The live-action musical has essentially been a faded genre for years. Probably considered too "old fashioned" by current audiences, whenever studios have tried to resume making these films, it's regarded as a risk. These risks certainly haven't shown to pay off. An adaptation of the musical "The Fantasticks" sat on the shelf for 5 years (that's a lot of dust) before being released by MGM. In 1992, after success with animated musicals, Disney likely thought they'd make an attempt of their own with "Newsies", based upon a true story. Audiences, thinking this was old news (I know, that was bad.), stayed away, but the film eventually did gain a cult following on video.
While I certainly consider the musical the genre I have the least interest in myself, I thought "Newsies" at least had several elements that were worthy of praise. Still, I find it hard to imagine how the movie got made. On such a small budget, the film doesn't exactly look it's finest, either. Anyways, the picture stars Christian Bale ("Empire of the Sun") as a newsboy named Jack who, with his fellow orphans, sell newspapers by day and try to get by on what little money they make from their trade. After newspaper tycoon Joeseph Pulitzer (Robert Duvall) raises the price of their papers 1/10th of a cent, the newsies are up in arms and decide to protest, forming their own union in 1899.
The film was the directorial debut of choreographer Kenny Ortega, who had previously worked on such films as "Ferris Buller's Day Off" and "Dirty Dancing". He directed once again in 1993 ("Hocus Pocus") before heading to television to direct episodes of "Ally MacBeal", "Grounded For Life" and other shows. Ortega brings an energy to the proceedings that, while it doesn't carry the picture, at least makes some of the film's shortcomings less noticable.
And, speaking of shortcomings, there are several. Although all of the young actors do give their best effort, Bale's character is the only one that's at least fairly well-developed. As such, it's a bit hard to care about the group and the overlong running time makes this aspect suffer further. The acting is a bit corny, but the adults suprisingly don't understand how to keep things from going over the top - this is one of the great Robert Duvall's least interesting performances that I've seen.
The film doesn't exactly seem like it contains a subject that would work for a musical, but suprisingly, the musical elements seem fairly well-integrated into the story. Composer Alan ("Beauty and the Beast") Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman's work is not their finest, but it works well enough with the material. (Although the Razzie awards apparently disagreed, as one of their songs won for "Worst Song" in that catagory - the film, Duvall, Ann-Margaret and director Ortega all were nominated in their catagories at that year's awards, as well). The film's mid-budget also probably also forced the film to shoot on backlots and the sets are a bit obvious and unconvincing.
According to the Internet Movie Database, the film made a little over 2 million in theaters, but made 18 million in rentals. The film has obviously developed a considerable cult following in the years since its release and I'm glad that those people have found something special in the film. Personally, I think it's a very mixed effort, with a few decent performances and energy to spare, but the characters are not very well-developed and I found it hard to stay interested in the story for the entire 121 minutes.
VIDEO: "Newsies" is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen by Disney. The last film from cinematographer Andrew Laszlo ("Star Trek V"), the film boasts strong compositions, but the film's obvious sets don't exactly add much to the visuals. The picture appears sharp, but inconsistently so - the bright, daylight scenes appear crisp and quite well-defined, while some of the dimly-lit moments and other spots look somewhat softer in comparison.
At least there aren't really many other flaws besides the softness. The print used is in quite good condition - I only noticed a few stray specks, but that was about it. Edge enhancement is kept to a definite minimum and pixelation is absent.
The film's rather muted and dark color scheme is reproduced fairly well by the DVD, with only one or two very minor instances of smearing that I noticed. Otherwise, colors are presented in accurate and solid fashion. Not an outstanding transfer, but a pleasing one that fans of the film should enjoy.
SOUND: "Newsies", if memory serves me correctly, was one of the first films presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 in theaters and the DVD presents the film in 5.1, as well. The soundtrack generally serves up the expected activity for the material, as the musical sequences are the only elements of the soundtrack that really open up the audio. The rear speakers sufficently reinforce the music, but really don't provide any other detail than that.
Audio quality remained pleasant, if not exceptional. The music came through crisply and cleanly, sounding pleasantly rich, if not that dynamic or full. Dialogue and singing remained clear throughout. It's a satisfactory audio presentation, as it does about as well as it can with the musical sequences.
MENUS: After nearly eight minutes (yikes!) of ads for other Disney releases, the animated main menus (a nice combination of film-themed images and clips) opens.
Commentary: This is a somewhat crowded commentary track, offering thoughts from director and co-choreographer Kenny Ortega, producer Michael Finnell, writers Bob Tzudiker and Noni White and co-choreographer Peggy Holmes. While the group (who were recorded all together) can go a bit too much into praise for the cast and crew that they worked with, the discussion does provide some intesting information about the making of the picture, which was originally going to be a drama instead of a musical.
The group talks about several aspects of the production. Of course, their main topic of chat is regarding the musical aspects of the film, such as working with actors who were not trained at all in singing or dancing - some of whom who hadn't even seen a musical. Also, we learn more about the research done for the film, the look of the picture and what the actors have done before and after. It's not a fantastic commentary, but I found the group very enthusiastic and genuinely proud of their work. While it can be a bit heavy on the praise, there's some good information and insight at times.
See All About It! Making of "Newsies": While this 22 minute documentary does get rather promotional at times, there's some good behind-the-scenes footage of the cast trying to work out the dance sequences and other elements of the film. There's a lot of clips from the picture, but there's also some mildly interesting interviews with the cast and crew.
Talkin' Newsies: An animated text section that explains what some of the "old fashioned" phrases that the Newsies use mean.
Trailers: The film's two theatrical trailers.
Newsies: The Inside Story!: This is a 19-minute documentary that offers more perspective from the crew, such as the film's producter, director and composer. What dissapointed me a bit was this featurette seemed to be a continuation of the commentary's praise. I didn't learn much about the film here, as the documentary seemed heavily geared towards everyone talking about how much they liked working with each other or on the film. There's a bit of information about the historical aspects of the story, but it doesn't appear until towards the end of the piece.
The True Story Of Newsies: This nearly 19 minute documentary is the most interesting of the three offered, going into quite satisfactory detail about the real-life story of the "Newsies". Historians, authors and crew of the film discuss how the newspaper sellers had to promote the day's stories and do their best to sell all the papers they had bought to sell for the day.
Storyboard-to-Scene Comparison: A small group of clips from the film are shown in this section and compared to the storyboard version. Unfortunately, instead of a split-screen comparison, we go back and forth between the final form and storyboards. Optional commentary by production designer Bill Sandrell is also provided.
Sing-Along: If this option is chosen, lyrics to the movie appear on-screen during the film's musical sequences.
Final Thoughts: "Newsies" has a considerable cult following and, while I didn't think the picture was particularly great, those who have enjoyed it will likely be pleased that the film is finally out on DVD - and a Special Edition, no less. While audio/video quality isn't outstanding, both are very good and the supplements are fine, as well. Recommended for fans - maybe worth a rental for those who aren't familiar.
The Film ** 1/2
Video 88/B = (352/400 possible points)
Audio: 88/B = (352/400 possible points)
Extras: 82/B = (246/300 possible points)
Menus: 80/B- = (160/200 possible points)
Value: 82/B = (246/300 possible points)
FILM GRADE: ** 1/2
DVD GRADE: B