In the lead-up to the release of the live-action The Little Mermaid, Consequence will be looking back at the Disney Renaissance and how it shaped our culture. This time, we’re looking back at the enduring legacy of the 1992 live-action musical Newsies. Watch the film now on Disney+.
When exploring the Disney Renaissance, its successes are easy to focus on — the string of blockbuster animated films that transformed the studio into the cultural behemoth it is today. In fact, the studio was on such an unstoppable winning streak in the 1990s that even its flops stand out as memorable achievements: One 1992 live-action musical lost the studio millions of dollars, even while it was helping launch a future movie star’s career and evolving into an enduring cult favorite… one which would, eventually, lead to a $100 million payday for its studio.
Based on the true story of the 1899 newsboys strike, Kenny Ortega’s Newsies debuted in theaters to middling box office, making $2.8 million theatrically — not enough to recoup its reported $15 million budget. The critical response wasn’t great either, despite Christian Bale throwing everything he had into his starring role as newsies leader Jack Kelly and the involvement of composer Alan Menken, who wrote the music for the film’s enduring songs under the shadow of partner Howard Ashman’s passing.
One of Hollywood’s most curious twists of fate, in fact, is that the failure of Newsies coincided with Menken receiving massive acclaim for his and Ashman’s work on films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast — in Insider’s recent oral history of the film, Menken recounts how he found out Newsies had won Worst Song of the Year at the Razzies “literally backstage when I was in the press room for having received the two Oscars for Beauty and the Beast.”
The Razzies, as it’s been said before, were wrong about this; not only is Newsies a musical packed with bangers, but it still holds up today as a solid blend of history, heart, music, and even comedy. The opening sequence is masterful in establishing life as a newsie on the streets of New York, revealing where they live, to how the adults in their world treat them, to the petty squabbling and larger economic issues that will play a larger role in the story later on. Yes, the pacing drags a bit in the second half, as the authorities crack down on the fun of rebellion, but that makes the power of the climax, with a whole city’s worth of child workers rising up in support of the newsies, all the more unforgettable.
And the choreography of the musical numbers also really shines, with the approach leaning hard on mimicking the play-fighting of boys, the leaps and rhythmic movements proving iconic no matter what music they’re set to.