20 May 2008


Why No Love for Newsies?

By Kristin Battestella

Sure now everyone loves High School Musical, but in 1992 you were a social pariah if you adored choreographer Kenny Ortega’s directorial debut Newsies. Still one of Disney’s lowest grossing live action films ever, Newsies has quietly become a popular underground film.

Things are not at rest in New York, 1899. When Media mogul Joseph Pulitzer (Robert Duvall) raises the price of his New York World to the ‘distribution populace’-that would be the poor, orphaned, street-wise newsies- newsboy leader Jack Kelly (Christian Bale) takes charge. Along with educated newcomer David (David Moscow) and his brother Les (Luke Edwards), Jack leads the newsies to strike against Pulitzer. With the help of newsman Brian Denton (Bill Pullman); vaudeville singer Medda (Ann-Margaret); and chief Brooklyn newsie Spot Conlon (Gabriel Damon), the newsies may just have their voices heard.

In his one and only musical, Christian Bale does not disappoint. Sure everyone loves him now after American Psycho, Batman Begins, and 3:10 to Yuma among other independent gems, but Bale shows his potential here. Before Newsies, Bale had never sung nor danced, but here he does both wonderfully-and puts on a turn of the century New York accent. Duvall, Pullman, and Ann-Margaret are having a good time as the supporting adults, and I do love them, but it is an injustice that any mention of Newsies bills the grown ups before Bale. The movie rises and falls with him and the rest of the newsboys. Max Casella (Doogie Howser, M.D.) almost steals the show as wise cracking, hoofing newsie Racetrack. David Moscow hasn’t done much in Hollywood since Newsies, but he’s worthy as his same named character. Some of the kids are annoying or ones I could do without, but it’s also fun to see what became of the spotlight newsies. Aaron Lohr (Mush) went on to Mighty Ducks fame, and Trey Parker (Kid-Blink) co created South Park. Who knew?

Yes, Newsies is a musical. When Disney chose three scripts with the possibility of turning one into a musical, Newsies was probably the wrong choice. The music isn’t all bad. Popular composer JAC Redford (What the Deaf Man Heard) crafted some very sing-a-long-able tunes. The lyrics are period authentic, yet modern and funny. The boys don’t sing that bad and the dancing is alright. It just seems odd to sing about a strike. I can’t imagine the process was easy for choreographer turned director Ortega (Dirty Dancing)- orchestrating massive dance numbers and choirs and fight scenes with hundreds of kids fifty years after Oklahoma!. Newsies genuinely tries, but there’s too much humor and music against not enough development and drama.

Based on actual events, Newsies stretches a thin premise too thin. We get to know each newsie, we find what makes each one tick against the melancholy circumstances, but scriptwriting team Bob Tzudiker (The Lion King) and Noni White (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) don’t take the depth far enough. Was this the ill advised mix of musical and drama or Disney’s questions on weather to keep things juvenile or go for maturity? Perhaps a little of both. Again in 1992, no one knew you could make an adult oriented, seriously dramatic musical. As much as I love Newsies for the camp of it, I would love to see a really heavy drama full of debates. Christian Bale versus Robert Duvall! Bring it!

The DVD of Newsies is full of fun stuff. As unloved as the film was, Disney politely added behind the scenes features and on set clips, along with historical information about the real 1899 strike, fun newsie dialogue games, and even a sing a long feature. Good as this all is, it would have been utterly incredible to have the older, wiser cast and crew reflect upon the good, the bad, and the ugly that is Newsies.

Newsies would have made a fine straight drama for juvenile audiences. Stand up for what you believe in and all that inspiration. Unfortunately, Newsies was a big screen musical release when big screen musical releases were absolutely unheard of. You have to wonder, if Newsies was released today straight to the Disney channel, would it be as big a bust as it was then? Why doesn’t Disney show the movie on its networks and see what happens? It’s strange to say, but did dorks like me who watched Newsies and similar period music films like Swing Kids grow up to take part in our recent re-acceptance of musicals like Moulin Rouge!, The Phantom of the Opera, and Chicago? Friends and family that endured my 214 viewings (I’ve only watched it twice since I got the DVD, and hey, the other 212 was a bet I won.) would scoff at these notions. Newsies has the talent, the choreography, period piece vibes, even not so bad songs, but should all these elements really be together in this movie? No.

Fans of period pieces and musicals will most likely enjoy Newsies. If you can convince hip High School Musical loving kids to watch Newsies late at night when no one knows they’ve watched it, they will enjoy it, too. Bale fans no doubt own this DVD already. Newsies is far from perfect, but it’s a quality family film that dared to do something different-just like its striking newsboys.


Victor said...

Great review Kristin. I myself was a great fan of newsies, and other Disney movies and TV shows of the 90's. I just finished watching Newsies on Cable TV (Starz), and did notice that they show it quite often on other premium cable channels like showtime, cinemax, etc. But I did wonder why I would never ever see it shown on the Disney channel. That's what brought me to your review. After watching the movie on cable for what seems like maybe the 3rd time in the last 6 months, I noticed one particular trend that I think would be a reason for Disney not to want to show the movie on their channel. You can notice that there are frequent instances of the kids in the movie smoking. It may have been an accurate portryal of the times in which the movie was set and how people lived, however, I think that Disney would not want to promote a movie on their channel that shows children (especially the heroes) smoking. It would be a major liability for them, and a mark on their image of family entertainment. Some parents groups and non-smoking advocates might be very upset. Other than that , I could not think of any other reason why not to show the movie, because I think it is a great movie, and personally a Disney classic for me.

Kristin Battestella said...

Hi Victor.

Great point about the state of smoking on screen and off. And here I was preparing myself for a ripping for praising Newsies!


bbbb1 said...

your facts are wrong
alan menken was the composer, not JAC redford, and trey parker is not the one from south park.
newsies is nothing like high school musical, people over 12 would be a lot more embarassed to watch HSM than newsies...