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Looking Back: Newsies (1992)

If you bring up Disney’s “Newsies,” most will note that it’s a beloved 2012 Broadway musical, a rousing stage show about the 1899 New York City newsboy strike. Following an acclaimed run on Broadway, the show continues to travel and appear in theaters to this day. There was even a recent Fandango event where a production of “Newsies” was broadcast to theaters nationwide for one night only. The show has a healthy, adoring following. On the other hand, there’s “Newsies,” the 1992 movie musical that inspired the Broadway show.

While “Newsies” belatedly found its proper venue and approach on stage, its initial appearance as a movie was a massive disaster. Both a giant flop for its studio (which never promoted it correctly or with much enthusiasm) and a bomb loud enough to put movie musicals on hiatus for four years, “Newsies” was, snarkily but not inaccurately, described by one movie critic as “Howard The Newsboy.”

Christian Bale was 18-years old when he starred as Jack Kelly, the street-smart newsboy who makes up headlines (yes, “fake news” in 1899!) to sell his “papes.” Kelly is seen as the leader of the Newsies, who wake up early, live in a massive youth hostel on the job sight, and are up “Carrying the Banner” at the top of every morning. Kelly may be the leader, but he’s by no means the “brains” of his group, as the much smarter, family oriented David (played by David Moscow) joins the crew and encourages them to strike. Meanwhile, the ruthless Joseph Pulitzer (played by Robery Duvall), who publishes the papers his newsies sell, plans to increase prices and make things even harder for his employees.

“Newsies” marked the directorial debut of celebrated choreographer Kenny Ortega, whose best known work includes John Hughes comedies and “Dirty Dancing.” Helming the first major live action musical in ages (prior to this, the last was “Little Shop of Horrors” in 1986), Ortega took on a towering assignment. Using a score co-written by Alan Menken and steering the performances of dozens of young actors (as well as many more extras scattered across lavish sets), the movie was clearly too much for him to juggle.

Every scene seems overly-choreographed, like Ortega couldn’t just let things be still for a moment. At times, the dancing is chaotic, as actors perform seemingly spring-loaded leaps, unmotivated and not always in synch.

Bale’s performance isn’t always stellar, either. There are a few moments, when he’s in the midst of the ensemble, when he seems to drop the character and be looking at something off camera. As a young actor, Bale was always committed but his focus visibly wanders here from time to time. The low point for him and the film is the “Santa Fe” number, which begins earnestly enough, then progresses into a rigorous solo dance and the silly spectacle of Bale riding a horse, singing, and wearing a cowboy hat.

Thankfully, “Newsies” improves after the clumsy missteps of the first act. Moscow played Tom Hanks’ younger self in “Big” an he’s equally excellent here. Bill Pullman is solid as a reporter who covers the Newsies’ plight- he’s a welcome presence in a one-note role. Most of the adults are stranded in this way, particularly Ann-Margret (whose Newsies-loving showgirl could and should have been cut out of the movie). Duvall goes overboard at making Pulitzer eccentric, though it’s interesting watching him face off with Bale, a decade before his emergence as one of our finest film actors.

A few of the musical numbers are winners, like the reprise of “Seize The Day” and the rollicking “King of New York,” both of which are cleanly, winningly staged (many of the other songs are too busy in their presentation). Ortega’s ambitious blend of “Oliver!,” “Annie” and pieces of “West Side Story” incorporates themes of embracing activism, opposing exploitative bureaucrats and the search for true identity. There’s also a love story, an ill-advised character insensitively named “Crutchy” and lots and lots of dancing. It’s the cinematic equivalent of those Sunday Edition newspapers, about to burst out of the plastic wrap and snap the rubber band keeping it together.

I have a fondness for “Newsies,” even when it doesn’t work and was obviously a better fit for the stage. Trimming the story down, tightening the scope for stage and creating greater focus with less dancing extras has served it well. Ortega’s heart and soul is in this flawed, occasionally soaring curiosity item. It deserves praise as an offbeat addition to the genre but is so uneven, it also gave the movie musical a needed time out to recover from Crutchy the Crippled Newsie.

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