*½/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B
starring Christian Bale, Bull Pullman, Ann-Margret, Robert Duvall
screenplay by Bob Tzudiker & Noni White
directed by Kenny Ortega
by Walter Chaw If the crick in my neck is any indication, I watched Kenny Ortega's Newsies like a dog hears a new sound. Most probably, my eyebrow was also arched. I always marvel that a racist bit of juvenilia became The King and I, for instance, or when someone decides to turn a "Romeo and Juliet" into a West Side Story. So when I say that I am clueless as to how the newspaper-hawker strike of 1899 could make for a good musical, I might not be the best person to ask.
Newsies is a revisiting of the Old Hollywood backlot musical, complete with rousing and utterly interchangeable songs and several athletically choreographed dance sequences. Unfortunately, it fails to captivate. What's missing from the formula is Gene Kelly, or Fred Astaire, or Donald O'Connor--a performer possessed of the kind of charisma and physical genius necessary to elevate the same old routines from cheap knock-off status to true homage. Though Christian Bale and Robert Duvall are capable dramatic actors, the one cannot be expected to be a magician, and the other cannot be expected to carry a film in a cameo capacity.
Jack (Bale) is a newsie, a corner-bound paper vendor in turn-of-last-century New York who dreams of his family out west while fighting the good fight against evil publisher Pulitzer (Duvall), who has raised the wholesale price of "papes" by about a tenth of a penny per issue. Brawny but none too brainy, Jack's union building takes an upswing with the appearance of clever David (David Moscow) and his lovable little brother Les (Luke Edwards). Crooning, prancing, and hilarity ensue. In a strange appearance, Ann-Margret plays an uncomfortably "familiar" dance hall queen, and Bill Pullman does typically stolid duty as journalist Bryan Denton.
The whole production is lavish but rote, an extremely expensive version of something I've seen done better a dozen times previous. The musical numbers are instantly forgettable and the progression of the "based on true events" narrative feels haphazard and arbitrary. The numbers came first, apparently, and last. Still, as a nostalgia piece, Newsies has its sepia-tinged moments. It's aggressively harmless as it presents its cut-up cast of the usual irregulars (the crippled one, the street wise one, the black one), and if it never achieves the delirious heights of those classics it hopes to evoke, at least it never overly offends. The greatest mystery of Newsies is not necessarily why it was made (awful concepts get the green light all the time), but what kind of audience it was supposed to find. Newsies is too slow and obscure for children, too ridiculous and disinteresting for adults, and neither well choreographed nor well scored enough for anyone but the hardest-core of musical fans. It's the very definition of undistinguished hokum--can it be any wonder, given the company responsible?
Released by Disney DVD in a gorgeous "Collector's Edition" with a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, Newsies is all dark browns, tweed patterns, and crisp blacks. It's a luxurious film in this format, evoking a very specific period artificiality through its lush, if limited, palette. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is similarly warm and inclusive, maxing out the capabilities of the six-track digital environment. Each show-stopper envelops, although there is a lack of atmosphere to the rest of the proceedings. The dialogue (mostly "mudda/fadduh" NY dialect) is clear--no major complaints, in other words, in regards to the disc's technical side.
A feature-length commentary featuring director Ortega, producer Mike Finnell, lead choreographer Peggy Holmes, and writers Bob Tzudiker and Noni White starts in the pits with exhausting recountings of where the kid cast members have wound up since the "triumph" of Newsies (it's like a biblical genealogy)...and continues in the pits with never-interesting back-patting and masturbatory aggrandizement. Among the many revelations of the commentary are such staggering tidbits as, "This was filmed on a studio lot," and, "Didn't Max [Casella] do a movie with De Niro?" Adding insult to injury, the chorus of voices is so unfamiliar that it's never really clear who anyone is at any point. The tenth chapter reveals a few interesting notes on editing (the virtues of the Moviola are debated), but the track is indicated more by inane anecdotes, musings about a Newsie reunion, a bizarre dolphin story (chapter 15, if you're curious), and loads of repetition.
Three longish documentaries also grace Newsies: Collector's Edition. "Newsies Newsies, See All About It," narrated by Casella (better known as Doogie Howser's best friend), is essentially twenty minutes of behind-the-scenes PR and cast filmography clearly geared to a young or comatose audience. Have the insulin shot ready. "Newsies: The Inside Story" is pretty much twenty minutes more of the same with a greater emphasis on the "whys" behind the creation of the film and less of the "whos" and the "hows." Here, as in the commentary track, the degree of self-delusion displayed by the filmmakers is truly disturbing. "The Strike: The True Story" (19 mins.)--also narrated by Casella--offers the the disc's best extra: a documentary on the events that inspired the film. Sadly, scenes from Newsies are overemployed therein in a desperate-feeling attempt to lend veracity to the piece. Two theatrical trailers, a storyboard-to-scene demonstration narrated by William Sandell that's well-done but will probably be seen by no one, an option to have sing-along captions appear during the film's songs, and an interactive lingo glossary round out the presentation. Originally published: March 4, 2001.