They should have filmed the pitch meeting for this project: ‘Hey, guys, I found a story I bet nobody’s ever thought of making: How about a movie on the 1899 New York newsboys’ strike? Robert Duvall’s got a hole in his schedule; he could play Pulitzer.’ ‘Great! But let’s get Ann-Margret and a lot of cute kids and make a musical!’
A strange cross between Oliver! and Samuel Fuller’s Park Row, Newsies was made with care and affection by choreographer-turned-director Kenny Ortega. But the writers have created cardboard cutouts instead of flesh-and-blood characters.
Composer Alan Menken, whose music works hard at being rousing, badly misses lyricist Howard Ashman, his late partner: Jack Feldman’s lyrics here are relentlessly banal and unmemorable.
Cast has pleasant but ordinary voices, and it’s only in the vigorous, West Side Story-style dancing, choreographed by Ortega and Peggy Holmes, that the film sporadically comes alive. Ortega avoids the MTV fragmentation that’s de rigeur in musicals today.
Christian Bale plays the leader of the newsboys’ walk-out against the penny-pinching Pulitzer (bearded Robert Duvall). He’s a charismatic figure, with a compelling blend of brashness and vulnerability. Duvall is a cartoon figure of ranting hard-heartedness as publisher of the N.Y. World. Ann-Margret’s Jenny Lind-like thrush, an improbable ally of the boys, is shoehorned into the film to provide s.a. in a male-dominated story.