Bugsy Malone is a unique mélange of disparate components. Not only is it a gangster-film / musical hybrid, but the film blends childhood and adulthood, creating a hard-boiled adult world inhabited solely by singing children. All the typical gangster genre themes of greed, violence, and power are present, but the unique twists on the style and world infuse the themes with hope; these are children, they’re not actually killing each other, and it isn’t too late for them to change.
One thematically notable scene is when Bugsy goes to a soup kitchen in search of people to aid him in his gun-stealing mission. This scene combines the gangster genre’s economic/class themes with the film’s overall hopeful message. Bugsy exhorts the downtrodden people to not give up just because they’re down on their luck, but to persevere and make changes in their lives. “You don’t have to sit around complaining ‘bout the way your life has wound up,” he says. It’s a questionable assertion that those at a soup kitchen are sitting around and complaining, and Bugsy’s proposed solution—becoming involved in crime—is even more dubious, but the song does fit with the idea that it isn’t too late to change your life. It can be understood as an exhortation to adults who feel their lives have reached a dead end, encouraging them to reject whatever misfortune or stasis plagues them, and not be afraid to start anew. In this way, we can begin to understand the full significance of an all-child cast playing adult roles; children are constantly growing and changing and full of hope for the future, so by making a world inhabited by children, the film seems to be saying that everyone is capable of hope and change, a significant departure from gangster films in which criminal characters (including protagonists) do not change for the better, letting their greed and violence ultimately destroy them.
Bugsy Malone clearly plays with the time period of the classical era gangster movies, but by including “backstage” musical numbers, it also makes reference to the spectacular escapist musicals of the same era. The dancing girls in the speakeasy evoke the iconic choreography of Busby Berkeley which offered Depression-era audiences relief from their troubles. The fact that cynical gangster films and hopeful musicals had their golden ages at the same time, and the way that Bugsy Malone presents both genres in one filmic world suggests that it isn’t a question of circumstance so much as outlook which determines the course of an individual’s life, supporting the film’s overall themes of choice and change.
In a story with two battling ideologies or mindsets, the overall theme can be thought of as whichever idea wins. In Bugsy Malone, the two opposing thematic forces are cynicism about a seemingly insurmountably corrupt present (represented by the gangster genre), and childlike hope for the future and capacity to change (represented by the musical genre). By ending the film with an upbeat, hopeful song, hope is the clear winner. Indeed, the spine which has been present throughout the film is overtly articulated in the final song’s lyrics: “We could’ve been anything that we wanted to be. And it isn’t too late to change. … You give a little love and it all comes back to you.”