I’ve seen two movies over the past couple of days, one that was newly released on DVD and one that just opened in the theaters. Both are being sold as family fare, but I think the first movie has some problems in that category, while the second movie is truly good family entertainment.
The first movie is Hairspray, based on the John Waters’ Broadway hit of the same name which, in turn, John Waters based on his own non-musical movie of the same name. The premise is simple: An open-hearted, overweight teenage girl, living in 1962 Maryland, helps integrate a dance show. Along the way, she and the cool guy fall in love, and her overweight mother overcomes her agoraphobia and becomes a powerhouse outside of the home. The “hook” is that John Travolta plays the girl’s mother (and, I should note that, whether in the original movie or on Broadway, a man always plays the mother).
I had problems with the movie’s first 20 minutes, which threw in a few too many sleazy points. The lead character, Tracy Turnblad (played by the delightful and talented newcomer Nikki Blonsky) opens the movie b singing the cheerful ditty “Good morning, Baltimore.” The knowing ironical point is that the Baltimore she greets with such verve is a sleazy place, replete with flashers and pregnant women in bars smoking and getting drunk. Fortunately, these references went over the kids’ heads, but I still found them unnecessary and unpleasant. Likewise, I didn’t appreciate the scene where the female stars of the TV show stuff their bras, while the male stars stuff their pants. Again, it went over the kids’ heads, but it was a completely unnecessary little bit of sleaze thrown in that didn’t advance the plot in any way.
The other thing I didn’t like about the movie, a point that suddenly got magnified near movie’s end, is that the heroine’s best friend has a mother who is sadistic, over-protective, and nasty. That portrayal could just have been comedic, and the character’s nastiness was necessary to movie the plot forward but, unfortunately, the movie makers didn’t stop there. Instead, entirely gratuitously, they made her a fervent Catholic. That wasn’t comedic, that was anti-religious. Fortunately, that too went over my kids’ heads.
Once the movie got over these knowing references to anti-culture, however, it wasn’t bad at all. The songs are very nice, and the singers sold them well. I appreciated the fact that the movie makers kept their heads and, rather than portraying all whites evil racists, managed to limit the evil racism to the station manager, which Michelle Pfeiffer played in wonderfully over-the-top mode. Everyone else was either oblivious to integration versus segregation, or in favor of integration. That was smart, because I don’t see a pop movie selling well if the movie-makers demonize most of the audience.
If anything, I thought the movie was actually racist to blacks. Tracy is rather blissfully unaware of blacks until she gets sent to detention. Then, in that room for the wrongdoers, she’s surrounded by them, all dancing their hearts out. I thought that was two stereotypes for the price of one: (1) blacks as troublemakers and slackers and (2) blacks as dancing fools. The movies in the 1930s and 1940s couldn’t have done any better in racist, stereotypical portrayals. The other racist moment had the black lead character, who is struggling to untie Tracy’s best friend (tied to her bed by the sadistic Catholic mother) eventually give up the effort and simply produce a lethal switchblade. Again, I thought that played nicely into the worst stereotypes about young black males.
What my kids complained about throughout the whole movie — bless their little hearts — was the “butts.” “Why are they wiggling and slapping their butts all the time?” The kids were absolutely right. The camera and the choreographers were obsessed with derrières, and the kids picked up on how vulgar it was.
So, my overall review is mixed. Aside from the butt wiggling and slapping, the musical numbers were charming and well done. The movie was not anti-white generally, and I appreciated that. Nikki Blonsky is a real talent. John Travolta was horribly miscast, although he redeemed himself somewhat when he joined with Christopher Walken, who played Tracy Turnblad’s father, to sing and dance to the charming “You’re Timeless to Me.” The movie would have benefited substantially, though, if it had abandoned the sleazy touches, the semi-subliminal anti-Catholic attack, and the negative stereotypes about blacks.
I can give a much better review to the movie we saw today, Disney’s Enchanted. Rotten Tomatoes, which collects movie reviews and ranks movies according to the positive and negative reviews, gives it a 93% “fresh” rating, which means that an enormous number of critics liked it. For once, I agree with the critics. The movie is delightful. The premise, as you may know, is that a fairy tale girl, who is ridiculously good and pretty, is on the verge of marrying Prince Edward, when his evil mother, who is both queen and witch, sends her to New York where there are no “happily ever afters.” The joke is that this cheerful, loving, optimistic soul runs headlong into New York cynicism, all distilled into a divorced divorce attorney.
The movie’s first strength is the strong casting. Amy Adams, who plays Giselle, the heroine, manages to carry off that romantic sweetness without becoming cloying or saccharine. Patrick Dempsey, with those world-weary eyes, works as a jaded divorce lawyer who nevertheless still has the capacity to recognize true goodness. James Marsden (who, incidentally, was also in Hairspray) does a great comedic turn as a valiant, but vain, prince who lacks any real personality beyond his swash and buckle. And Susan Sarandon, unsurprisingly, makes a very good wicked witch.
The costumes are great, too, especially Giselle’s, which capture her zaniness princess-ness in gray, rushed New York. The movie’s funny parts are funny, the romantic parts are romantic, the musical numbers are musical — it all works.
I can highly recommend this movie as a great family movie. My only caveat is that very small children may find parts of the movie scary. This is especially the case at the end when the wicked queen/witch shows her true colors. I’d be careful with anyone under 5 or a kid prone to nightmares.