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‘Newsies’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 10, 1992

"Newsies," the new live-action Disney musical, attempts in a rather willful manner to revive the glorious heyday of Hollywood song and dance films. And, in balance, the payoff is more positive than negative. Its intentions seem fairly modest, and so are its achievements. It's a modestly enjoyable diversion.

The picture is a contrivance shot entirely on back-lot sets, just as they were in the great musicals of the past. It celebrates its artificiality, which makes it seem perfectly natural for the street urchins who make up its cast to burst periodically into song. The characters are mostly poor orphan boys, dead-end kids, who earn just enough to sustain themselves by hawking the New York World.

Considerable bravado and not a little imagination are needed to survive the stiff competition in the streets. One kid, a runaway from the law named Jack (Christian Bale), has moxie to burn, which makes him the head mug among these lesser, marble-mouthed mugs. Two incidents occur, though, that cause a dramatic shift in the delicate balance of power. The first is the arrival of Dave (David Moscow), a brainy mutt who, along with his little brother, Les (Luke Edwards), has gone to work as a newsie to make money while their pop is out of a job. The second is Joseph Pulitzer's decision to increase profits for the World by raising the price each newsie must pay for his papers. With their pay already next to nothing, the newsies decide not to take this lying down. Flexing their collective muscle they declare themselves a union, confront Pulitzer with their demands and go on strike.

But declaring yourself a union and being one aren't quite the same thing, even if you can croon and do flying splits. Supposedly, the events here are based on a newsboy strike against Pulitzer and Hearst in 1899. But the film's historical accuracy is incidental because the universe of "Newsies" is so stagebound and unrealistic. To wage their battle, the newsboys, who have names like Racetrack, Mush and Crutchy, sing about seizing the day in exaggerated accents that come straight out of the Bowery Boys era.

The acting is engaging in its blatant haminess. The standout in this regard is Robert Duvall, who tears into his role as the money-grubbing Pulitzer as if he were scaling his effects to play the Metrodome. With his flaming red beard and hairpiece, he's a galvanizing Dickensian capitalist, a gloating fiend drunk with his own power. The character unleashes the nut-brained, eccentric side of Duvall's talent. It's a riot of a performance. Ann-Margret shows up too, as a sexy chanteuse, but can't quite manage the self-caricaturing, larger-than-life charisma needed to make the part work.

All the kids handle themselves like old show biz pros. Bale, in particular, makes a strong impression; he could be a budding star. Still, with all that "Newsies" has going for it, you feel that, ultimately, you're more fond of the idea of what they're trying to do than with the movie itself. Partly, it's the story line, which is merely a David and Goliath tale, that bogs down. Also, while the songs, which were penned by "Beauty and the Beast" composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman, are top-of-the-line, Broadway-style fare, there's a sense of generic about them. And though the choreography -- by director Kenny Ortega and Peggy Holmes -- is energetically athletic, it's often repetitious.

The real problem, though, is that the picture just seems grossly out of touch with its times; it's a retrograde item, and fatiguingly square. In reproducing the feel of beloved old movie musicals, the filmmakers have come up with just that -- a reproduction. A new twist, a rethinking, a fresh wrinkle is what's needed. But Ortega and Disney have taken the safe route, and though better safe than sorry, pushing the envelope might have been better still.

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