn’t expecting it to be as good as I remembered (these things rarely are) but I was unprepared for how appalling it really is. Ah well, I suppose I used to love The Tellytubbies too.

The screenplay pares down the Dickens story to its bare bones and then re-writes some aspects of it.

Mr Bumble who, in the novel, epitomises injustice and hypocrisy in the Victorian treatment of the have-nots by the haves, is demoted to a bit part. The episode of Oliver’s apprenticeship to Sowerberry, the undertaker, and his spirited fight with the bully Noah Claypole is cut, leaving Oliver’s decision to run away to London rather nonsensical.

Substituted is a contrived story concerning Oliver’s possession of the locket that his mother gave him, which he is (inexplicably) convinced will lead him to discover his true identity. (The locket is important in the novel, but Oliver is unaware of it until the end.)

Richard Dreyfuss as Fagin
Richard Dreyfuss as Fagin

Although what’s left of the plot is reasonably faithful to the original, the characterization is not. This is particularly true of Fagin (Richard Dreyfuss), who is depicted as an avuncular figure and, in the novel, Fagin was anything but. Fagin was a mean old man in every sense, who beat and bullied the boys in his self-styled “care.” I suspect that, had Dickens created the “elderly receiver” today, he may have had him abuse his charges in ways even more insidious.

To give Dreyfuss his due, he does a good job of playing the part as written, but the performance is a shadow of Alec Guinness’s 1948 opus or even Ron Moody‘s light-hearted portrayal in the 1968 musical.

Elijah Wood is well-cast as Dodger and gives a strong showing. Unfortunately, it’s wrecked for any native Brit-English speaker by his accent – surely the most ludicrous attempt at Cockney since Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. By the final scenes, Elijah seems to have given up and starts sounding American. One really would have thought that Disney had the resources to employ a decent dialect coach. It’s a shame they didn’t, for he is a talented actor.

Alex Trench and Elijah Wood in Oliver Twist
Alex Trench and Elijah Wood in Oliver Twist

No less laughable is the soundtrack, which purports to consist of traditional English music. Those with even a rudimentary knowledge of the subject can’t fail to be amused by the anachronisms. The score features the Christmas carol In The Bleak Midwinter, even though Christina Rossetti‘s words weren’t set to Gustav Holst‘s music until 1906. Another tune used is George Butterworth‘s The Blacksmith – published in 1912. Then there’s Hard, Hard Times, which is at least traditional but, unfortunately, Canadian – it didn’t become associated with the UK until the folk group Steeleye Span re-worked it as Hard Times of Old England in 1975 (a track from which the arrangement used in the film is clearly lifted.)

This looks like what it is: a shoddily made, low budget TV movie – right down to the poor lighting and 4:3 aspect ratio.

Alex Trench as Oliver Twist
Alex Trench as Oliver Twist

Its saving grace is the otherwise unknown Alex Trench as Oliver. He just so looks the part and carries it off to near perfection: better, in my view, than John Howard Davies’s slightly cloying performance in David Lean’s masterpiece.

Trailer ( fan-made)

Then again, what was Dickens’s underlying moral in this story? That a kind-hearted boy of good character can stay true to himself in the face of hardship, cruelty and poor role-models. That’s so quintessentially Disneyesque that they could hardly have got Oliver himself wrong.

For Alex Trench’s performance, this a flick worth catching if ever it’s re-run on TV, but don’t waste your money on it… Unless you have a 10-year-old kid, in which case it may serve as a useful introduction to the great Victorian author’s work.

Oliver Twist (1997)

91 min|Crime, Drama, Family|16 Nov 1997
6.3Rating: 6.3 / 10 from 1,561 usersMetascore: N/A
An orphan named Oliver Twist meets a pickpocket on the streets of London. From there, he joins a household of boys who are trained to steal for their master.

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