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‘Newsies’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 10, 1992

In some bright scriptwriter's brain, there's a musical that evokes the heyday of Rooney and Garland and stirs you up with song and dance. Walt Disney's "Newsies" is not that musical.

Set in the summer of 1899, the movie's about the trouble that arises when New York tabloid publisher Robert Duvall ups the price of his newspaper. Hardest hit are the young newspaper hawkers (the "newsies"), who have to buy in bulk.

From this juvenile discontent arises leader Christian Bale (the kid from "Empire of the Sun"), who organizes his non-unionized fellow urchins in a citywide strike. Duvall, his goons and a boys' home director (Kevin Tighe) who's been on the lookout for escapee Bale get to villainous work.

The script, based on a true story, is nonetheless bland and meandering. Scriptwriters Bob Tzudiker and Noni White string the elements together loosely and without much zest. Director Kenneth Ortega, a choreographer for countless music videos and the movies "One From the Heart" and "Dirty Dancing," never reaches the high points. He doesn't even get off the ground. He wants to make a seamless, stylized show of leaping, quipping, tough-talking kids. But his cast of youthful unknowns just isn't up to it. They don't dance together. They scramble. Their voices -- singing and speaking -- seem weak and tentative. From clutzy dance numbers to its collection of overtheatrical New Yawk accents, "Newsies" is all left feet, noise and clutter. It looks like its own rehearsal -- an early one at that.

Even music composer Alan ("The Little Mermaid") Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman seem a little off. At one point, homeless Bale sees the harmonious atmosphere of newsie pals David Moscow and Luke Edwards. He slinks quietly away and -- in a musical soliloquy meant to be touching -- blurts, "So dat's what dey cawl a fam'ly/Wid a fadda, mudda, son."

Duvall is incapable of hiding his talent. Even in a piece of mediocrity like this he gets in a few memorable tics as evil millionaire Joseph Pulitzer. At one point he has assembled his rival publishers (including archenemy William Randolph Hearst) to discuss their common enemy -- the newsies. As he circles his seated invitees, Duvall brings his hands in a strangulating gesture just inches from Hearst's throat, as he makes a quick, almost indiscernible choking splutter. But in the same movement, he checks himself and pulls away. He has a business speech to deliver, after all. It's a deft, humorous little touch -- and probably the best bit of choreography in the whole movie.

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