An animated rendering of its characters is virtually the only thing preventing the formulaic Dirty Dancing from being another one of Disney’s crappy romances. Here, Romeo and Juliet has been loosely reworked as a pseudo-commentary on the oppressiveness of class structure, he a struggling wage worker routinely abused by his superiors and she a do-gooder rich girl whose privileged status largely prevents her selflessness from being taken seriously by those she means to help. Love fosters between the two, but not before Daddy expresses his misguided disapproval of Juliet’s new object of affection (solidifying their “forbidden” status). Drama ensues. Mix for 15 minutes. Repeat.
Granted, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a simple story such as this, but this ‘80s pop landmark (now in limited re-release for its 20th anniversary) commits the almost unforgivable sin of dealing in thuddingly literal terms, squashing any chance of truly capturing the adolescent fantasia at its core. Flights of romantic fancy are rendered via the most simplistic means possible (all it takes to fall in love is a little bump n’ grind), and what we’re left with are a bunch of life-size Barbie and Ken dolls going through premeditated motions rigidly devoid of feeling. To be fair, the cast admirably manages to work through some of the constraints of the screenplay, but it’s nothing doing against the rampant laziness inherent in the film’s atrocious mise-en-scène.
Told in retrospect (as indicated by the post-opening credits narration) by Jennifer Grey’s Baby, the film’s reliance on pop-song exposition and exaggerated stock characters suggests a time capsule memory box revisited in old age, time distilling the fantastical events of youth to their core, now relived through a distinctive pop lens. Charming, no doubt, and while it’s difficult to deny a film this genuinely earnest, one would hardly be wrong in expecting a more imaginative aesthetic as a necessary complement to the deliberately simplistic narrative (as a standard-setter of the romantic aspirations of entire generations, methinks our collective female population can do much better). The film’s naïvete is easy to justify given its parallels to its young bleeding-heart protagonist, but filmmaking this blatantly lazy is likely to only ever appeal to the previously converted.