Film review: Newsies

Published: Tuesday, April 14 1992 12:00 a.m. MDT

In the past 10 years we've only had two old-fashioned, live-action, characters-bursting-into-song musicals that I can think of, "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Annie."

And, speaking for myself, I've missed them.

On the surface, "Newsies" seems like odd subject matter for a musical. Based on a true story, the film is set in 1899 and has raggedy newsboys, most of them orphans, forming a union so they can strike against newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer (Robert Duvall), who has greedily raised the prices they pay for the newspapers they sell.

The film's biggest flaw is its lack of color — the obvious back-lot setting is dark and dreary, and the colors are muddy and washed out. Because it has so obviously been shot on a back lot, the dowdy atmosphere can't be because the filmmakers thought it would give the film a gritty, realistic look. Some of the production numbers cry out for colorful treatment, and the atmosphere definitely suffers. (At more than two hours, it's also a bit too long.)

But the songs, with music by Alan Menken (Oscar-winner for "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast"), are very good, and the athletic production numbers are lively and energetic (Gene Kelly is rightly given "special thanks" in the end credits).

As a whole, "Newsies" manages to successfully blend elements of "West Side Story," "Annie" and "Oliver!"

The story has Jack Kelly (Christian Bale, of "Empire of the Sun") as an orphaned "newsy," the unofficial leader of the boys (sort of updated "Dead End Kids") who hawk papers on the streets of New York City. In the film's early scenes, he links up with David Jacobs (David Moscow, best known as the young Tom Hanks in "Big") and even has dinner in his home, discovering for the first time what a traditional family is like.

When Pulitzer announces his price hike to the newsies, David becomes the intellectual voice who helps charismatic Jack lead the lads in their fight for fair play.

Ann-Margret has two abbreviated scenes as a burlesque singer who supports the movement and lends a welcome female voice to the otherwise all-male chorus.

"Newsies" marks the directing debut of choreographer Kenny Ortega ("Dirty Dancing"), and he's at his best staging the lavish production numbers. But he doesn't take full advantage of them with his camera, and though he has cast the film well, many characters remain underdeveloped.

Faring best are Bale (who successfully buries his British accent), Moscow and Bill Pullman, as a reporter who supports the boys' movement. The most memorable songs are the rousing "Seize the Day," the evocative "Santa Fe" (though its choreography, complete with cowboy hat and horse, is a bit much) and the show-stopping "King of New York."

If there were 10 other musicals in the past few years for comparison, I'm not sure where "Newsies" would place. But as it is, this is the only game in town — and it's quite entertaining most of the way.

I hope it does well and we see more.

If it doesn't, this could be the death knell for the genre.

"Newsies" is rated PG, and it's a bit more violent than you might expect.