Every time Judge Gordon Sullivan goes to New York, he looks for the matte paintings.
Our review of Newsies, published July 18th, 2005, is also available.
They found the courage to challenge the powerful!
I have no idea why I connected with a Welsh-born Englishman playing a New York City kid singing about Santa Fe, but I did. I probably wore out my VHS copy of Newsies in my tweens, but as I grew older, I set the film aside in search of more mature pleasures (though I retain a love of musicals to this day). I was a bit nervous revisiting the film for Newsies: 20th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray). I was afraid that whatever pleasures I took in the film as a youth would have dissipated in a cloud of bad acting and suspect story choice. Though my return to Newsies after more than a decade wasn't a total triumph, the film retains a surprising amount of verve, and fans of the flick will appreciate this Blu-ray release.
Facts of the Case
It's the turn of the twentieth century, and newsies roam the streets of New York City, selling papers for archrivals William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer (Robert Duvall, Apocalypse Now). Hearst and Pulitzer are involved in a circulation war, each trying to outdo the other with salacious headlines and other underhanded tactics. It's taking a toll on Pulitzer's profits, so he decides to charge his newsies an extra tenth of a cent per paper they buy from him to sell. This does not sit well with older newsie Jack Kelly (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight), who organizes the newsies to strike, though it will bring to light parts of his past he'd rather stayed buried.
Twenty years later, and there are a number of things that work about Newsies:
• The acting. Ignore for the moment the sometimes horrendous accents and instead focus on the rest of the performances. A young Christian Bale handles the nimble spirit of Jack Kelly with grace and charm. Bill Pullman shows up as the adult savior of the kids, and he's full of the same spirit that made him such an effective president in Independence Day. I especially enjoyed Robert Duvall as Joseph Pulitzer. He's all bluff and bluster, and it's great to watch him dig into his dialogue, chomping his cigar.
• The story. It's based on a real strike by newsies. Although I doubt that Pulitzer was worn down by singing in the street, it's an interesting tale to aim at an audience of children. It's pretty unabashedly pro-union and the little guys (in this case, literally, children) get the upper hand. Though there are adults around, the newsies live in a world surprisingly free of adults, and that seems to be a good thing for all involved. This is not a world in which every moment of a child's life is micromanaged, nor even a world of niceties like school.
• The production design. Yes, there are some obvious matte paintings, but boy, are they good matte paintings. On ground level, however, costumes are well-made, props are used liberally, and the streets of New York City circa 1899 are recreated with charm. It's not quite Gangs of New York, but it's nice to look at.
Another mark in the film's favor is this Blu-ray release. The 2.35:1/1080 AVC-encoded high definition transfer is generally wonderful, with a few caveats. On the plus side, the earth browns of the setting are well-saturated, no significant artefacts crop up, and the source print is generally clean. However, there are moments that can look a little soft, and grain is a bit smoother than perhaps it could be. The first is a function of creative choices; Newsies isn't the story of glitzy New York, but its street life so tack-sharp imagery wouldn't help sell the story. The latter is a choice however that some may grumble with. Though Newsies never looks unnatural in that overly shiny digital way, grain is much less prevalent than one would expect, especially in darker scenes. It's as if someone at the mastering stage chose to de-emphasize grain, leading to a slightly less filmlike appearance. It's not fatal, and many viewers may not even notice it, but nitpickers will have something to complain about.
The DTS-HD 5.1 track is similarly impressive. It takes the original stereo track and re-masters it for surround, keeping voices up front and relegating the surrounds for atmosphere and crowd noise.
Extras seems to have all been ported over from Disney's excellent 2002 DVD release. We get a solid commentary with director Kenny Ortega, producer Michael Finnell, co-writers Bob Tzudiker and Noni White, and co-choreographer Peggy Holmes. It's a gang commentary and they spend most of the track musing about what it was like to make the film in the early Nineties. Two featurettes cover the making of the film, while a third looks at the actual strike that inspired the film. Some promo material and a storyboard-to-screen comparison round out the disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though it's a little harsh to say, there's a reason why Newsies was one of Disney's biggest flops at the time of its release. Its story is pretty seriously dramatic, but it's a musical where most of the songs are upbeat numbers. It's got some romantic elements, but it's not really a romance. All that confusion means that it's hard for audiences to know what to expect, so it took a while for Newsies to find its people. Still, as someone who loved the film when they were young, Newsies has two big problems. The first is the music; it's just not that great. The melodies are only so-so, and the lyrics try to cram in every plot point and/or New York-ism into every line they can. Though they're not all bad, I'm left with the feeling that Newsies would have been a thousand times more effective as a straight drama. The music also contributes to the film's other fault; it's a solid 20 minutes too long. A two-hour-long drama aimed at the younger crowd is pushing it. If the musical numbers were cut, the film would probably feel a lot more appropriate in running time.
For those who've missed out on Newsies for the last twenty years, take heart. Much of the film still holds up well. For those who've nursed a flame for the film all these years, this Blu-ray is probably worth upgrading to for the improved visuals. Finally, if you've never heard of Newsies, this disc is worth a rental at least to see a pre-Dark Knight Christian Bale strutting his stuff.
Stop the presses! Newsies is not guilty.
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