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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Newsies': Striking Up the Band

April 10, 1992|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Certain movies engage your affections so strongly that, even if they start to fall apart, you tend to keep rooting for them. That's pretty much the case with "Newsies" (citywide).

It's a big, bright, rousing period musical and its subject--the 1899 New York City newsboys' strike --makes it an anachronism. The various elements often seem to clash: Golden Age musical and the '30s- or '60s-style left-wing labor drama, the young cast careening and leaping to songs like "Seize the Day" while the writers try to fill a broad canvas with social detail.

The bumptiously sunny Hollywood happy ending, probably a commercial prerequisite, clashes with everything. The real strike didn't end this happily, and to suggest that these Davids could bring Goliaths Pulitzer and Hearst to their knees with heart and hope, some slingshots and an assist from Teddy Roosevelt, is as false to the material as it is to history.

Yet, for all its failures, "Newsies" has something that many successes miss. It's done with such full-bore enthusiasm, verve and energy, that--crazy as it often seems--it really does have moments that lift your heart or moisten your eyes. Kenny Ortega, the director and (with Peggy Holmes) the co-choreographer, doesn't act as though his material has flaws: perfunctory plot twists, corny lyrics or characters. He's like his newsies: He's out to seize the day. When the material works, he does.

The story is archetypal. We meet three boys who will be active in the strike: an intellectual (David Moscow), his cute kid brother (Luke Edwards) and a devil-may-care rogue (Christian Bale). We get a glimpse of their seething turn-of-the century world, and the forces arrayed against them: local bullies, their weaselly distributor ("Barton Fink's" splendidly sleazy Michael Lerner), all the way up to Joseph Pulitzer--played as a cold, compassionless patrician by Robert Duvall.

In the first, and best, part of "Newsies," Ortega keeps rushing us and the boys from place to place, in big, eye-catching, mobile Panavision shots that bustle and boil with background detail. The production design and cinematography (Andrew Laszlo) are often smashing, and Bale--the boy protagonist of "Empire of the Sun"--has lots of streetwise charisma. When we reach the end of the first "act"--Bale's wistfully romantic, nocturnal walk-in-the-streets-and-dream number "Santa Fe"--the movie has created its own little world, sucked us in with its movie-movie romanticism.

Then Pulitzer raises his paper costs, the strike begins, and the premise crumbles. "Newsies" which, up till then, has looked a bit like "Oliver!" mixed with "Ragtime" and "Angels With Dirty Faces," suddenly becomes, more obviously, a formula Disney movie. The tone goes off. There's little sense of how this strike might develop or sustain itself.

Writers Bob Tzudiker and Noni White drag in a reformatory, an evil warden (Kevin Tighe, the porcine thug from John Sayles' movies), an idealistic reporter (Bill Pullman), improbable turnarounds, benefits (with Ann-Margret) and melodrama galore. "Newsies" becomes a string of set-pieces, some of which work, some of which don't, all barreling full-speed ahead toward its Teddy Roosevelt deus ex machina.

Yet, if you're caught by its opening--probably a matter of predilection--it keeps some of its charm. Composer Alan Menken, who lost his longtime partner, lyricist Howard Ashman, to AIDS, is like Rodgers without his Hart. He has a new lyricist here, Jack Feldman (who, unpromisingly, wrote Barry Manilow's "Copacabana")--but, although Feldman can't match Ashman, Menken's music is still in the best Tin Pan Alley-Broadway heart-tugger tradition. It has lilt and range, infectious inevitability.

These days, big-studio movies don't often look at labor unions or history. They leave it to low-budget, documentary or independent efforts like "Roger & Me," "American Dream" or "Matewan." So, treading on this new and old ground--trying to revive the Hollywood musical and the '30s social drama--"Newsies" (MPAA-rated PG) stumbles a little.

But perhaps this movie's "fall" is like its own exhilarating last shot: a freeze frame of a leaping newsboy, who suddenly plops to earth after the credits finish rolling. It's a glorious stumble: a misstep that may lead Ortega and the rest to better ones.

'Newsies'

Christian Bale: Jack Kelly

Ann-Margret: Medda Larksen

Bill Pullman: Bryan Denton

Robert Duvall: Joseph Pulitzer

A Walt Disney Pictures presentation, in association with Touchwood Pacific Partners, of a Michael Finnell production. Director Kenny Ortega. Producer Michael Finnell. Screenplay by Bob Tzudiker, Noni White. Cinematographer Andrew Laszlo. Editor William Reynolds. Costumes May Routh. Songs by Alan Menken & Jack Feldman. Production design William Sandell. Art director Nancy Patton. Set designers Brad Ricker. Carl J. Stensel. Set decorator Robert Gould. With David Moscow, Michael Lerner, Luke Edwards. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG

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