The Walt Disney Company has been raking in cash recently by turning their animated classics into live-action blockbusters. This actually isn't new for them. Back in the mid-1990's, the Mouse House struck gold with non-cartoon versions of The Jungle Book and 101 Dalmatians. History is now repeating itself with such hits as Cinderella, Maleficent (inspired by Disney's Sleeping Beauty) and yet another take on The Jungle Book. Still to come are Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and the one I'm most looking forward to: Dumbo, to be directed by Tim Burton.
I recently, finally, got to see Disney's most surprising and arguably most successful reinvention of one of their older properties, Newsies. This stage version of the studio's 1992 live-action musical flop packed them in on Broadway starting in 2012 and has been doing the same on tour across the US. I checked it out a couple weeks ago during its return engagement at LA's Pantages Theatre, having been unable to catch it there the first time around.
Based on actual events in New York City at the tail end of the 19th century, both the film and stage Newsies feature a ragtag band of newspaper boys who form a union in order to stop abuses by greedy publishing tycoons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer (yes, the man for whom the Pulitzer Prize remains named). Christian Bale, long before his Batman days, headed the movie's cast as rebellious Jack Kelly while Jeremy Jordan (Smash, Supergirl) originated the role on Broadway and scored a Tony nomination.
Whoever plays Jack on stage has to have charisma. Fortunately, Joey Barreiro has it as well as good looks to spare as star of the national tour. He doesn't have to dance much but the same can't be said of his castmates. I was blessed with front row seats at the performance I attended and was privy to every straining muscle and rivers of sweat the young male company exuded while being put through Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli's paces.
None other than Harvey Fierstein overhauled the original screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White. Fierstein's most significant change is the addition of a female reporter, Katherine, who covers the newsboys' strike while doubling as a love interest for Jack. Morgan Keene makes a charmingly quirky Katherine on tour whereas Broadway veteran Steve Blanchard is commanding as Pulitzer, who ends up having a surprising connection to Katherine.
The Newsies movie is hardly as terrible as its pre-Broadway reputation may lead one to believe but the stage adaptation is nevertheless an improvement. Songwriters Alan Menken and Jack Feldman overhauled their original score for the movie and ultimately won a Tony (their songs were completely overlooked when it came to Oscar nominations, which were dominated that year by Disney's own Aladdin). Ironically, it was the movie's grown up fans who made the stage version of Newsies such a hit initially, but a new generation has discovered the film as a result of their enjoyment of the stage version. Its a win-win for Disney all around.
I expect a similar circular response will result from Disney's current big screen "re-imagining" of Pete's Dragon. The 1977 original is a thoroughly enjoyable if dated and kitschy musical hybrid of animation and live action à la the studio's prior smash, Mary Poppins. It hasn't ended up having Poppins' longevity but kids are likely to rediscover it after seeing the new, truly magical movie.
Screenwriters David Lowery (who also directs) and Toby Halbrooks retain the basic premise of a young, orphaned boy who finds an unlikely friend and defender in a giant winged creature named Elliot. However, they transpose the action from the original's New England setting to the Pacific Northwest, which has never looked better on film thanks to cinematographer Bojan Bazelli. The remake jettisons musical numbers (although a couple of new songs are featured) for more of a fairy tale approach, albeit a naturalistic one. Elliot remains animated, but digitally so rather than hand-drawn like his 1977 predecessor. He is more serious and fearsome here even as he still comes across as man's, or at least Pete's, best friend.
Robert Redford essentially takes over for Mickey Rooney as a townie who has seen Elliot but who no one believes. He also remains father to the film's lead female character, a forest ranger played by Bryce Dallas Howard rather than Helen Reddy's lighthouse keeper in the original movie. Howard has apparently become Hollywood's go-to woman when it comes to acting against giant reptilian critters between Jurassic World and this. As Pete, young Oakes Fegley makes a strong impression and tugs at heartstrings without the film becoming overly sentimental. Karl Urban and Wes Bentley round out the cast as very different brothers working in the local lumber industry.
The special effects are terrific but what struck me as most successful about the new Pete's Dragon is its reverence for mythology and our human need for storytelling as an essential tool in making it through life. Like a candle on the water, if I may reference a song from the first version, classic stories light our way and Disney understands this better than just about anyone.
That being said, I don't know anyone who was clamoring for another movie of Rudyard Kipling's classic, The Jungle Book. Disney had filmed it twice before, as an animated version in 1967 and live action in 1994, in addition to a well regarded non-Disney adaptation in 1942. But the lure of a new generation of allowance-sporting kids plus the opportunities presented by CGI obviously became too tempting. Happily, their new version directed by Iron Man's Jon Favreau makes the adventure tale live anew. It is newly available on home video and is really a must see on Blu-ray.
Its excellent voice cast includes Bill Murray (pretty predictably perfect as Baloo), Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson and Lupita Nyong'o. Only Idris Elba's interpretation of the villainous tiger, Shere Khan, is a bit heavy-handed and had me longing for the more seductive tones of George Saunders in the earlier animated film. Best of all may be Christopher Walken voicing King Louie, a now-massive orangutan, who also gets to sing the Sherman Brothers' tune "I Wanna Be Like You" (with a couple new verses provided by Richard M. Sherman). Newcomer Neel Sethi is serviceable as Mowgli but this new Jungle Book is all about the amazingly realistic, computer-generated lions, tigers and bears (oh my) plus more than a few monkeys.
Visually, the remake is spectacular and may be even more so in 3D. Christopher Glass's amazing production design is sure to be remembered this awards season. This crowdpleaser (to the tune of nearly $1 billion worldwide) might also prove to be one of the few blockbusters that actually gets a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Time will tell but time obviously continues to be good to both The Jungle Book and Disney Studios.
Newsies (touring stage production): B+
Pete's Dragon (2016): B+
The Jungle Book (2016): B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.