I have a secret passion for musicals. Somehow, they epitomize what films are about for me: productions where emotions are so heightened that the only solution is to do something magical. That magic, of course, is the song and dance. There are few things in this life better than a well done musical. However, watching one fall short is something to be avoided. With such films there's no such thing as a near-hit. They either work, or they don't. Newsies strives admirably to be great, but misses its mark. It's a real shame, too, because it has so much going for it.
The story is quite a crowd-pleaser, about the little guy (figuratively and literally) fighting the Man. Newsies is based on a real event, and depending on who you believe, it's either deadly accurate or mainly concocted from a loose string of facts. Here it is, though, according to the film: In July of 1899, newsies are the main way to get a newspaper in the city of New York. They scrape by on a few quarters a day and blow what they do get. When Joseph Pulitzer (Robert Duvall) lowers their profit margin by raising the distribution price, they go on strike, led by Jack Kelly (Christian Bale) and David Jacobs (David Moscow).
Much of the young cast is quite talented, also. Bale makes a good show as the gutsy Kelly, who often acts before he thinks and has a secret dream of escaping to Santa Fe. Especially impressive is the fact that Bale's New York accent (though it is occasionally overstated) complete obliterates any traces of his Welsh birth and upbringing. You could swear the boy was raised in the Bronx. Moscow, as Kelly's thinking partner and friend David Jacobs, doesn't fare nearly as well, but he has a good singing voice. The rest of the newsies are energetic and enthusiastic (and, dare I say, adorable). The two most memorable are probably Max Casella (of "Doogie Howser M.D." fame) as the fast-talking Racetrack and Marty Belafsky as the highly excitable and lame-legged Crutchie.
The funny part is, none of the adults in the movie match up. Duvall's part is written to make him totally inhuman, a money-grubbing monster. Sure, we're not supposed to like him, but it's obvious he was having trouble making such a caricature work. In the end, Pulitzer is a servicable but altogether uninteresting villain. Bill Pullman and Ann-Margaret, who play supporters of the boys, are completely wasted. Pullman, at least, serves some plot function, but Ann-Margaret just sings two songs. Her character is a tangent that needn't have been made.
Then, we come to the music, where the film's fatal flaws lie. Actually, the songs are mostly excellent. With the exception of Ann-Margaret's numbers, the soundtrack is well worth the money. It's the actual numbers I have problems with. For every exemplary song/dance matchup like "King of New York," there's a mess like "Carryin' the Banner," where a quality tune is matched up with atrocious choreography. In fact, too many of the juvenile hoofers have a "Look at me - I'm DANCING" air about them, which is at best distracting and at worst supremely irritating.
Even worse, though, the lead actor can't sing. Try as he might, Christian Bale is utterly without a sense of pitch. He's tone deaf. I realize this is the pot calling the kettle blue (my kitchenware is different than most), but when you do something this extravagant (and especially when you're trying to revive the musical as a viable form of cinema, as Newsies was attempting), then you must be sure that the person carrying the picture can not only act and sing, but do both very well. Plus, Bale looks hopelessly lost during major crowd dances. When he's solo, he's fine - in fact, he's great. He just can't do it with other people around.
There's a lot of Newsies fans out there, and I really can't blame them. Much of the film has a very catchy air to it. A lot of the film is also very cheesy, and unintentionally so. Also, though it's marketed and performed like a family film, it features a lot of child actors doing things that are typically labeled "bad things for kids to do." Parents may want to be cautious of this if they rent the movie. Me? I'll be watching my Gene Kelly classics.