Newsies (1992)

26 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Newsies” is based on a true story. However, it’s a story I couldn’t care less about. Here it is so I’ll set it up for you: In 1899 in New York City, when publishers Joseph Pulitizer and William Hearst raised the price of the newspapers that the homeless, orphaned children are forced to sell, the newsboys went on strike and won.

Not a very exciting idea for a lively family movie produced by the Disney studio, is it? And get ready for this—“Newsies” is also a musical. It was Disney’s first live-action musical, in a long, long time. At the time, it was followed by successful animated Disney musicals “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” with “Aladdin” still to be released soon. And get this—the songs in “Newsies” are actually composed by Alan Menken, who provided the songs for the two titles I just mentioned. With this talent writing the songs for a live-action musical for Disney, you’d expect something great.

But the story is what really let it down. Why the Disney studio, along with director/choreographer Kenny Ortega (responsible for the choreography for such films as “Xanadu” and “Dirty Dancing”), chose this story with their new big production is beyond me. And what’s worse is that they tell the story loosely, which I wouldn’t mind if it meant to add more tension into the mix—but why turn the people into caricatures?

Most of the newsboys are stereotypes, to start with. But then there’s Joseph Pulitzer, played by Robert Duvall. He gets the worst of the treatment, written as a one-note tyrant of the newspaper business and just a slimy villain. Performed by Duvall (under a fake beard), he does an inconsistent job—when he’s not stiff, he’s over-the-top. It’s an off-putting performance.

Before I get into another big problem with the movie, let me make it clear very fast—I like this movie. There’s more to the movie than the story, the stereotypes, and…another bad performance I’ll get to later. There’s a real lightheartedness to it. It’s energetic, it’s fun, it’s upbeat. Most of the characters are likable. And what’s more important for a musical—the movie is at its liveliest when the music arrives. The production values are present and the choreography is impressive, with some outstanding dance numbers (the young actors, in particular, had to endure weeks of training, learning how to dance).

And as the production numbers impress, the songs are quite enjoyable and memorable. In particular, “Carrying the Banner,” which is the opening medley for the newsies, is a pretty appealing tune and the song that appears in the middle—entitled “I’m the King of New York,” sung by the newsies and a friendly reporter (played by Bill Pullman)—is incredibly entertaining. But my favorite is a number featuring Christian Bale, as the leader of the newsies, solely performing and dancing to the song “Santa Fe,” in which he enacts his fantasy of leaving New York and making his own free living in Santa Fe. This musical number is a tribute to the choreography of lone stars dancing in the street—think of the leads in “Oklahoma” or “Singin’ in the Rain.”

OK, here it is, now that I’ve been building this up—the absolute worst thing in an otherwise entertaining movie. It’s a performance by the usually comfortable Ann-Margaret in a most uncomfortable performance as a nightclub singer who acts as the newsies’ chum. But there isn’t a clear description of this character, because she only has two scenes (both of which feature production numbers), and there’s a slight indication that there may have been something going on with the boys that Disney isn’t allowed to show. Ann-Margaret is so awkward and so over-the-top in this role. And here’s the worse part—are you ready for this one? Her character serves no purpose whatsoever to the story, and with her limited number of scenes, you could take her out of this movie entirely and not have missed a single thing.

Oh, and should I add that her second musical number has the worst song in the movie, “Hard Times?” I forgot about this song when mentioning the others. I was hoping not to remember it, because it’s so annoying. But it’s stuck in my head because it’s so catchy. Thanks a lot, guys.

While Duvall and Margaret are both completely off-putting, the young actors do good jobs. Christian Bale has a charming screen presence and turns in a truly fine performance as Jack, the newsies’ bad-boy-turned-good leader. The others—including David Moscow (“Big”) as Jack’s bright new friend David, Max Casella (Vinnie from “Doogie Howser, M.D.”) as the wise-guy Racetrack, and Gabriel Damon as Brooklyn bad boy Spot Conlon—perform good solid work.

So the musical numbers and the likable spirit of things is enough reason for me to recommend “Newsies.” Is it a triumph? As a musical, yes. As a story and as a historical drama, it’s better off being tampered with. While the film does indeed have its flaws, it’s an innocent, enjoyable way to spend two hours.

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