(by Dustin Putman
The films themselves are diametric opposites, but the new "Footloose" shares one thing in common with the recent "Straw Dogs" redux: they often adhere so stringently to their respective originals, right down to much of the same verbatim dialogue, that there isn't a lot of room for creative interpretation. The question becomes, then, whether or not a remake deserves praise when the filmmaker has mostly just copied what was already done. In the case of "Straw Dogs," it was beat for beat repeating the same material with minor tweaks, yet not once managed to improve upon anything Sam Peckinpah had done forty years earlier. With "Footloose," written and directed by Craig Brewer (2007's "Black Snake Moan"), based on the 1984 film's screenplay by Dean Pitchford, this is not necessarily the case. When Brewer does deviate from the first picture, it sometimes is for the better. Having protagonist Ren McCormack (Kenny Wormald) go to stay with his aunt and uncle after the death of his mother gives newfound weight to the story (he and his very much alive mother moved together in the earlier version), and also provides a valid reason for him to ultimately find common ground with the grieving reverend of the town, Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid). The title is additionally given a deeper meaning; as the song that a carload of care-free teens are joyfully singing at the moment they are all killed in a terrible crash, no longer is it just an arbitrary pop track, but a bittersweet symbol of the fragility of youth, the glory of freedom, and the realization that, sometimes, not even the young are invincible to tragedy. Article continues below
Three years ago, the rural community of Bomont was hit hard when five high school kids—one of them Reverend Shaw Moore's son—were killed on their way home from a party. Hoping to protect the town and keep their children safe, resulting area laws were passed that banned public dancing. When Boston transplant Ren McCormack comes to live with his Uncle Wes (Ray McKinnon) and Aunt Lulu (Kim Dickens), he is instantly seen as trouble after getting pulled over for listening to his music too loudly. Ren can scarcely believe the town's close-vested, backwards ways, and he's not the only one: classmate Ariel (Julianne Hough), the reverend's daughter, has had just about enough of her father's strict rules and insistence on living in the past. Currently seeing bad boy race car driver Chuck Cranston more out of rebellion than love, Ariel catches Ren's eyes. With the help of friends Willard (Miles Teller) and Rusty (Ziah Colon), they set out to open Bomont's eyes about the positive aspects of dancing and the dangers of going through life with narrow-minded views of the world.
Would "Footloose" exist without its 1980s predecessor, an entertaining if now glaringly dated snapshot of that particular decade? Certainly not in its current form, which borrows liberally from the former movie and closely follows the same narrative on a practically scene-by-scene basis. Watching the two films back-to-back is actually quite amusing, bringing attention to the countless ways they are the same while also unleashing a few technical and storytelling tweaks that improve upon the material. The soundtrack is largely intact, this time with song covers that, shock of shocks, do the originals justice while putting their own modern spin on them. Blake Shelton's "Footloose" is every bit as buoyant as Kenny Loggins', used to splendidly bookend the film. Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero" has been turned into a lovely, rhapsodic ballad by Ella Mae Brown. Shalamar's "Dancing in the Sheets" has been updated by David Banner (featuring Denim) into the sultry, R&B-flavored "Dance the Night Away." And my personal favorite, Deniece Williams' "Let's Hear It for the Boy" has been faithfully rejuvenated by Jana Kramer for the centerpiece montage where Ren teaches rhythmless country boy Willard how to dance. If there is one stretch of plausibility that must be stepped over in regard to the music, it is the notion that these teens would have such diverse tastes, one minute grinding to hip-hop and R&B, then jumping up and down to pop-rock before heading off to line-dance at a country saloon. Surely this was a bid on the studio's and director Craig Brewer's parts to wrangle in as wide of an audience as they could—and it does keep the sounds from ever growing stale—but treated as a realistic portrayal of teens in 2011, it's not always believable.
Taking over the role that cemented Kevin Bacon as a star, Kenny Wormald's (2006's "Clerks II") charismatic work should also stand as his big break. Wormald's Ren is maybe a little "nicer" than Bacon's, but out of that comes an added likability. He, like his fellow cast members, is an ace on the dance floor, and fulfills all the requirements necessary when it comes to his warehouse-set angry dance, a highlight of the first film recaptured here with almost as much flair (his gymnastics routines in the midst of his rebel-yelling footwork could have been done without). Wormald ably and emotionally walks through the motions in other well-known scenes, such as the town hall meeting where he pleads for the reverend and fellow committee members to open their minds about dancing. New to either film is a conversation Ren shares with Rev. Moore in church about the losses they've both experienced in their lives; this crucially blesses both characters with more dimension and dramatically paves the way for the rousing, well-earned climax. As Rev. Moore, Dennis Quaid (2011's "Soul Surfer") is firm and rigid at the onset, but capable of change as he learns from his mistakes. Unfortunately, one of those mistakes is a rare moment unintentionally funny in its sheer inappropriateness where he slaps Ariel across the face moments after she arrives home black and blue from getting beat up by the abusive Chuck. It's the epitome of overkill.
Taking over the Chris Penn and Sarah Jessica Parker parts of Willard and Rusty are Miles Teller (2010's "Rabbit Hole") and newcomer Ziah Colon. As portrayed here, the quiet, awkward Willard and vivacious, outspoken Rusty are an odd fit as a couple, but they somehow work all the same. Teller is an unadulterated charmer, while Colon, equipped with a thick Southern accent, is an equal delight who steals her scenes. As Ariel's mother Vi, Andie MacDowell (2011's "Monte Carlo") brings touching resolve and empathy to a woman who can keep quiet no longer when she sees her husband driving their only surviving child further and further away from them. The underrated Kim Dickens (2009's "The Blind Side") leaves a memorable imprint herself on Ren's Aunt Lulu, whom he confides in when things get tough. The performer who deserves the most accolades, however, is Julianne Hough (2010's "Burlesque"). For someone best-known as one of the former professional dancers on TV's "Dancing with the Stars," it would have been impossible to predict just what a vibrant, natural, eye-grabbing talent Hough is as an actress. With the alternating confidence and vulnerability that defies her relative film inexperience, she whisks in and ensures that Ariel is every bit the lead as Ren is; her personal journey as a young woman still grappling with her brother's death while acting out as a means of finding the attention and understanding she doesn't receive at home is the heart of the story. If Hough, looking like Isla Fisher's younger sister, doesn't get a major acting career out of her standout turn here, there's officially no justice in Hollywood. Her every moment is a pleasure to watch.
Surprises are few and far between in "Footloose"—there is a thick ambience of déjà vu to what transpires—but director Craig Brewer keeps the pace and feel as energetic as it was twenty-seven years ago, and cinematographer Amy Vincent (2007's "Freshman Orientation") lends the setting a golden summery glow. Today the idea of a town outlawing dancing seems quaint—heck, it was probably quaint in 1984—but in giving the viewer a reason for Bomont's extreme actions by opening with the deadly accident that kicks the plot into motion, it comes off as less forced than it could have. Not always subtle and not always able to evade its cornball trappings, "Footloose" nevertheless works as a breezy entertainment that audiences will want to flock to on a Friday night. A generational update more than a re-imagining, the film ultimately achieves what it sets out to do, winning over nostalgic fans of the original while exposing younger audiences to a movie most of them probably don't even realize is a remake. Perhaps it'll even inspire some of them to watch the older pic so that they can appreciate all the elements this one borrowed wholesale from it. It did, after all, come first.