Christian Bale was about 18 while filming Newsies. I was about 9 by the time I saw it on VHS, which meant I was at just the right age to fall in love with his character. While other girls were crazy about Jonathan Taylor Thomas (and getting a weird affection for Simba in the process), I had exactly two big crushes in movies: Carey Elwes’ Wesley in The Princess Bride… and Christian Bale’s Jack Kelly in Newsies. Even watching the movie now, Bale’s Kelly melts my girl-crushing heart.
After seeing the movie as an adult, I realize his New York accent is absolutely ridiculous, especially when he starts to sing. He still just charms the hell out of me. Side note: I became giddy during this last watching when I noticed Jack screams, “Cheese it!” like Bender on Futurama. Bad accent aside, Bale was oozing talent even back in 1991.
There are a lot of child actors that you’ll recognize by face in this movie, even if you can’t remember their names: the best friend from Doogie Howser (Max Casella), Tiny Tom Hanks from Big (David Moscow), and the little kid from The Wizard (Luke Edwards, who is 31 now. Holy crap!). And the other members of the cast aren’t the worst child actors I’ve seen, either. Honestly, even the younger kids actually sound like they’re in a movie instead of in a school play (unlike The Last Airbender, the majority of whose cast fills me with rage).They were a little over the top, but every actor in this movie is over the top, so except for the couple really cheesy performances (which are by adults, by the way), the acting is all consistent. Plus, it’s a musical; we can allow for some over the top when the street urchins are dancing like the Jets from West Side Story, you know?
The music is just a joy to listen to. What else would you expect from Alan “I wrote the soundtrack to your childhood” Menken? Really, any of the songs the Newsies themselves sing are near perfect to me, but especially “Seize the Day” and “Carrying the Banner”.They’re also so catchy that after watching the movie, I will have the songs in my head for at least a good week and a half. Even Bale’s ballad “Santa Fe” (with a weird western-inspired jig in the middle of the night) is far from the worst “I’m looking for something more in life” ballad I’ve heard in movies, especially from Disney movies. And you know what? The choreography still makes me smile because it is so much fun. I feel a little dirty saying that because the director went on to choreograph High School Musical – if you’ve seen that movie, you might notice a similarity in the Newsies’ choreography to that basketball dance… thing). But the kids in this movie can dance. Man, can they dance. It really feels like the kids are throwing all their energy into these scenes, and the movie is better for it.
There are a few songs that are weak, but they’re mostly Ann Margaret “singing like a baby doll” songs. A lot of it has to do with her being creepy as the older sex symbol that the pre-teen boys are ga-ga over. She basically the 1900s equivalent of a MILF… who baby-talks. Just pretty creepy. There’s a reason her last song “High time, Hard times” won a Razzie for worst song of the year. One of the lyrics was about her sticking out her chest. Gross.
Besides Ann-Margaret, the real goofy performance in Newsies is Robert Duvall as Joseph Pulitzer. He was Tom Hagen in The Godfather, for crying out loud, and yet here… just a lot of weird choices throughout the whole movie. I do find it very strange that they filmmakers made Pulitzer out to be a money-grubbing Scrooge who probably kicks orphaned puppies. I don’t know everything about the man, but I do know he was anything but for big business. Sure, he was controversial, but his paper was actually seen as the paper for the everyman… far from what we see in the movie. But Duvall’s performance puts the writing over the top. Of the adults, one of the better characters is reporter Denton, played by Bill Pullman, post-Spaceballs and pre-Independence Day. He’s still kind of dull, but there is a scene or two where Pullman seems to still have a twinkle in his eye from his work with Mel Brooks.
Sure, there is a lot of stuff they get wrong about what actually happened in the strike, especially the happy ending. Granted, it’s not all inaccurate – at least the real Newsies won some of the things they were looking for, and Newsies isn’t nearly the least accurate historical kid-friendly movie of the 90s. Remember Don Bluth’s Anastasia? Remember Pocahontas?
The movie is not without its problems: besides the couple weird performances, the second half of the movie is much weaker than the first, and the love story is flimsy at best. The love interest herself is bland, which is disappointing when you realize that she is one of three women with speaking lines in this movie (the other two being the girl’s mother and Ann-Margaret’s baby-voice). The love interest ends up helping the boys towards the end, but it’s never really explained why she’s in the thick of it other than it gives her a couple more minutes with Bale. And it’s still weird to see Disney pushing the newspaper moguls (especially Pulitzer) as evil, money-grubbing capitalist bullies. There is a deep irony that Disney made this movie about the dangers of monopolization and big business. Pot, you’re just as black as the kettle.
Even with these issues, I do love this movie. I still sing along with almost every song, and I still swoon at Jack’s devil-may-care attitude. But make no mistake… more than anything, it’s the soundtrack and choreography that brings me back to Newsies every time. A stage version of the production is hitting Broadway in the Fall. I can’t wait to see it.
I love your description of Menken's career.
I do remember watching this one as a kid…sounds like it's worth a second look just for fun.