Starring Academy Award winners Christian Bale, Robert Duvall, Bill Pullman, and screen favorite Ann-Margaret, Newsies tells the true tale of a courageous group of newsboys who become unlikely heroes when they team up to fight an unscrupulous newspaper tycoon. Determined to make their dreams come true, they find the courage to challenge the powerful in a classic musical style. Enjoy dance sequences choreographed by Kenny Ortega (High School Musical) and a story produced by Hollywood legend Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast).
When Newsies was released twenty years ago, I remember dismissing it completely. I had no interest in paying to see some newspaper boys singing and dancing across New York. Two decades go by and the main star, Christian Bale, is now Batman and a damned good one at that. Robert Duvall is still chewing up the scenery and Bill Pullman got his moment in the sun when he led the fight against aliens in Independence Day. I’d heard about the movie over they years and I knew that it had attracted a small but dedicated fan base so when I was offered the chance to review it , I decided to give it a shot. Having seen the film now, it’s clear to me that I should have followed my original instinct from twenty years ago and avoided the film.
Directed by first time director Kenny Ortega who parlayed his skill at choreography into a shot at directing Disney’s long awaited return to musicals, Newsies reflects Ortega’s inexperience behind the camera. The acting is fairly atrocious and even old hands like Duvall come off looking bad. Without someone strong to keep Duvall from doing his own thing and going overboard, it’s always a recipe for an entertaining disaster. There’s several points in the movie where it was so bad that I could see why people love it as it’s kind of a musical Troll 2. The young cast is filled with a bunch of scrawny kids trying to look and sound tough, complete with exaggerated New York accents. Not to mention their names which include: Crutchy, Skittery, Pie Eater, Snoddy, Snitch, Swifty, Boots, Bumlets, Racetrack, Mush, and Spot. They forgot to include Crappy.
The movie is based on the true story of the Newsboys Strike of 1899 that took place in New York City. The strike might have happened, but I’m pretty sure the homeless boys weren’t singing and dancing in the streets. The ringleader of these dancing miscreants is Jack “Cowboy” Kelly (Christian Bale) who along with David Jacobs (David Moscow) talks the respective neighborhood newsies to go on strike in retaliation against William Randolph Hearts and Joseph Pulitzer’s (Robert Duvall) price increase of a tenth of a cent per newspaper. Aiding their effort is David’s sister Sarah (Ele Keats), vaudeville star Medda “Swedish Meadowlark” Larkson (Ann-Margret), and newspaper man Bryan Denton (Bill Pullman).
The forces against them are good taste, Pulitzer and his henchmen, and the warden from “The Refuge” named Snyder (Kevin Tighe) whose mission in life is to catch Jack since he was the one boy who escaped his facility. When the boys break into Pulitzer’s building to use his own printing press to create their own newspaper flyers decrying their treatment that they are receiving from the powerful publishers. The flyers, combined with some more singing and dancing, does the trick and the Governor of New York Theodore Roosevelt (David James Alexander) sides with the boys and starts putting pressure on Hearst and Pulitzer. Pulitzer finally gives in because he can’t take hearing or seeing the newsies any longer. And who says that singing and dancing can’t change the world? Maybe I should try that and see if I can get a raise.
Newsies is by any measure an atrocious movie. The script is terrible, the actors aren’t very good or believable (who would really be afraid of a 13 year old that weights about 70 pounds), and the movie is uneven and predictable. Not all of this mess can be laid at the feet of the novice director Ortega, but a lot of it can be. I think he spent more time worrying about the choreography instead of the rest of the movie and it shows. The whole movie feels like a stage show that’s been filmed, which would make a lot more sense to have done. In fact, I just learned that it’s now a Broadway show and doing fairly well, which shows that that was the correct venue for this all along.
Disney and the scriptwriters also should share in the blame since who in their right mind would think that making a movie with a bunch of teenage boys singing about newspapers was going to be successful? Duvall turns in another self-indulgent performance that’s so bad that it’s great. Watch him at the end acting like he’s having an aneurysm when the window is opened and he can hear the boys. Good times. The only thing that redeems this movie even a little bit is Bale, Moscow, and especially Ann-Margret whose character is out of place in this movie, but I’m glad she was there. This movie made Christian Bale swear off from doing any other musicals and it’s easy to see why. As he said once in an interview, ”Time healed those wounds. But it took a while.”
Newsies’ DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is also of average quality and nothing to get too excited or upset about. The movie’s songs fare the best in this mix, as they utilize every channel whereas the rest of the movie seems to be a front channel centric affair. Every exaggerated accent and terrible line of dialogue is heard clearly without being drowned out by the songs or the rest of the score by J.A.C. Redford. There really isn’t any sense of directionality here or much of an attempt to create an immersive experience for the viewer. It’s an average mix that does the job it’s required to do but nothing more.
The one bright spot on this entire disc is the relative wealth of extras for the fans of the movie. I was kind of surprised that so much material was collected for this release when other better and more popular titles like The Rocketeer got the shaft. In any case, here is what you will get all in standard definition:
- Commentary with Director and Co-Choreographer Kenny Ortega, Producer Michael Finnell, Writers Bob Tzudiker and Noni White and Co-Choreographer Peggy Holmes – A discussion with those responsible for this misguided endeavor reveals that they are still convinced that this is a good movie and they still love it. There’s also talk about the actors, the making of the movie, and what they were trying to accomplish.
- Newsies, Newsies, See All About It - I’m guessing that this featurette was shown on the Disney Channel and it’s hosted by Max Cassella, Aaron Lohr and Arvie Lowe Jr. from the movie. It’s kind of cheesy but it does include interviews with the cast and crew and we get to see some behind the scenes footage of the making of the film.
- Newsies: The Inside Story - At almost twenty minutes long, this is essentially part two of the previous extra. We hear from more production people including various people talking about the film’s production design, costumes, and cinematography as well as more comments from the cast and Kenny Ortega.
- The Strike! The True Story - An extra only for those people that are interested in the actual strike that this movie is loosely based on, this extra is almost twenty minutes of comments from the filmmakers and historians and novelists who have written about the strike. As much as I love history, this one was pretty boring.
- Storyboard-to-Screen Comparison (with Optional Commentary by Production Designer William Sandell) – This feature will allow you to see a comparison between the story-boarded scenes and the actual footage. There’s also optional commentary by William Sandell as well.
- Sing-Along Feature – If you have a burning desire to sing along with the movie you can, as long as you select the option in the subtitle menu.
In all good conscience I cannot recommend this movie unless you happen to already be a fan of it for some reason and you’d like to upgrade to this high definition version. The movie is pretty terrible, the songs aren’t that great (which is surprising since they came from The Little Mermaid’s Alan Menken), and even the acting is mostly bad. The Blu-ray itself is decent with decent audio and visual quality and a surprising amount of extras too. If you want to see a high quality Disney musical, go watch Mary Poppins or Enchanted and skip this one!
You can order your copy below if you’re a fan!