Judge Bryan Pope says ya beddah stay clear of dis period moosical or else he'll break ya face.
Our review of Newsies (Blu-ray), published July 10th, 2012, is also available.
They found the courage to challenge the powerful!
Oh, how the kids in Disney's Newsies suffer. How they scrape for a living by peddling papers to the masses and living in crowded boarding houses. How they fight oppressive, capitalist fat cats. And how they sing and dance in the street. A lot. A whole lot. Come to think of it, Newsies is like the weird lovechild of Oliver!, Fame and Norma Rae. What a combo. Amazingly, though, Disney's film has found an audience over the last few years, and that audience should be more than pleased with this Collector's Edition.
Facts of the Case
It's the summer of 1899 in New York City, and newspaper giants Joseph Pulitzer (Robert Duvall) and William Randolph Hearst have just upped the prices on their papers, placing added pressure on their already poverty-stricken newsboys, er, newsies to sell more papers. I mean, papes. Outraged, the newsies form a makeshift union spearheaded by Jack "Cowboy" Kelly (Christian Bale) and David Jacobs (David Moscow). The dynamic duo and their fellow newsies band together, find courage and challenge the powerful, just like the film's tagline promises.
Movie musicals have been a tricky business since the late '60s. If not done correctly, you wound up with a bombastic mess (The Wiz, Annie), a pricey vanity piece (Mame, Hello, Dolly!) or camp (again, Mame). But if adapting a musical from a Broadway show is difficult, giving birth to an original, live-action screen musical is damn near suicidal. Or it is these days, at least. For every Dancer in the Dark, we get a Can't Stop the Music, The Pirate Movie or (shiver) Moulin Rouge (bring it on Baz Luhrmann devotees, but Moulin was a headache committed to celluloid).
So, in that regard, you've gotta hand it to Disney for releasing an original, earnest, honest-to-goodness, live-action, bring-your-grandma musical-a period piece no less!-in the grungy '90s. That kind of maneuver takes major cajones (or, in Newsies' turn-of-the-century vernacular, moxie). But moxie alone does not a good movie make, especially when the movie's very concept is baffling. How many children do you know who will relate to the unionization of newsies? How many will even know what a newsie is? Did no one at Disney consider that its target audience has never lived in an era when people couldn't pick up papers at the supermarket or have them delivered to their homes?
Don't get me wrong. It's a fine and noble thing to allow children a glimpse into our nation's rich past, even if the view is filtered through a rose-colored lens that has been scrubbed as clean as Pulitzer's patent leathers. But why devote so much energy and so many resources to an event that's merely the tip of a much broader, more far-reaching story? Why not a story on immigrant working and living conditions in turn-of-the-century New York? Why not a story about activists like Emma Goldman helping the poor masses rise against oppression? A story about strained race relations and tarnished American ideals? Oh wait. I think I just described E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, which was transformed into one of the better musicals of the '90s. But I digress.
Where were we? Ah, yes…Newsies.
The only reason this film exists is because Disney was riding high on the success of its Alan Menken/Howard Ashman animated musicals. Menken provides the score here as well, but it doesn't approach the triumphs of earlier Menken/Ashman works such as Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. On the other hand, it's not as dreadful as critics at the time claimed. J.A.C. Redford stands in for the late Ashman as lyricist, and, despite some clunky lyrics ("foul" does not rhyme with "towel") he turns in reasonably good work. He and Menken give Newsies a corker of an opening number with "Carrying the Banner." "Seize the Day" is a spirited anthem, and "King of New York" is a jazzy tribute to all things decadent. Even the score's obligatory "I want" song (who knew they weren't limited only to Disney's animated features?), the passionate "Santa Fe," overcomes its own hyper-staged choreography. Director Kenny Ortega, who has choreographed dance numbers for such, um, classics as Dirty Dancing, Shag and Xanadu (!), isn't content to let a song speak for itself when it can be punctuated by countless backflips, somersaults and, at one point, even a gallop around the block on horseback. In fact, just about every single production number is a cluttered traffic jam of extras, movement and set decoration. With the seemingly hundreds of dancers flipping over, under and around each other against ornate NYC backdrops, it's like watching Cirque du Soleil by way of Damon Runyon.
The game cast of youngsters does its best to sell it, even when saddled with names like Pie Eater, Snotty and Boots. As Cowboy, the film's hero, Bale acquits himself simply by managing not to look too embarrassed by his Bowery Boys accent. The adults don't fare as well. Duvall snorts and blusters as the film's cartoonish villain, unethical newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer, while Ann-Margret, in a strange role as the proprietor of a vaudeville theater, dresses in kewpie doll makeup and camps it up (most notably while singing the brief but cringe-worthy trunk song "My Lovey Dovey Baby"). Why she receives second billing on the packaging is beyond me, since her role barely qualifies as a cameo. Bill Pullman is the film's one pleasant surprise, nicely underplaying reporter and newsie advocate Bryan Denton and providing the film's few precious moments of calm.
The gargantuan production values are overwhelming, but Newsies does look spectacular in an artificial, studio-produced way (I doubt New York City was ever this spic 'n' span). With the Mouse House covering the tab, would you expect anything less? The film looks especially resplendent in this marvelous single-disc edition. Newsies is presented in its original aspect ration with an anamorphic transfer, and it looks virtually flawless. The colors are crisp and clear, the picture as clean as a whistle. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround is also impressive. The dialogue, music and effects are nicely balanced, and the musical numbers make terrific use of the rear speakers. The movie ain't much, folks, but this was a dynamic viewing and listening experience.
Newsies wasn't the hit Disney was hoping for, but that didn't stop the studio from lavishing attention on this DVD edition. In typical Disney fashion, the extras are a mix of filler for the kids and substantial features for film enthusiasts. First up is a running commentary with Ortega, producer Michael Finnel, writers Bob Tzudiker and Noni White, and co-choreographer Peggy Holmes. Engaging and jam-packed with information about the production, this is a fascinating listen even if you don't regard the film highly. Ortega and company are clearly fond of their work, and their enthusiasm is infectious.
The package includes three featurettes. The first two, "Newsies, Newsies, See All About It" and "Newsies: The Inside Story," cover much of the same ground and could easily have been consolidated into one half-hour doc. Still, the on-set interviews and rehearsal footage are entertaining. The third featurette, "The Strike! The True Story," provides a brief pictorial history of the events that formed the basis of the movie. I would almost recommend kids watching this before the movie itself.
Also included are a storyboard-to-screen comparison with optional audio commentary, a sing-along feature (for kids who can't get enough of subtitles), two theatrical trailers and "Talkin' Newsies" (thanks to this mini-glossary of newsies lingo, I now know that a "rubberneck" is an "inqueesitive poisen").
More than anything, Newsies is a victim of unfortunate timing. It might have found audiences receptive in the '30s, but it was hopelessly out of date by 1992. With its knickerbockers and exaggerated Brooklynese (anuddah two minutes of listenin' ta dems guys tawkin' wudda sent me ta da looney bin), Newsies was as wince-inducing as watching your grandmother show up at your high school prom and sing Alicia Keys songs.
Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Newsies found guilty of being an expensive, inconsequential mess.
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