Adam Shankman's toe-tapping, finger-popping film version of the hit musical is a great achievement.
That message is central to both the Broadway show and Shankman's movie, which follows the travails of "pleasantly plump" Baltimore teen Tracy Turnblad (the effervescent Nikki Blonsky in a truly star-making performance), the teenaged daughter of overweight laundress Edna (John Travolta) and joke store owner Wilbur (Christopher Walken). It is 1962 and Tracy has big hair and even bigger dreams -- to dance on The Corny Collins Show, a literally black and white after-school television program hosted by the semi-smarmy Collins (James Marsden).
When Tracy actually does make it on to the show, she runs afoul of the program's reigning teen queen, Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) and her evil-woman mom, Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer), who just happens to be the show's producer. As it happens, the nasty-as-can-be Amber has got a lot of reasons to be pissed off. Not only does Tracy want to challenge Amber for the title of Miss Hairspray, but Amber's boyfriend Link Larkin (Zac Efron) ends up finding Tracy irresistible. And one more thing: because Tracy believes that being different is a good thing and because she loves the dances of the black kids, she wants to make every day on the show "Negro Day."
But when Velma cancels the once-a-month "Negro Day" in a fit of pique, Tracy suggests a March for Equality headed by Negro Day's beloved DJ, Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), and her two kids, Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) -- who ends up falling for Tracy's best pal Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) -- and Little Inez (Taylor Parks). Things don't go exactly as planned, but Tracy makes it onto the live Miss Teen Hairspray pageant just in the nick of time.
Tracy's journey isn't just about social issues; it's also about fashion. She begins the film all big-haired and ill-clad on the top of a garbage truck (in a nod to a certain scene in Funny Girl) and ends in long, straight Cher locks and wearing a symbolic black-and-white checkerboard Courreges-style minidress.
Fans of the Broadway score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman can rest easy. Almost all of the show's songs are here, though a few have been re-thought ("I Can Hear the Bells"), moved around ("I Know Where I've Been"), or sung over the credits ("Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now"). There are also two new numbers in the film's first half, "New Girl in Town" for the Collins' kids, and "Ladies' Choice," an Elvis-like song for Link. And for the record: Everyone in the film is doing their own singing. No dubbing, thank you very much.
Waters' original edge is the only notable thing missing in this less-than-campy film-to-stage-back-to-film transfer; for example, there's no Mink Stole or "Beatnik chick" (Pia Zadora) reading from Alan Ginsberg's Howl. Are they missed? Nuh-uh-h-h!
Missing too, of course, is the aptly-named Divine, for whom Waters created the original role of Edna. And while some may believe that he's turning in his grave over the casting of Travolta, who wears a fat suit and a size 50-something dress, he proves warm and even quite lovely as Edna. (It's not clear, though, why he's the only cast member to speak in that odd 'Ballimer' accent.) His Edna is a none-too-bright, once attractive woman, now embarrassed by her heft and longing to break out. Tracy becomes her inspiration, and when Travolta's Edna finally "comes out," she does so with a vengeance.
For the most part, though, Travolta and Walken often appear to be in a different movie than the rest of the cast. Their strangely sexy, totally off-beat relationship is played more or less (you should pardon the expression) straight, while everyone else is bigger than life. Queen Latifah, in her blonde Marge Simpson wig, is too too divine! Pfeiffer, who is simply gorgeous, does a great job of channeling Cruella de Vil. And Kelley and Parks steal practically every scene they're in as Seaweed and Little Inez.
Also look for fun-to-spot cameos by Waters, who's an absolute hoot as the flasher in the opening "Good Morning Baltimore" number; a much slimmer Ricki Lake (the original film's Tracy) during the rousing "You Can't Stop the Beat" finale; and Jerry Stiller (the original Wilbur) as Mr. Pinky, purveyor of "Quality Clothes for Quantity Girls."
There's something for everyone in this toe-tapping, finger-popping flick. Indeed, Shankman has made a great film -- one in the tradition of our most cherished movie musicals.
For TheaterMania's feature on the young stars of the movie, The Nicest Kids in Town, click here.