NEWSIES – Blu-ray review

I had never heard of “Newsies,” and since it’s a Disney live-action musical, that’s no small thing.  As it turns out, the 1992 offering was the first feature-length film directed by Kenny Ortega (“High School Musical” 1-3) and the first feature-length screenplay from Bob Tzudiker and Noni White (Disney’s “Tarzan”). I don’t know whether the musical template was forced on them by Disney or by producer Michael Finnell (“Gremlins, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School”), but this is one rooted-in-fact film that would have worked better without the singing and dancing.

The year is 1899 and Joseph Pulitzer, in a market-share war with opposing media magnate William Randolph Hearst, decides to go for increased profits by charging the newsboys (or “newsies”) ten cents more per hundred papers. That means instead of a 50/50 split on the penny papers they’re selling, the newsies—a ragtag group of orphans and children working to help their families pay the rent—would only make 40 cents per hundred papers.

We’re introduced to Jack Kelly (Christian Bale), a roguish young man who’s escaped from the equivalent of an 1890’s juvenile hall. Jack is one of the best newsies around, and he cons two newbies into joining with him in a 60/40 venture because the littlest brother (Luke Edwards) will help them all sell papers—“Buy my last paper, please?”

Kelly is a completely fictional character, but most everything else is based on the newsboy strike of 1899—one that lasted two weeks and included picket-line violence.  That extra ten cents per hundred was the last straw for the newsboys, who had to sell all their papers because they couldn’t return them. So “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” was historically a cry for survival as much as anything else. Children of the time lived on the streets, and this was largely the group that was selling papers to survive. Such were the days of the so-called Penny Press.

In “Newsies,” Jack, fed the right things to say by the more educated David (David Moscow, “Big”), becomes the voice and leader of the newsies’ protest. With the help of the tough Brooklyn newsies led by Spot Conlon (Gabriel Damon), a full-blown strike evolves, and that involves skirmishes between the newsies and “scabs,” and the police . . . who, along with the mayor, are in the pocket of Pulitzer (Robert Duvall).  The lone crusading journalist in the city (really?) is Sun reporter Bryan Denton (Bill Pullman), who buys the boys dinner and encourages them so he’ll have front-page news to sell.

Now, all of this is fascinating enough for a live-action drama. The music, funnily enough, intrudes on the narration. The problems? Well, for one thing, the songs all sound the same, and they’re as forgettable as can be. So is Peggy Holme’s choreography, which seems clumsy and schizoid. It’s as if the “Newsies” crew couldn’t decide whether to make a musical about street toughs (“West Side Story”), larcenous street urchins (“Oliver!”), or pitiful orphans (“Annie”). Like the songs themselves, the dance routines are all energy and very little style. There’s all sorts of fist-pumping, quasi-break dancing, and line dancing, but it all goes on too long, it all feels way too similar, and, worst of all, the musical numbers seem to interrupt the story even as the songs attempt to move the narrative forward. You can’t wait for them to end so you can get back to the story.

But Bale is fun to watch. He was only 18 when the film played in theaters, and yet you can see some of the same sneering cockiness that he trotted out for “The Fighter,” which earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  No doubt Bale’s current status is partly behind the release of the Blu-ray. Another impetus behind it has to be the timing. “Newsies” opened on Broadway in spring of 2012, and unlike the Disney film that spawned it, became an instant success. Maybe the Alan Menken songs play better on the stage. Here, they just seem underwhelming.

“Newsies” has a color-manipulated sepia-toned look to it, and with a little extra grain than we’re used to seeing on Blu-ray—all, presumably, to give the film the look of age. But the level of detail is strong in medium shots as well as close-ups, and skin tones look natural (though it’s hard to tell with the amount of dirt on some of their faces). The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer appears to be solid, with no visible artifacts. “Newsies” is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen.

The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with an additional Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 option and subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish. My only complaint is that the dialogue seems muted compared to the ambient sounds and musical background, so you really have to crank up the volume just to hear it. And it’s not just my aging ears. The whole family thought so. There’s more audio goofiness when you try to navigate to special features from the menu. The menu is blasting, while the features are all muted. It’s a constant toggling back and forth. In fact, I’d have to say that the soundtrack is more loud than it is sonically clear and impressive. It’s not a bad soundtrack by any means, but I’ve heard better mixes with greater clarity.

The box lists a full-length commentary with filmmakers, but I’ll be darned if I could find it. I didn’t see it under bonus features, and didn’t see it under play movie. Maybe it was under set up. I don’t know. I figured looking two places was enough.

The other bonus features are all quite similar: a mix of in-character narration by some of the newsies, combined with behind-the-scenes footage, talking heads interviews with cast, crew, and historians, and in some cases vintage photos and one vintage newsreel that was quite cool, actually. “Newsies, Newsies, See All About It” runs 22 minutes; “Newsies: The Inside Story” runs 20 minutes; “Strike! The True Story” runs 19 minutes. Surprisingly, even the writers and filmmakers weigh in on the real story as well.

Rounding out the bonus features are two storyboard comparisons (one with commentary by production designer William Sandell) and two trailers. Click on a question mark (thinking, as I did, maybe here is where the commentary is hiding) and all you get is a disclaimer ABOUT the commentary. Finally, there are two theatrical trailers.

Bottom line:
The film version isn’t awful. Bale and the cast are energetic and fun to watch, and the story itself is fascinating history. But the songs and choreography are a disappointment, and for a musical, that’s sadder than the fate of a Tiny Tim-like character named Crutchy, and about as original.