Before I saw “Hairspray,” Adam Shankman's musical remake of the Broadway show — which is itself a reworking of John Waters's 1988 film, my cinema buddy informed me that the critics had deemed it a movie only a hardened cynic could dislike. I was skeptical — until “Good Morning Baltimore,” the soaring opening number, brought a smile that stayed plastered to my face for the duration of the picture.
“Good Morning Baltimore” is sung by Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), a heavyset, dance-crazed teen in the pre-LBJ sixties, who doesn't have the right stuff — or the right body type — to make it as a performer on Corny Collins' (James Marsden) popular show. Everything changes when she gets thrown into detention with the black kids, who are forced to endure the punishment of listening to R&B and practicing dance moves. (Suffice it to say that there isn't much realism in this movie.) Tracy makes quick friends, and her fellow outcasts teach her stuff that they strut openly only on Corny's monthly “Negro Day.” Tracy manages to catch Corny's eye with the new moves, and, much to the chagrin of Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), a TV-station exec bent on keeping the show white and skinny, he decides to take a chance on the odd-shaped girl and her suggestive dancing.
From here on the outsiders — Tracy, hostess of “Negro Day,” Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) and Tracy's after-school friend Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) — take on the establishment, represented by Velma and her daughter Amber (Brittany Snow), Tracy's rival on Corny's show who aspires to win its beauty pageant. The battle escalates when “Negro Day” gets canceled and Motormouth Maybelle teams up with Tracy to organize a civil rights march on the television station. In the process, the supporting characters must decide if they're on the side of change or for the status quo.
At times the movie runs into a stumbling block by trying to put a serious twist on lighthearted fare. The civil rights scenes are not the most artful that have ever been put to celluloid, and some viewers may find the film's faith in the possibility of change questionable. Although the racial underdogs win in the end, we know that the sequel isn't always so cheery. This is a feel-good movie for its hopeful social commentary as much as for the singing and dancing.
Still, hard issues are not what this “Hairspray” is really about, and the musical performances rarely fail to please. Nikki Blonsky, who makes her Hollywood debut here as Tracy, is a big reason for that. Tracy is the backbone of the film, and Blonsky plays her with radiance and charm. Sometimes the character feels a bit static — her constant smiling and dancing begin to wear by the end — but there are plenty of supporting parts to give her a break. John Travolta dresses up in a fat suit for the role of Tracy's mother, a reticent laundress who he plays without suggestion of gender-bending or without reference to his past dancing parts, although it's impossible not to see Travolta's prancing as a warped nod to them. And Christopher Walken is a hoot (as usual) in his turn as Tracy's father, an oblivious joke-store owner who rekindles his relationship with his wife in a well-choreographed sequence.