Wednesday, July 25, 2007

‘Hairspray’: Hair-raising musical fun for the family

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David James⁄New Line Cinema
John Travolta (left) is Edna Turnblad and Nikki Blonsky is Tracy Turnblad in ‘‘Hairspray.”
Hairspray

Rated PG. 107 minutes.

Musical.

Cast: Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Amanda Bynes, Zac Efron, Elijah Kelley, Queen Latifah, Brittany Snow, James Marsden, Michelle PfeifferDirector: Adam Shankman.

If there is an underrepresented genre in Hollywood, it’s the musical. That’s surprising when you consider how critics and audiences loved ‘‘Dreamgirls,” ‘‘High School Musical” and ‘‘Happy Feet” in 2006.

The latest, ‘‘Hairspray,” will charm audiences and leave more than a few critics tapping their toes along with the song and dance numbers as well.

In a slightly risky move, this is a remake of the popular 1988 film starring Rikki Lake and Divine.

While not as dynamic a feature film debut as Jennifer Hudson’s in ‘‘Dreamgirls,” Nikki Blonsky is perfectly endearing as Tracy Turnblad, a circa 1962 Baltimore teen who dreams of appearing on a local TV show — and winning the heart of its crooner Link Larkin (Zac Efron, ‘‘High School Musical”).

Her expressive eyes, easy smile and solid voice in a lighthearted opening number ‘‘Good Morning Baltimore” impress the audience during her audition. But station manager, the former Ms. Baltimore Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer, ‘‘White Oleander”), who sees the show as a springboard to stardom for her daughter Amber (Brittany Snow, ‘‘John Tucker Must Die”), rebukes her.

Director Adam Shankman, inconsistent in the quality of his films — from ‘‘A Walk to Remember” to ‘‘Cheaper by the Dozen 2” — is on his ‘‘A” game here. Here, he creates a lively, vividly imaginative world where characters from billboards and pictures come to life and join in grandiose musical numbers.

Not shy about creating controversial racial content (‘‘Bringing Down the House”), Shankman again walks that delicate line between good taste and offensiveness. Tracy, happily unaware of the state of contemporary race relations, first encounters black students when she is sent to detention. There, she finds a group listening to music and dancing as if they were in a nightclub. Immediately captivated by their moves, she fits in instantly, while her best friend Penny (Amanda Bynes, ‘‘She’s the Man”) is attracted to Seaweed J. Stubbs (Elijah Kelley).

After landing a role on the show, Tracy learns that there are more important issues than dancing on a popular show, like standing up for what is right.

Leslie Dixon’s screenplay is playful and fun, with many laugh-out-loud lines delivered in a lighthearted, seemingly effortless manner that most TV network executives only dream of for their sitcoms.

To his credit, John Travolta really loses himself in the role of Tracy’s mother Edna. He even uses a Baltimore accent. Miserable makeup job aside — Edna looks like a 2007 Botox client with nary a line on her face — Travolta earns his laughs honestly — instead of relying on the ‘‘oh look, it’s a guy dressing in drag and a fat suit” cliché. Christopher Walken (‘‘Man of the Year”), as Tracy’s eccentric father Wilbur, also provides comic relief.

There are several cameos from the original film, including director John Waters, so longtime ‘‘Hairspray” fans should appreciate the nod to the source material.