Director-choreographer Adam Shankman’s buoyant stage-to-screen translation of “Hairspray” may not equal the comic zest of its 1988 root source, John Waters’ first and still-finest mainstream feature. Nonetheless, it’s one of the best Broadway-tuner adaptations in recent years — yes, arguably even better than those Oscar-winning ones. Unpretentious, feel-good pic is low on histrionic diva wailing and MTV-style editing, high on retro movie-musical craftsmanship. Despite uneven casting among marquee thesps, it’s a real crowd-pleaser. Potential sleeper could tap not just positive word-of-mouth but also various demographics underserved by the summer’s pileup of CGI-heavy action.
Opening number “Good Morning Baltimore” sets the satirical yet sunny tone as rotund, irrepressible 1962 teen Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) pops out of bed, singing a sincere if slightly backhanded ode to her native burg on the way to school. Educational hours pass slowly, however, for Tracy and best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes). They can’t wait to watch local TV dance party “The Corny Collins Show,” whose host (James Marsden) introduces his oh-so-perfectly-groomed juvenile regulars (collectively dubbed the Council) as “the nicest kids in town.”Hogging the camera is princessy blonde Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow), whose viperous stage mother Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the station’s iron-fisted manager. Velma can barely tolerate the program’s once-a-month “Negro Day,” hosted by record shop owner Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah).
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Unbiased Tracy, however, wishes that “Every day were Negro Day!” When she’s sent once again to detention (“inappropriate hair height” being the usual offense), she’s delighted to find nearly everyone there is black and using their punishment time to practice hot new dance moves. She learns bump-and-grindy ones from Motormouth’s son Seaweed (Elijah Kelly), which eventually get her hired as a replacement Council member on TV.
Though initially disapproving, Tracy’s laundress mom Edna (John Travolta) is thrilled, as is doting, joke-shop-owning dad Wilbur (Christopher Walken), once Tracy suddenly becomes a viewer fave. The Von Tussles, of course, aren’t thrilled at all — especially since Tracy just might steal the Miss Teenage Hairspray crown from three-time winner Amber. Latter’s b.f., dreamy Linc (Zac Efron), looks like he just might transfer his affection to plus-size territory as well.
One of the original pic’s virtues was how it made the struggle for desegregation personal, cool and morally upright without getting preachy or solemn. The musical predictably softens that approach, caving in to Broadway/Hollywood-style inspirational uplift. That, and the fact that many of the more exciting production numbers (“I Can Hear the Bells,” “Ladies’ Choice,” “Run and Tell That”) are front-loaded in the early going, makes “Hairspray” a musical that doesn’t ideally build from good to better to better-still.
Nonetheless, there’s a goodwill and esprit to the whole exercise that is hard to resist. Shankman’s prior films (“The Wedding Planner,” “The Pacifier,” “Cheaper by the Dozen 2” ) have tended to be blandly formulaic, but helmer more than rises to this occasion, maintaining the boisterous spirit of “Hairspray’s” previous incarnations and packaging it in kitsch windscreen pastels that owe more to the 1955 MGM aesthetic than to MTV. Apart from some over-frenetic editing during “Welcome to the ’60s,” helmer exhibits a former dancer’s welcome respect for letting viewers appreciate full-body motion.
It’s a small disappointment that early ’60s fad dance styles aren’t showcased as fully as in Waters’ original. But composer Marc Shaiman’s songs remain a bright homage to this pre-rock, post-roll moment in top-40 bubblegum pop, R&B and gospel. The lyrics he co-wrote with Scott Wittman are often hilarious. But perhaps “Hairspray’s” single most winning element is Waters’ original storyline, which still delights.
Oddly, adult roles rich in comedic potential are interpreted with not-so-special flair here. Sporting a vaguely Western drawl, Travolta doesn’t offer much beyond the inherent wink-wink humor of seeing a famous male actor in latex-assisted fatsuit drag. Walken, who’s played the mock Eisenhower-era dad before, can’t wring laughs from the joke-shop material. Their marital-devotion duet, “Timeless to Me,” indulges the performers beyond the mild amusement it affords.
Pfeiffer makes Velma eminently hissable, though her villainy could’ve been a lot funnier. Latifah, whose comic expertise particularly shone in Shankman’s “Bringing Down the House,” makes Maybelle more a model of dignified reserve than a sassy “motormouth.” Allison Janney (as Penny’s Bible-thumping mother), Jerry Stiller (1988’s Mr. Turnblad, here the proprietor of Mr. Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway) and Paul Dooley (the TV station’s owner) are other reliable thesps who fall a little flat.
The kids, though, are just fine. Newcomer Blonsky is cute and spunky, and has a big voice with the right early-’60s-girl-group “tear” in it — especially in her early highlight, “I Can Hear the Bells.” Efron, Snow, Bynes and Parks all score points. But the real scene-stealer is Kelley, whose self-confident Seaweed socks across perhaps the movie’s single most dynamic number (“Run”).
Stellar tech and design contribbers make pic a sensory treat. End credits run so long they make room for four additional soundtrack selections. Waters and original Tracy Ricki Lake make cameo appearances.