To the relief of more discerning moviegoers, there are no pirates, spider-men, or Silver Surfers in the latest screen-to-stage-and-back again musical, Hairspray. But there is a transformer: John Travolta, stepping into the pumps of drag performers Divine in the 1988 John Waters comedy and Harvey Fierstein in the long-running Broadway hit, in his first singing role in a movie musical since 1978's Grease. For him, the role of Edna Turnblad, the sweet stick-in-the-mud as her dancing daughter Tracy kicks off a high-stepping racial revolution in 1962 Baltimore, has been made over-Edna is now expected to impress as a real woman, albeit one vacuformed into a feminine fat suit weighing 75 lbs. It isn't easy; memories of his predecessors die hard, and as he is the only major performer to adopt a Baltimore accent his singing comes off as somewhat warped. Yet when he and co-star Christopher Walken, cast as Edna's loving husband Wilbur, launch into their duet "Timeless," the performance comes together, and the two actors harmonize in a sweeping routine that takes off into the song-and-dance stratosphere.
Unburdened by over-fidelity to its stage source, unlike Rent or The Producers, or the need to "mean" something, like Dreamgirls, Hairspray simply concentrates on giving the audience a good time, which the Tony-laden musical has been doing for five years now. The director and choreographer, Adam Shankman, is the guilty party behind some godawful movie comedies (The Wedding Planner and Cheaper By the Dozen 2) but his work here is faster on the uptake and much more assured. The screen transition is aided by a streamlined and quick-witted Leslie Dixon screenplay that hits the show's pro-integration theme a little harder (though not enough for Hairspray to count as a message picture) and shears off some of the story points, notably the prison-set number "The Big Dollhouse." Songs like "Cooties" have been bumped to the back end of the credits. To compensate, Marc Shalman and Scott Wittman have come up with four additional tunes, notably "The New Girl in Town," which failed to make the cut on Broadway but here underscores a brisk montage as Tracy takes Baltimore.
Eighteen-year-old newcomer Nikki Blonsky gives a plus-sized performance as Tracy, and like Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls gives the film its beating heart. Supporting her debut is a constellation of musical talent, some of it hitherto unknown (who knew that James Marsden, a walking stick in the X-Men films, had the chops to hoof it as TV host Corny Collins?) or untapped for too long-this is Michelle Pfeiffer's first screen role since 2002, and she relishes every venomous moment as the haughty Velma Von Tussle. Queen Latifah is a stylish and impassioned Motormouth Maybelle. The Disney Channel substratum of the cast-High School Musical heartthrob Zac Efron as Link, Brittany Snow as Amber, Elijah Kelley as Seaweed, and especially Amanda Bynes as Penny-show signs of being in it for the long haul, if enough other musical projects get off the ground. The West Wing behind her, Allison Janney reclaims her stage roots in a roundabout way as prudish Prudy Pingleton. Hairspray alumni Waters, Ricki Lake , and Jerry Stiller are among those turning up in small roles or cameos...and that bullfrog voice in the end credits is an unmistakable link to its stage origins, which the movie honors not by imitation but by strutting forth in its own wig and accessories.