Disney's 'Newsies' is no special edition

April 10, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Newsies" is a live-action musical, but it's only barely alive. Call it "Snoozies."

How good an idea was this, anyhow? "Hey, kids, let's put on a musical about a strike." What is it, "Pajama Game" for the Li'l Rascals? Actually it is based on an authentic event, the strike by newspaper boys against New York press lords Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst back in 1899. But the "1899" of "Newsies" is that old familiar place, the quaint and gentrified past so beloved of the Disney sensibility, where everything has been artificially aged until it has that tasty theme-park look, as if it's set in the fabled New York borough of Orlando.

Of course, it's full of cute but dirty orphan boys named Snitch and Dutchy and Snoddy and Pie Eater and even . . . Bumlets. Everybody speaks in the adenoidal twang of a bad Dead-End Kid movie and at the drop of a hat, they puff out their scrawny little chests and begin to belt out show tunes like baby-boy Mermans. The movie is kind of like "Annie" as performed by white rappers.

If you look closely, you'll see some grown-ups who should know better lost in the mess. These include Robert Duvall as Joe Pulitzer, Bill Pullman as a reporter and even Ann-Margret, who looks as if she hasn't aged a day since 1965, puts in a brief turn as a song and dance girl. The great Michael Lerner is completely wasted as "Weasel," head of the news boys operation and prime agent in the plot to raise the price of the "papes" by a 10th of a cent, all the better to line the greedy Pulitzer's pocket. (And they named some prize after this guy?)

But the movie turns on the boys, notably Christian Bale as Jack, the guts and heart of the strike, and David Moscow, as David Jacobs, the brains of the strike. These young men try very hard, but have almost no success in bringing life to what are essentially lifeless parts.

The book is a disaster. Somehow the songwriting team of Alan Menken and Jack Feldman never conjure up the sheer show-stopping razzmatazz of Menken and the late Howard Ashman. Not a single tune is memorable; without looking I couldn't name one, except for "Santa Fe," which I remember only by mnemonic association with a big red diesel locomotive.

Even worse are the dance numbers, as choreographed by Kenny Ortega (who also directed) and Peggy Holmes. The numbers have a wretched sameness: they seem to involve a fleet of dancers in an Army P. E. formation performing a kind of macho stampede number, a syncopated tai chi to the boomboomboom of a drum. When dance numbers remind you of the Gladiator School in "Spartacus," something's wrong.

If the movie musical isn't quite dead yet, this one should be a coup de grace. It's a bullet in the head.

'Newsies'

Starring Christian Bale and Robert Duvall.

Directed by Kenny Ortega.

Released by Disney.

Rated PG.

... **

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