Did we need a new version of “Footloose”? Probably not. But not needing a second piece of birthday cake doesn’t make it any less delicious.
Director Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow,” “Black Snake Moan”) gives away his strategy right away, as we hear the familiar mm-cha-mm-mm-cha beat of the Kenny Loggins title song — the original version, not a cover — as the Paramount logo fills the screen.
Clearly, Brewer has come to praise “Footloose,” not to bury it, and so he leaves Dean Pitchford’s screenplay more or less intact.
The result is one of the more pleasant surprises of 2011 — this new “Footloose” is as cornball as the original, but it’s also just as exuberantly entertaining.
The basic structure remains the same: A group of teenagers die in a car accident after a boozy party (merely referenced in the original film, we see the incident unfold this time around), and the small town of Bomont responds by enforcing a teen curfew, banning public dancing, and generally buzz-killing adolescent life. Into all this comes outsider Ren MacCormack (Kenny Wormald), who shakes up the local high-schoolers with his spiky hair and his scorching dance moves.
Eventually, Ren falls for Ariel (Julianne Hough), daughter of the powerful local minister (Dennis Quaid), and fights for the right of Bomont’s under-20s to party.
Fans of the original will recognize this storyline, but there’s so much more déjà vu in store for them, from Ren’s maroon tuxedo to his beat-up yellow VW Bug to 99 percent of the dialogue. (Missing, in this age of Google, was one of my favorite lines from the original, where Ariel prepares Ren for his face-off with the city council by giving him a bible with many bookmarked passages about dance. “How’d you know where to find this?” he asks; the incredulous preacher’s daughter replies, “Are you kidding?”)
Even the music this time around hews closely to the 1984 movie, with the original tunes “Footloose” and “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” intact (although they also get new cover versions) as well as country and/or hip-hop flavored updates on “Dancing in the Sheets,” “Holding Out for a Hero” and “Almost Paradise.” (No love for “Heaven Helps the Man (I’m Free)” or “Never,” alas.)
So with all of this familiarity, why bother with a new movie? Because Brewer intelligently keeps the elements that work and subtly throws in some key changes here and there, from adding some people of color (the film is set in Georgia rather than the Midwest) and turning Ren into an orphan, giving added heft to his backstory.
And while Wormald was mainly hired as a dancer — he’s hoofed his way through everything from “You Got Served” to “Jackass Number Two” — he’s enough of an actor to make the character work, even if his Beantown accent fluctuates mildly from scene to scene. (Yes, I know, he’s actually from Boston, which makes me wonder if he unlearned and then re-learned his original brogue.)
He even makes the infamously silly angry-dance-in-the-warehouse work by making it look more like a human being knocking against things and less like an overly art-directed music video performance. (After this same scene was parodied in “Hot Rod,” it was, perhaps, impossible to ever play it straight again.)
“Dancing With the Stars” vet Hough is Wormald’s match in the dance department, to be sure, but — and I never expected to use the word “gravitas” in a review of “Footloose” — she doesn’t bring the same moxie that Lori Singer gave to this wounded bad-girl. It helps greatly that Brewer surrounded his novice leads with seasoned actors like Quaid (who deftly avoids caricature and makes us understand this preacher’s pain), Andie MacDowell, and “Deadwood” co-star Kim Dickens and Ray McKinnon.
And while no one’s ever going to make us forget Chris Penn as the sweet, eurythmically-challenged Willard, Miles Teller (“Rabbit Hole”) steals all of his scenes anyway. (The film finds a delightful way to re-integrate “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” for the vital Willard-learns-to-dance montage.)
One carryover from “Footloose” 1.0 I had hoped wouldn’t pop up is the hyperactive editing — they called it “MTV-style” back in the day — that never allows dancers to move a full 5-6-7-8 without a cutaway. Even with the dancing pros in the cast, the movie retains that same short attention span, with the exception of a line-dancing number where shots get to play out over a relatively longer period of time. But hey, this is a remake of “Footloose,” not “Top Hat,” so you can’t accuse them of not being true to the source material.
Will haters of the original “Footloose” cotton to this new one? Probably not. It’s the same birthday cake, only this time the sugar and flour are organic and the frosting is made with real butter. And if it’s to your taste, this remake will push your pleasure buttons over and over again.