Reel Dad: "In the Heights" heads to the big screen

"In the Heights" is showing in theaters and streaming on HBOMax.

"In the Heights" is showing in theaters and streaming on HBOMax.

Warner Bros. / Contributed photo

Hollywood loves to turn Broadway musicals into movie extravaganzas.

Since films started to sing and dance, producers have looked to the stage for shows that could thrive on screen. Over the years, from “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music” to, more recently, “Hairspray” and “Into the Woods,” movie adaptations continue to become bigger shows.

On stage, a small musical called “In the Heights” quietly opened in New York in 2007 with a score by then-unknown composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda. This simple story, about people sharing their dreams and realities while occasionally feeling trapped in Washington Heights, immediately connected with audiences looking for substance beyond sizzle. No surprise, the show won the Tony for Best Musical for reaching beyond the dazzle to sincerely open its musical window to a distinct neighborhood filled with interesting people.

For the transfer to the screen, filmmaker John M. Chu - who brought us “Crazy Rich Asians” - finds every way to enlarge every moment. From a big musical number in a swimming pool - reminiscent of grand MGM musicals starring Esther Williams - to a dancing on the side of a building that defies gravity - borrowing from Fred Astaire in “Royal Wedding” - the movie constantly looks for ways to visually top itself. While the narrative follows the stage version, the film’s approach to telling that story is closer to the golden days of the Hollywood musical than to the realities of Washington Heights. Chu transforms a small musical about people into a full-scale extravaganza where each production number tries to outdo one before. That’s wonderful for those of us who love musicals but, at moments, risks overwhelming the intimate power of this show.

As the film begins, we meet Usnavi, a bodega owner who introduces the friends and family who define his daily life in this corner of the city. Each brings dreams for the future, including the father who sends his daughter to Stanford with hopes for what she can accomplish, a young woman working in a nail salon while wishing for a downtown life in fashion, and the spiritual leader of the neighborhood who willingly shares her wisdom and food. As they sing and dance, and face the ups and downs that life can bring, we’re inspired to greet each new day with hope and conviction.

Within this framework, Miranda - who later wrote and starred in “Hamilton” on Broadway - celebrates his unique approach to using song to develop character and advance the story. Rather than follow musical comedy tradition, where characters talk until they sing and dance, Miranda freely moves between dialogue and all types of music to create a seamless experience. Moviemaker Chu matches the magic of Miranda’s work with every type of visual approach. And it looks and sounds wonderful.

The best movie musicals from Broadway retain the magic of the original while capitalizing on what the screen can offer. Fortunately, the heart of “Into the Heights” is so strong that it can’t get lost, even in this amazing display of song and dance.

Film Summary: Into the Heights

Content: High. This celebration of big-screen movie making - with its rich collection of visual musical numbers - offers wonderful entertainment at the movies.

Entertainment: High. Thanks to the creative songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the film is a musical and visual feast.

Message: Medium. Because the film is so big, its message of hope and resilience has to work to avoid getting lost in the production.

Relevance: High. After the year we have had, any chance to share such fun on screen is worthwhile.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie will prompt conversation between you and your children about the dreams that can shape our days.

“Into the Heights” runs 2 hours, 23 minutes, and is rated PG-13 for “some language and suggestive references.” The film is showing in theaters and on HBOMax.