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Oliver Twist (1997) DVD Review

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Movie & DVD Details

Director: Tony Bill

Cast: Richard Dreyfuss (Fagin), Elijah Wood (The Artful Dodger), David O'Hara (Bill Sikes), Alex Trench (Oliver Twist), Olivia Caffey (Rose Maylie), Antoine Byrne (Nancy), Maria Charles (Widow Corney), Anthony Finnegan (Mr. Brownlow), Des Braiden (Magistrate), Eileen Colgan (Mrs. Bedwin), Ellish Moore (Cook)

Original Air Date: November 16, 1997

Running Time: 91 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated
1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Aspect Ratio)
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French), Dolby Surround 2.0 (Spanish)
Subtitles: English, French; Closed Captioned

Release Date: August 3, 2004
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5); Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
White Keepcase

 
When The Wonderful World of Disney was relaunched in the fall of 1997, Oliver Twist was one of the first films made. The telemovie is based on the book by Charles Dickens, whose rich characters and stories have been ingrained in public consciousness through countless literature classes and hundreds of film adaptations and reimaginations.

This particular filming of Oliver Twist remains fairly true to the text, and a faithful adaptation of such a good book can't be all that bad. The stories open in the North of England, in the year 1825, as a desperate woman gives birth to a son, to whom she manages only to pass a bit of advice and a golden locket before she dies. Six years later, the film provides a glimpse of Oliver leading an unpleasant life in a workhouse. Six more years pass, and Oliver is still struggling amidst hordes of other poor English boys under the shelter of the tough Widow Corney.

At this age of 12, Oliver (Alex Trench) makes the mistake of asking for more food, and soon Widow Corney shows him the street with the least amount of tenderness possible. After managing to steal back his locket, Oliver runs off, orphaned and pennyless, to face the world on his own. His brief travels lead him to the bustling center of London.

Oliver wants more food, but there are no second servings. Dodger and Oliver talk together on the streets of London.

There, the first person Oliver has the good fortune of encountering is Jack Dawkins, or as he's more readily known, the Artful Dodger (Elijah Wood, with a noticeably fake accent). Dodger welcomes the pennyless Oliver into his gang of young pickpockets, a type of Lost Boys who are living (and stealing) under the guidance of Fagin (Richard Dreyfuss, with a noticeably fake nose). Fagin treats his pint-sized thiefs well, but he wears his flaws on his sleeve, and his values are clearly questionable. As far as he's concerned, Fagin isn't stealing, but merely redistributing the wealth in the vein of Robin Hood.

Of course, beggars cannot be choosers, and as Fagin's place is the only home Oliver can hope for, he accepts it. Still, the boy is reluctant to take part in the "work" that the other boys do. When the time comes for Oliver to make his first steal, it results in disaster, and the orphan is taken into custody. But soon, with the help of his pickpocket target Mr. Brownlow (Anthony Finnegan) and his kind niece Rose Maylie (Olivia Caffey), Oliver not only is out of trouble with the law, but he has a nice home and people who care for him.

Meanwhile, worried that Oliver might "peach" on their operations, Fagin and his associate Bill Sikes (David O'Hara) come up with a plan to get the boy back. This sets forth a situation where Oliver is torn between his two new homes, one offering financial stability and parental figures, and the other representing the only place that took him in.

Dodger and company do their thing. Fagin defends his nose to Sikes.

The film does a fine job of capturing the atmosphere, and the accurate costumes and locations show a level of detail unusually high for a telemovie. At the same time, there is little to make this Oliver Twist stand out from other adaptations, without the gimmick of a full-blown musical form (Oliver!) or a contemporary twist (Disney's own Oliver & Company).

As a protagonist, Oliver is mostly passive, and so if young Alex Trench doesn't make a great impression on the viewer, one isn't really necessary. More memorable characterizations are turned in by David O'Hara as Bill Sikes and Antoine Byrne as his girlfriend Nancy. Here, Sikes is particularly and genuinely menacing, grounded in a humanity which makes him all the more fearful. The intrigue and depth of the Artful Dodger character provide another strongpoint for the film, even if Elijah Wood is too old for the role.

With his prosthetic nose, mole, and scrawny facial hair, Richard Dreyfuss clearly was trying to show his acting range, but his performance always feels just that: a performance. Dreyfuss, who also co-produced the film, is also so coarse and over-the-top that it's tough to see any good in his Fagin, missing the ambiguity of the character as written.

Still, the film succeeds entirely due to the strength of its source. This tale, like many (if not most) of Dickens' fiction, resonates with modern audiences. Its well-crafted plotting and properly developed characters would enable even the most by-the-numbers adaptation (which this is not) to strike chords and hit some right notes. Even condensed to a 90-minute made-for-TV format with noticeable breaks for commercials, Dickens' tale remains endlessly riveting and the world of impoverished, likeable criminals stays alluring.

Oliver revels in comfort. Oliver Twist DVD Main Menu

VIDEO and AUDIO

The transfer is intentionally dark, capturing the drab colors (perhaps to an extreme) of London from the perspective of these poor pickpockets. Though things never brighten up, there's a good amount of detail to the scenery, and the picture remains crisp and sharp. Colors are quite restrained on account of the low contrast, but overall, this is a fairly solid video presentation for a television movie.

Oliver Twist is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, although this TV film clearly doesn't have the type of engulfing sound mix that a theatrical film would. Surrounds subtly reinforce the film's pretty active score, but for the most part, the audio keeps to the front speakers. Dialogue is crisp and natural sounding. Certain scenes, such as on the busy London street and the climactic scenes, come to life and make good use of ambient noise. Overall, this is a fine audio presentation, if certainly not a knockout 5.1 track.

EXTRAS

There are no extras at all. I was hoping it might at least get a trailer for the film, as Balloon Farm did, but no such luck. The 16x9 menus feature selections from the score and stills from the movie.

The DVD opens with the widely-seen 90-second promo for recent live action Disney movies, highlighting the studio's films from the last few years like The Rookie, Holes, Tuck Everlasting, Freaky Friday, Remember the Titans, Snow Dogs, and The Princess Diaries.

Pre-Hobbit Elijah Wood glares. Oliver spends some time on Fagin's lap.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Wonderful World of Disney's 1997 adaptation of Oliver Twist works well enough because it plays things safe in bringing to screen Charles Dickens' masterful novel. This basic DVD presentation is fine, though only the biggest fans of the author and this contemporary cast will likely be in a rush to add it to their collection. Still, better than most television movies, Disney's Oliver Twist merits a viewing.

More on the DVD

Related Reviews: Oliver & Company Angels in the Endzone Eloise at the Plaza

Reviewed August 8, 2004

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