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Newsies 20th Edition Blu-Ray

 

Classic Review: Newsies (1992): 20th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray - Page 1

By Albert Gutierrez

"That's the power of the press, Joe. Thanks for teachin' me about it.." - Jack Kelly

"How do I know you got what it takes to win?" - Spot Conlon

"Sometimes all it takes is a voice, one voice that becomes a hundred, then a thousand, unless it's silenced." - Bryan Denton

Newsies: 20th Anniversary Edition

Original Release: April 10, 1992

Blu-Ray Release: June 19, 2012

Film Length: 121 minutes

Author's Note: The screen captures included in this review are from the 2002 DVD, and should not be indicative of the video quality on the 2012 Blu-Ray.

The Movie:

In 1899, the Newsies run the streets of New York City. They control the flow of information more effectively than the newspapers they sell - a penny a pape - thanks to their boisterous voices and flair for embellishing headlines. "Improvin' the truth," they call it. But life isn't easy for these overworked and underpaid children. For some, it's the only option. Still, they make the best of it, as evident by the opening song, "Carryin' the Banner." This upbeat number introduces us to our resident troupe of newsies, ranging from our hero Jack "Cowboy" Kelly to true-blue Noo-Yawker Racetrack Higgins, from the gimpy Crutchie to the patch-wearing Kid Blink. Various other newsies fill in the ranks, with names like Mush, Boots, Specs, Skittery, Pie-Eater, Swifty, etc. Joining the newsies are a pair of brothers, David and Les, temporarily leaving school in order to help their injured father. David and Les find themselves working with Jack, who takes it upon himself to teach them the business.

However, business is slow for the newsies, thanks to lousy headlines from "The New York World," run by Joseph Pulitzer. One of Pulitzer's cronies suggests improving profit by charging the newsies more for their papers, increasing the purchase price 10 cents per 100 papes. To Pulitzer, it seems practical: a mere tenth of a cent more for every paper. For the newsies, it's the difference between life and death. Inspired by the trolley strike that's been headlining the papers for three weeks, the Newsies soon organize themselves into a union, intent on striking until the price goes back down. Through the songs "The World Will Know" and "Seize the Day," the newsies strike begins. Eventually, they get support of other newsies - largely due to participation from Brooklyn newsies and their leader, Spot Conlon - resulting in attention from "New York Sun" reporter Bryan Denton, who covers their story for his paper. It seems the newsies are unstoppable, until Pulitzer sends the police to break up their rally and capture Jack Kelly. Now it's up to David and the rest of the newsies to carry on, and hopefully help Jack in the process.

My Thoughts:

Until Newsies came along, Disney had avoided the live-action musical for fifteen years. Their last effort in the genre had been 1977's Pete's Dragon, a cute film about an orphan boy (Pete, obviously) and his animated dragon Elliot. While that film was a success at the box office, critical reaction was mixed, even amidst the film's two Academy Award nominations for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, "Candle on the Water." For years, Disney had been trying to emulate the success of 1964's Mary Poppins, but by 1977, the big-budget musical had already become pass' amidst the gritty and urbane films that New Hollywood was now offering. Despite Helen Reddy's insistence, there was not room for everybody. But as the old adage goes, all that's old becomes new again, and by the early 90's, Disney decided to try and bring back the big-budget musical.

Ironically, the screenwriters of Newsies originally had been developing the story as a dramatic film titled Hard Promises. The screenwriters - Bob Tzudiker and Noni White - had begun drafting their ideas for the project in 1985, but the focus shifted from drama to musical when Kenny Ortega (choreographer for 1987's Dirty Dancing) was brought on board. Also hired on were composer Alan Menken - hot off his Academy Award wins for The Little Mermaid and in the midst of working on Beauty and the Beast - along with lyricist Jack Feldman. Together, they would write eight songs for the film, the most well-known being "Seize the Day." Actor Christian Bale was originally unsure about signing on for Newsies when he was first approached for the project. When he finally joined, the film shifted gears and became a musical, which was not good news for the non-singing, non-dancing Bale. He told director Kenny Ortega that he "didn't want to be a bloody Artful Dodger in a remake of Oliver!, jumping down the street with a big smile on [his] face" (Seventeen magazine). Ortega assured him that wouldn't be the case. After all, Newsies was still a serious story, now just enhanced by musical performances. It would be a serious musical.

Of course, for anyone who's seen Newsies, I think it's safe to say it's anything but serious. The entire history of the strike is rewritten for dramatic license, resulting in a scrappy "we can do it!" underdog story. It's still an inspiring tale, but holds little weight for an audience where the worst thing to happen to strikers is a $5 fine in night court ("Five bucks? This sucks!" as Spot would say). Opportunities for character development are limited to Jack Kelly's journey from newsie to scab to newsie again, and his realization of where he belongs in the grand scheme of things. No one else among the newsies really grow, they're just as content in their lives at the end as they were in the beginning. The entire film is lightweight, more enjoyable for the spectacle than for anything deeply meaningful. And yet, the film remains a cult hit with its very devoted share of fans. Newsies has resonated with so many; most of its fans harbor a very strong love for what is arguably only a passably-decent film musical. Don't get me wrong when I say "passably decent." I'm a huge fan of the film, but any fan of the film should not be blinded to criticism of the things they love. Otherwise, they can't appreciate it all the more.

That appreciation stems mainly from the gleeful approach that the musical takes with everything. Newsies succeeds because it's a high-energy and all-around joyful film to watch. It's a popcorn musical. I don't watch it to get a heavy-handed message; I watch it because I want to have fun. The songs are infectious and catchy, the dancing is amusingly imitatable. The characters are the cool kids on the playground, taking time to hang out with the audience. And what better playground than Universal Studios's famous New York streets? From a production point of view, 1899 New York has a wistful quality to its design that makes viewers long to walk those streets or dance in the caf'. The romanticized past is certainly part of its appeal, especially when in a world where strikes are held to a chorale of "Seize the Day," complete with tin can band and rigid choreography.

Newsies has endured for twenty years now because of its devoted audience, not because of star power or industry accolades, and certainly not because of its box-office success. The film placed at a distant #13 during its opening weekend and eventually made only $2.8 million, barely 1/5 of its $15 million budget. For most movies, that's the end. They'll be forgotten and resigned to a lonely life unchecked at the local Blockbuster, or unwatched late at night on some cable network. But for Newsies, cable television is where it found success. Disney Channel would rerun it constantly throughout the 1990's, and it was a big seller on home video. Both helped introduce the film to viewers far better than the original theatrical run. They let viewers revisit the film time and again, creating a familiarity that makes them embrace Newsies on their terms.

The Disc:

Video: 2.35:1 Widescreen

Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA (1), Spanish 2.0 Dolby Surround (2), Commentary 2.0 Dolby Surround (3)

Subtitles: English (1), French (2), Spanish (3), English Sing-Along (4), Commentary - English (5), Commentary - French (6), Commentary - Spanish (7)

Chapters: 22

Newsies hit the digital video format in 2002, in a "Collector's Edition" DVD that included a fair amount of bonus features. Ten years later, Disney has re-released the title again, now on high-definition Blu-Ray and sporting the "20th Anniversary Edition" banner. This release retains most of the supplements, while it upgrades the audio/video quality.

The film is presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio on both discs, preserving the composition of its original theatrical exhibition. For fans who grew up watching this film on Disney Channel broadcasts or VHS, a great deal of picture is now available to them, formerly cut off in the pan&scan process, as seen in the example below. Any black bars seen is not image lost, but unused space. The image is enhanced for 16:9 televisions on both discs, which will lesson the black bars, although they still will be apparent.


Four of the newsies are gone in pan & scan!

The Blu-Ray includes a sticker on the packaging declaring the film to be "digitally restored," although we don't see the level of restoration as done on 1991's The Rocketeer, where the differences between the Blu-Ray and its original DVD are staggering. Side-by-side comparisons for Newsies on Blu-Ray and DVD show the natural upgrade in picture quality, although I believe the Blu-Ray uses the same digital transfer made for the 2002 DVD, with minor clean-up passes done. Make no mistake, the Blu-Ray is clearly superior and the one I prefer to watch, but due to the higher resolution, the minor imperfections from the 2002 DVD become more apparent.

The film always felt soft on DVD, and while the image gets sharpened in Blu-Ray, we also see a heavier amount of grain. Normally, I wouldn't complain about that. Grain in itself should not be a bad thing; it's an inherent part of film. But there's such a layer on Newsies that even though I enjoy the high-def presentation more than its standard DVD, I feel Disney should have done another round of DNR (Digital Noise Reduction) to better smooth the image out. Don't get me wrong, Newsies still looks amazing. But I feel it would look better if the image weren't so grainy. Most film studios get a lot of flak for excessive DNR on Blu-Ray video transfers, though in this case, I don't think enough was done (if any at all).

Both discs also use a 5.1 audio mix, with Blu-Ray upgrading from Dolby Digital to DTS-HD Master Audio. I'm not a hardcore audiophile, and couldn't really distinguish any differences between the DVD's Dolby track and Blu-Ray's DTS. My rule when assessing audio is simple: "If it's balanced and I can hear clearly, I can enjoy it." Sometimes I'm forgiving towards older films, where hisses and other noise sometimes intrude. For recent films, say from the last thirty years, such issues shouldn't be apparent, and thankfully, I've not yet run into a disc with a noticeably-bad audio mix.

For those interested in hearing Jack Kelly with a Spanish accent, a 2.0 Spanish track is also offered. Likewise, subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish. On the Blu-Ray, the audio commentary is also available as a subtitle option.

Disc 2 Review

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