Newsies (1997)


Reviewer: Charity Bishop


There's something almost appealing about watching a modern-day musical. It reminds you of the classic age of Hollywood in which Julie Andrews made magic with Marry Poppins and Gene Kelly was learning how to walk while Singin' in the Rain. Musicals are practically a lost art, parodied with only a few recent attempts with Moulin Rogue, Evita and Newsies, which is the true story of the children of the streets of New York. In the latter years of the 1800's, news boys became the sole way in which the newspapers were able to sell their morning and evening editions. Every morning they would pile up to the drop-off and exchange however much money they could spare from the day before for an armload of newspapers. Two for one -- ten "papes" for five cents.


The king of these "street rats" is Jack Kelly (Christian Bale), an escapee from the juvenile detention facility for homeless boys. The boy flies by the seat of his pants and the rule of his fists but is largely without massive brain-power. When clean-cut David (David Moscow) and his little brother Les (Luke Edwards) show up one day at the drop-off, Jack befriends them both and gives them the lay of the land. David's father has been wounded in a factory accident, leaving him unable to work and without a job to go back to. In the meantime, David has decided to turn his hand toward selling newspapers rather than finishing his education. And his sweet-faced little brother is just along for the ride. Up in his office Joseph Pulitzer (Robert Duvall), the owner of one of the most prominent newspapers in New York, is attempting to figure out a way to cut strings and make more money than his competitor. The obsessive, greedy older man holds New York in the palm of his hand but is unknowing as to how he can "squeeze" more money out of them. Then his assistant comes up with a brilliant idea -- charge the Newsies more to buy the papers. With only a mandatory amount of thought, Pulitzer loves the idea and it is put into place the following morning -- to the shock, horror, and fury of the news boys. 


A tenth of a cent might not mean a lot to us now, but it was quite a price jack back then, losing their two-for one profits. What if they couldn't sell all the papers? Sufficiently peeved, David helps Jack organize a strike but doesn't care for their unorthodox manner in "soaking" the stray Newsies. To make a dent, they need all of the news boys in New York to join them. However, this means winning over the boys from Brooklyn -- a rough and tumble gang under the hand of Spot Conlon (Gabriel Damon), a distant and tough street kid with a lot of know-how and influence. Spot isn't going to leap into the fray unless he's assured that the Newsies won't buckle the first time Pulitzer puts on the heat. They have to prove their worth to him first. In the meantime, a news reporter from the Sun Times has gotten wind of what may be the biggest story of his lifetime and joins the boys in their crusade. But Pulitzer isn't some street punk that can be chased off with a rock; he's one of the most powerful men in New York and it will take all of the children united to bring him down.


Although Newsies did only half-rate at the box office thanks to the critics who found it too widely appealing to families, it's made a victorious comeback on video and DVD in recent years. There's something to be said for an almost all-male cast featuring knowns like Christian Bale and Gabriel Damon as well as a host of unknown but likable sideliners with a few cameos from big box office sellers -- Anne-Margaret, Bill Pullman, and Robert Duvall. The cast shines both in singing, dancing, and acting abilities and their six weeks of preparation for the dance numbers (which are intricately choreographed) have certainly paid off, each to showcase their individual talents as well as provide a rich musical backdrop that is hardly ever dull. The story is loosely based on an actual event in New York, although the names are fictitious, and it gives a moderately truthful side to the real life of news boys (and girls) before the turn of the century. Although some have criticized the film for being "too clean" with swept city streets and spotless clothing for the boys to wear, the film tries very hard not to skewer the facts. There's a sweet sideline romance between Jack and David's older sister, as well as many humorous gags, conversations, and character priorities. You grow to know all of the boys and like them.


For a Disney film it's surprisingly agile, appealing both to children for the humor and wit, teenagers for the romance and political struggle, and adults as history buffs. And Disney has kept it relatively clean, straying from street language and innuendo to make a very family-friendly film. Even if the profanity is limited to a few uses of God and one of d-mn, it should be emphasized that there is a fair amount of violence. It never stretches the PG rating but is mostly fistfights (one taking place at a public fight in which we view momentarily a bloodied face) and police intervention on the Newsies' rallies. Harsher violence is more implied than seen, as a boy with a crutch admits to having been "worked over pretty good" by Pulitzer's bullies. One or two dance moves may or may not be mildly suggestive, depending on what you're looking for. The only other caution I might forebear in mentioning is the fact that adults play an almost nonexistent role -- the case rests entirely on the shoulders of the young Newsies, some of which are rather rowdy.


The complete absence of "parental guidance" in their lives didn't overly bother me -- it never even entered my mind -- but I know some people might be concerned with it. One of the boys, nicknamed "Racetrack," loves betting and it's implied that he often looses his shirt on many a "hot tip," although we never actually see him making a wager. The boys smoke cigarettes on and off. Perhaps not appealing to the older generations as much as those in mine, Newsies is a fun-filled and meaningful romp with a good message in sticking together through thick and thin. This one's "da winna!"