Newsies (United States, 1992)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In 1992, Walt Disney Pictures, riding a wave of euphoria generated by its recent animated successes, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, tried to do something that was met by critics with skepticism: revive the live-action musical. Filmmakers took an in-house script in turnaround and commissioned composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman to pen about a half-dozen songs. Choreographer Kenny Ortega (whose duties in that role included Xanadu and Dirty Dancing) was brought on board to direct. The stars underwent weeks of dancing and martial arts training, and all were allowed to sing their own parts. (There is no truth to the rumor that Marni Nixon dubbed Christian Bale.) Newsies was born, only to die an ignominious death. After bombing on opening weekend, the film was pulled from most theaters, resulting in a final box office take of less than $3 million. It has been described by many as Disney's greatest failure. Unexpectedly, however, it found a following on home video, where its surprising popularity allowed the taint to dissolve from its image.

The film is based - very loosely - on real events. Consider the emphasis in the last sentence to be on the word very. Newsies, with its singing, break-dancing cast, has about as much connection with reality as Beauty and the Beast. Trying to tie it closely to historical facts is a mistake. Even the true-life individuals who make appearances, such as a few of the newsboys and Joseph Pulitzer (Robert Duvall), have been transformed into caricatures. Viewing this as more than a musical fantasy would be a mistake. (Those with interest in the real story behind the newsboys' strike can watch a featurette included on the DVD.)

That being said, Newsies is an engaging way to spend two hours. The story is pure Disney feel-good stuff: the triumph of the underdog. The musical numbers are catchy. The characters are likeable. And there's nothing in all 121 minutes that could be considered unsuitable for family viewing - no cursing, no overt violence (there's some mild stuff, but it's mostly off-screen), and no sex (kissing only). The thing Newsies has going against it is that the subject matter is unlikely to incite much interest.

The movie transpires during the summer of 1899, and introduces us to a group of newsies, including Racetrack (Max Casella), Crutchy (Marty Belafsky), Brooklyn's Spot Conlon (Gabriel Damon), and their unofficial "leader," Jack Kelly (Christian Bale). Enter newcomers David Jacobs (David Moscow), and his little brother, Les (Luke Edwards). These two join up with Jack and he teaches them the ropes. They later bring Jack home to meet their parents and, more importantly, their sister, Sarah (Ele Keats).

Meanwhile, in his penthouse overlooking New York, Joseph Pulitzer is scheming to squeeze more money from his newspaper business. The choice he makes is to keep the end price the same but charge the newsies, who distribute the paper, an extra ten percent. When Jack and his gang hear about this, they are outraged, organize a union, and stage a strike. Bryan Denton (Bill Pullman), an ace reporter for the New York Sun (not owned by either Pulitzer or Hearst), puts the newsies strike on page one. That's when Pulitzer takes off the gloves and decides to play rough, calling in chips from the mayor and the police commissioner. In addition, it comes to light that Jack is a runaway from a juvenile detention center, and the warden of that facility, Snyder (Kevin Tighe), is anxious for his return. All Jack has to do to retain his freedom, and keep his friend David from joining him behind bars, is to renounce the strike and go back to work alongside Pulitzer's scabs.

There are problems with Newsies that don't have anything to do with its historical grounding. Robert Duvall gives a hammy, over-the-top performance that is oddly lacking in vigor. Under a mountain of fake facial hair, he bears a resemblance to the publishing giant, but it's a weird, off-putting performance. Fortunately, Duvall is only in a handful of scenes. Equally distracting is Ann-Margaret, whose sole reason for being in the film is to contribute a couple of production numbers. Her chumminess with the newsboys could lead some viewers to make salacious assumptions about what's going on where the cameras don't reach. Finally, the "love story" between Jack and Sarah could have used a few more filler scenes, and maybe even a song or two, to give it the degree of heft Ortega wants it to have at the end.

Newsies' primary strengths tip the scales in its favor, however. The film offers an excellent perspective of New York at the turn of the (20th) century. On a limited budget using backlots and matte paintings, the set designers were able to capture a time and place that the march of history has left behind. Then there are the lively production numbers, which are among the best in any recent live-action musical. Sure, they're over-amped and filled with anachronistic dance moves (break-dancing in 1899?), but the enthusiasm and energy are hard to deny. The choreography is top-notch and the slight lack of polish is perfect for the subject. There are three standouts: "Carrying the Banner," "The World Will Know," and "King of New York." The first represents the Newsies' "theme song," the second is their rallying cry, and the third cements their relationship with reporter Denton.

Of the child actors, only two rose to any level of prominence. Christian Bale was already well-known when he came to the role of Jack Kelly, having appeared in both Empire of the Sun and Kenneth Branagh's Henry V. Newsies began a phase in his career that would see him getting more consistent work - a phase that would lead to Batman Begins more than a dozen years later. Max Casella, known at the time as Doogie Howser's sidekick, would develop a solid resume on television and in movies. David Moscow, Bale's co-star, would fade into obscurity, although he occasionally shows up in an indie production. One suspects he was chosen to appear in Newsies because of his resemblance to late-'80s heartthrob Kirk Cameron.

Without the musical numbers, Newsies would probably be long forgotten. Dramatically, it isn't strong enough to hold up on those grounds. However, the eight songs elevate the movie from unmemorable to enjoyable. Newsies deserved a better fate than it was accorded at the 1992 box office, so it's refreshing to see the level of acceptance it has achieved in the afterlife of home video. It's a bit of a throwback and a solid family film and, at the time, represented a well-intentioned leap of faith of the sort that studios rarely take.

Newsies (United States, 1992)

Run Time: 2:01
U.S. Release Date: 1992-04-10
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1