Friday, June 22, 2012

'Newsies' Quietly Debuts on Blu-ray

Christian Bale (center) and cast
seize the day.
Without a lot of fanfare, Disney released its 1992 musical Newsies on Blu-ray this week. That's a bit of a surprise considering the current success of Newsies on Broadway (eight Tony nominations, two wins and a hugely popular open-ended run at the Nederlander Theater). Plus, it was home video that years ago gave the film new life and somewhat of a cult following after it failed miserably at the box office. You'd think Disney would be making a bigger deal about this 20th anniversary hi-def release.

Newsies is a fun, if hit-and-miss, affair about a celebrated 1899 New York newsboys strike against lions of publishing Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. It's noteworthy for its cast of established actors and up-and-coming stars (Christian Bale, Bill Pullman, Robert Duvall, Ann-Margret, Michael Lerner). It also was the feature film directorial debut of Kenny Ortega, who would use his stagy, but energetic, let's-put-on-a-show musical approach to better use in Disney's High School Musical franchise.

While it's every bit the family-friendly film it sets out to be, Newsies comes off as a bit too cleaned and polished for its own good. Cookie-cutter back lot sets and stereotypical street urchins right out of the Dead End Kids take the edge off what could have otherwise been a gritty big city tale of idealistic youth versus the greedy, corrupt establishment. Like Ortega's HSM movies, Newsies exists in an idyllic white bread vacuum that the real world wouldn't dare penetrate.

Still, it boasts a catchy musical score by Alan Menken (with lyrics by Jack Feldman), who was smack-dab in the middle of his incredible run at Disney that included music for The Little MermaidBeauty and the Beast and Aladdin. "King of New York" and especially "Seize the Day" are two of the more under-appreciated uplifting tunes in the Disney canon.

Watching the film, it's easy to see why Newsies was meant for the stage. It's full-screen choreography, complete with a plethora of jumps, high-kicks and flips, is crowd-pleasing fodder for a live audience. I was certainly entertained revisiting Newsies the movie after all these years, but it just made me want to travel to Broadway even more.

Monday, June 4, 2012

'John Carter' on Home Video, Because You Missed It the First Time

Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and John Carter (Taylor Kitsch)
There's a certain irony that, less than a week after Alan Horn was named the new chairman of Walt Disney Studios, John Carter is being released on home video. After all, it was John Carter that got Horn's predecessor, Rich Ross, fired. $200,000,000 write-downs do not lend themselves to job security.

A big-budget sci-fi epic with underwhelming box office returns, John Carter was an unquestionable failure. But did it deserve to be?

The short answer is no. Writer/director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo) has created a vivid, desolate other-world out of the pages of Edgar Rice Burroughs' pulp novel A Princess of Mars. It was clearly a passion project for Stanton, who was captivated by Burroughs' John Carter stories as a child. It was also Stanton's first foray into live action film making and he demanded as much authenticity as possible be put on screen. To his credit, there is a minimal amount of CGI animation and green-screening--well, as minimal as you can have in a movie with giant flying warships and nine-foot tall, four-armed, green Martians. Insistent about filming on location, he's given John Carter an impressive sense of place, with the Utah desert doubling as the Martian landscape.

Taylor Kitsch as John Carter
The story is more complex than your typical sci-fi space opera, which makes it challenging to follow at times, but not incomprehensible. Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) gets mysteriously zapped from 19th century America to the barren plains of Mars (or Barsoom, as the natives call it), where he finds himself plopped in the middle of yet another military struggle between two humanoid armies. Added to the mix are a race of indigenous green Martians called Tharks, who would just as soon see the two armies destroy each other and leave their world in peace (the parallels between Yankees, Rebels and Native Americans are clearly drawn here).

Carter is discovered and warily befriended by Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe), a Thark warrior who is fascinated by Carter's ability to leap great distances (the lower pull of gravity on Mars makes the earthling faster and stronger). Carter is brought into the Thark tribe and, as battles rage, he meets Dejah Thoris (drop-dead gorgeous Lynn Collins), the humanoid warrior princess of the Helium tribe who has designs on Carter's mysterious powers as well. Further complicating matters are another group of beings with superior powers who find great sport in manipulating the outcome of the Martian conflict (and hold the key to Carter's arrival and potential return to Earth).

That's a lot of balls to keep in the air at once, but Stanton doesn't stop there. He throws in palace intrigue, uneasy alliances and large-scale ground and aerial battles where stuff blows up real good. The script has a cheesy, Saturday afternoon serial quality to it ("Will you stay and fight for Helium?") with many English actors (or actors affecting English accents) cast to conform to the English-accents-give-more-gravitas-to-the-dialog school of film making. It's an entertaining romp with stunning visual effects--you can see every penny of its $250,000,000+ budget on the screen.

Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe, center), John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) and a whole lotta Tharks.

So why did John Carter fail at the box office?

You can point to it being a big-budget film released in March (movie purgatory for most) or that it had no A-list stars to attract audiences. It's biggest issue, though, was that for a movie meant to be extraordinary, it came across as pretty ordinary. Despite a good ending (which opened the door for sequels that will probably not happen now), there are no real surprises in John Carter. We've seen it all before.

That's the biggest irony of all. Burroughs' tales of Barsoom date back a hundred years and have influenced generations of action-adventure stories and films (Superman, DunePlanet of the Apes, Star Wars, Avatar). But, the source material was never put on the big screen until John Carter, dooming it to be perceived as the copycat, not the original. What was first is now last--and it's not as compelling anymore.

John Carter will be available on Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, Digital Download and On-Demand starting tomorrow.