You know those films that you always hear about, but you’ve never seen? Being a person who spends most of his free time watching or writing about Disney films, Newsies was that film for me. All of my friends in the Disney community told me that I had to see this movie, so I finally did.
The film is a very loose adaptation of the events of the 1899 newsboys strike that occurred in New York City. Sounds like perfect fodder for a musical, right? Despite the seriousness of the topic, Disney chose to make it into a singing, dancing extravaganza, directed by Kenny Ortega. Ortega is known by Disney fans today as the man behind the High School Musical franchise, but he started his film career with Newsies.
The other major person at the beginning of his career in Newsies is Christian Bale, who stars as the main character, Jack “Cowboy” Kelly. Kelly is a fictional character, as the real leader of the newsboy strike was Kid Blink, a young man with a patch over one eye. Kid Blink is in the film, but as a supporting character.
If you’re going to make this story into a musical, you could do a lot worse than having Alan Menken on board. This was Menken’s first work at Disney, but much like Ortega, he would be back for more in later years. The songs in Newsies are not quite the classics of that later work, like Beauty and the Beast, but they’re catchy and serve not so much as story points but to reinforce the acting.
I know that some of you love this movie, and I can see why. The acting performances, especially Bale’s, are quite good. The sets are very limited, which leaves some difficult choices when it comes to cinematography and the look of the film. Most of the action takes place on one or two street scenes.
Story is the problem I have with Newsies. The plot of the film follows the strike, but the heart of it is about the relationship between Jack Kelly and David, a young newsie with a family to support, because his father was injured and then fired. This is where the story lies in this film, but it’s not developed well.
There are issues with pacing, as the story of Jack and David is interwoven with the strike, and then also with Jack’s romance with David’s sister, Sara. The script writers seemingly couldn’t decide whether Jack would be part of David’s whole family, a brother to David, or a romantic lead for Sara, so they threw it all together. The issue then is that none of it comes together well. Between plot points of the strike, the romance and the bromance with David, it’s a lot to do in a 2 hour movie, and not all of it is done well.
It’s easy to get carried away in a film like this, because the music and the populist momentum of the little guy standing up to corporations are both pushing you along. However, it seems not enough attention was paid to the parts between the songs to fully flesh out the characters and their motivations. When Jack temporarily becomes a scab, it’s hard to fathom, and even moreso when he switches back. It’s those little things that kept Newsies from being a favorite of mine, but still well worth the viewing for the music and the acting performances.
Contributed by: Ryan K. (NDD #137). Ryan is our resident film expert and creator of The Disney Film Project.