Antonio Banderas and Alfre Woodard certainly know how to make an entrance.
In the predictable, well-meaning high-school drama, “Take the Lead,” he’s introduced dancing to “Moon River,” and he makes both the song and the dance feel fresh. She plays a sardonic, fast-talking New York principal who at first seems cynical about her job — until you realize that she remembers the name of every kid who attends her rowdy school.
Banderas and Woodard walk off with the movie, even though it’s supposed to be about the kids they’re transforming through ballroom dancing. Yes, ballroom dancing. If that sounds familiar, you probably saw last year’s engaging documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” which told much the same story, though not as slickly and not as obviously.
“Take the Lead” is based on the true story of Pierre Dulaine, a Manhattan dance teacher (played by Banderas) who volunteered his time to teach ballroom dancing to inner-city high-school kids who had been raised on hip-hop.
In the funniest scene, the kids are horrified as he plays a Gershwin tune, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and suggests they dance to it. They can’t grasp the utterly foreign concept that he actually likes this kind of music. Later he uses the even more alien but equally danceable song, “Fascination,” to force them to reach out to another culture.
Woodard’s wily administrator, Augustine James, has an equally uphill battle, as she tries to get at least a few of her kids to graduate before they’re wiped out by gang warfare. In her sparsely decorated office, she displays pictures of all her kids, promising and otherwise, who became victims of street violence.
Written by Dianne Houston and directed by music-video veteran Liz Friedlander, the movie does a vivid job of setting up the obstacles to Dulaine and James’ success, but it’s much less convincing when they begin to achieve some progress. The kids give in too quickly to Gershwin and Mancini, and they’re too easily rescued from their home lives with drunken fathers and promiscuous mothers.
Dulaine acted as a dance consultant on the movie, yet it feels much less genuine than “Mad Hot Ballroom,” which presented the dancers as taking (almost literal) baby steps toward their goals. The young actors in “Take the Lead” don’t seem all that young, and when they succeed in competition they look a lot like adults.
Several of their stories cry out for more development: the homely girl who wants to dance just well enough to satisfy her parents; the destructive, peer-influenced kid who goes home every night to an abusive father; the studious girl who has to fight off her mother’s tricks; the sweet fat kid who finally achieves some grace as a dancer.
But Friedlander’s choppy editing and Houston’s occasionally dopey dialogue (“When I’m dancing, I’m in my moment”) undercut the work of much of the cast. Only Banderas and Woodard really stand out. Their star power makes “Take the Lead” watchable, if never essential.