The time is 1899--one year after Teddy Roosevelt's famous charge up San Juan Hill--and the hard-working, impoverished newsies (boys who hawk "all the news that's fit to print" on the streets) are having a tough time making ends meet. Then Joseph Pulitzer (Robert Duvall) arbitrarily raises the
wholesale cost of the newspapers, further cutting into the newsies' already slim profit margin. Led by rough-and-tumble Jack Kelly (Christian Bale) and the more intellectual David Jacobs (David Moscow), these street urchins form an all-singing, all-dancing picket line, determined not to give in to
Pulitzer's cost-hikes. There are rescues, chases and street brawls galore, not to mention an overabundance of hoofing in the streets, before the story is neatly wrapped up in a typically upbeat--and extremely artificial--Disney ending.
Making his directorial bow, choreographer Kenny Ortega strains valiantly to breathe life into this misguided musical. On the one hand, NEWSIES aspires to be a throwback to the golden heyday of the Hollywood musical. On the other hand, it attempts to pay homage to the bleak, gritty, labor unrest
movies of the Depression era. While a few of the dance numbers, especially the opening routine featuring dozens of high-stepping, leaping, spinning and prancing newsboys, are dazzling, too often they are lackluster and monotonous. The film cries out for at least one good love-song duet between
Bale and his rather subdued love interest, Sarah Jacobs (played blandly by newcomer Ele Keats). Also, Ann-Margret's tremendous talent is virtually wasted. Even the two opportunities she has to perform potentially rousing ragtime-style tunes during her vaudeville act are painfully abbreviated, cut
short by the demands of the plot.
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Sumptuous production values and fitfully impressive choreography notwithstanding, NEWSIES was a major misfire for Disney Studios. That's a shame, because this intensely pro-labor musical drama, dealing with the late 1890s Gotham newsboys' strike against magnates Joseph Pulitzer and William
Randolph Hearst, is a picture one really wants to like.