Charming, without being too sweet, that is. From the opening song, "Good Morning Baltimore," on, the movie is pretty unsparing in portraying Baltimore, circa 1962, as rundown, seedy, and segregated. However, elements are already at work to subvert the dominant paridigm, as shown in the lyrics to the "Corny Collins Show" themesong (listen carefully!).
Newcomer Nikki Blonsky dazzles as Tracy Turnblad, the chunky girl with the Bob Fosse dance sense. Her brilliant and almost unsinkable smile is as expressive and important to the role as her dancing. James Marsden is Corny Collins, the host of a local TV American-Bandstand type show, who is willing to challenge station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) by choosing Tracy for a dance role on the show, and suggesting the cast be integrated instead of having a once-a-month "Negro Day." Von Tussle sees her overarching goal as using Collin's show as a stairstep for her no-talent daughter's show-business career, and secondarily to keep "Negroes" in their "place." Pfeiffer plays Von Tussle with a fine growling wickedness. (She is evidently competing with Susan Sarandon for the villainess roles once the property of Glenn Close--.) The supporting cast is eye-bugging in a number of ways. Of course John Travolta in the transvestite role of Tracy's mom, Edna Turnblad, has inspired most comment. Travolta plays the Edna role surprisingly straight (no pun intended) and returns to his comic roots with lovely timing. Of course we knew he could dance, but he puts out Edna's "girly" moves with great skill. The "female/fat" makeup/prosthetics work about 99% of the time making a very sustainable illusion. The big surprise was Christopher Walken, the king of the creepy character roles, in the sweetheart part of Wilbur Turnblad, Edna's doting husband and Tracy's supportive father. Hey, he can carry a tune and dance (sorta). Who knew? The Edna/Wilbur fantasy dance number "Timeless" is one of the great hoots of the movie. Queen Latifa as "Motor Mouth Maybelle", hostess of the token "Negro Day," dominates the scenes she is in, not only with her magnificent presence, but because she is far and away the best singer in the cast.
The production is well mounted, with credible sets and mostly believable costumes depicting the transitional post-jitterbug/pre-Mod period of the early 60's. Dancing is frequent, frenetic and well photographed, including such unlikely venues as a desk-crowded class room and a school bus. The credits list dancers in the numbers stunt performers are usually represented in current action-adventure movies.
It's a clever and funny script with a modicum of raunch, notably in Velma's number "The Legend of Miss Baltimore Crab", in which she reminisces about how she cheated (shall we say--) her way to a local beauty queen crown. Recommended for adults who like musicals with a bit of edge.