BOOTLEG FILES 559: “Oliver and the Artful Dodger” (1972 animated telefilm from Hanna-Barbera).
LAST SEEN: The film can be found on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: There has been a VHS video release only.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An animated oddity that never entirely disappeared.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It could happen.
In early 1969, the British musical “Oliver!” was the big winner at the 41st Academy Awards ceremony, winning six Oscars including Best Picture. The film’s commercial success also gave a major boost to the musical genre, which had been stumbling for a few years under the weight of top-heavy productions that failed to score with audiences.
One could have easily imagined that the success of “Oliver!” would have generated a sequel – after all, what better way to cash in on an Oscar-winning box office hit than by a quickie follow-up? But, of course, there was a problem here – Charles Dickens, whose book “Oliver Twist” inspired the film, was satisfied to conclude the story without giving its young hero further adventures – who in their right mind would want to improve on Dickens? And Lionel Bart, who wrote the West End musical production “Oliver!” (and who, incredibly, sold the rights to the work for a measly £350 during a period of financial hardship), had no interest in creating a sequel.
However, an unlikely source believsed that Oliver Twist needed to be brought back for new adventures. Hanna-Barbera, the animation studio that all but owned kiddie television in the early 1970s, decided to resurrect Oliver and his troublemaker pal the Artful Dodger for another round of fun. But rather than aim this endeavor at the big screen, Hanna-Barbera opted to deposit this offering in an ambitious anthology program called “The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie.” This program functioned as a movie-of-the-week presentation for kids, with original films produced by the era’s major television animation studios.
The resulting “Oliver and the Artful Dodger” was, arguably, the most ambitious of the productions in “The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie” line-up, which included such inane distractions as “The Banana Splits in Hocus Pocus Park,” “Daffy Duck and Porky Pig Meet the Groovie Goolies,” “Popeye Meets the Man Who Hated Laughter” and the Marlo Thomas-fueled “That Girl in Wonderland.” (All of those titles have already been profiled in The Bootleg Files column.) But because it aimed so high, “Oliver and the Artful Dodger” turned out to be the most disappointing of the bunch due to its inability to settle on a singular personality. Indeed, this work is one of the most bipolar animated films ever made, swinging wildly between Dickensian intensity and dismal slapstick.
The film picks up some time Oliver is reunited with Mr. Brownlow – but rather than depict him as Oliver’s great-uncle, as intended by Dickens, this film merely has him as the boy’s guardian. Mr. Brownlow is on his deathbed, and he confides to Oliver and to the housekeeper Mrs. Puddy that Oliver is to be the heir to his fortune. But for reasons that make absolutely no sense, Mr. Brownlow announces that he has hidden his will somewhere in his drawing room’s furniture. Alas, he dies without revealing the exact location of the will. Into this picture arrives Sam Sniperly, Mr. Brownlow’s nefarious nephew, who evicts Olvier and Mrs. Puddy from the home and sells off the residence’s furniture.
Penniless and homeless, Oliver seeks work in London, but is not successful. And being underage, he is liable to be apprehended by Mr. Bumble, his one-time foe at the orphanage/workhouse. But as luck would have it, he is reunited with the Artful Dodger, who has abandoned his life of crime in favor of two new pursuits: the sale of discarded bits of iron from a pushcart and the liberation of miserable orphans from Mr. Bumble’s clutches.
The Artful Dodger has surrounded himself with a new posse consisting of an acrobatic boy named Flip, a teary-eyed lad named Happy Harry (he cries at everything, whether it is good news or bad), a tiny girl named Lilibet and a personality-free boy known as The Deacon. There is also Hero, a pitbull that is afraid of everything.
Thanks to the Artful Dodger’s connections, Oliver discovers who bought the furniture that holds the will that proclaims his rightful fortune. But Sam Sniperly (remember him?) also finds out, and there is a race to the country estate to find the people that now own the furniture containing that important legal document.
In concept, “Oliver and the Artful Dodger” might have worked if it was handled by a competent animation house – while the plot was admittedly silly, there was the hint of a worthwhile storyline with Oliver’s fall back into poverty and the Artful Dodger’s efforts to turn over a new leaf. And the race to locate the will could have easily been the groundwork of an exciting thriller. But Hanna-Barbera in the early 1970s was interested in churning out works quickly and cheaply, and very little care went into this production. Truly, this sloppy and charmless work has some of the worst animation to bear the Hanna-Barbera stamp.
There were other issues complicating the film. Part of the problem was to inject slapstick with careless abandon. Most of the knockabout involves Mr. Bumble’s attempts to capture the elusive Artful Dodger – the merchants and street denizens of London’s East End help the boy either by physically manhandling Mr. Bumble or emptying the contents of their pushcarts under his feet and causing him to careen into some sort of collision or catastrophe. Of course, these mishaps are accompanied by crashing audio effects that sound like they were lifted from the old Ricochet Rabbit cartoons.
Another part of the problem was to drop musical numbers in odd parts of the film. The animators clearly studied “Oliver!” and sought to replicate Onna White’s innovative choreography in their work. But their animation skills were so dismal and the new songs were so banal that these musical numbers became endurance tests for the viewers.
And then there were the voice performances, with a weird mix of patently phony theatrical British accents and wimpy American mincing that tries to pass for being British because of the fey vocal range. Veteran cartoon voice actor Don Messick and accomplished character actor Bernard Fox (best known as Dr. Bombay on “Bewitched”) handled multiple roles, but all of their vocal impersonations sounded alike. A surprise in the cast was Richard Dawson, playing the evil Sam Sniperly (not very well, with a mildly sinister voice) as well as the bit role of the furniture seller. It is a shame that Mark Lester and Jack Wild weren’t asked to reprise their “Oliver!” roles for this film, considering the animated characters were obviously designed to look like them.
“Oliver and the Artful Dodger” was broadcast as a two-part presentation on “The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie” in October 1972. The film was issued on VHS video in 1989 and turned up on the Boomerang cable network in November 2011, but to date has not been on DVD or Blu-ray. An animation-loving bootlegger slapped an unauthorized posting of the film on YouTube.
“Oliver and the Artful Dodger” was a failure, but it didn’t have to be. And while I rarely advocate sequels or remakes, I think it would be interesting to see an intelligent and carefully planned continuation of the misadventures of these Dickensian boys. In this case, Hanna-Barbera had a great opportunity and they completely f*cked it up.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.