The movie opens with Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) cheerfully getting out of bed, getting dressed, and heading off for school while she sings “Good Morning Baltimore.” She’s so busy dancing at the bus stop that she doesn’t notice the bus leave and has to ride a garbage truck to school. In class, the boy who sits behind her complains that he can’t see because of the height of her hair.
After school, Tracy and her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) run home to catch the Corny Collins show, a sort of local American Bandstand. They go crazy at the sight of Link Larkin (Zac Efron), a cast member. Tracy’s mother, Edna (John Travolta in a fat suit) yells at them to turn it down. Penny’s mother, Prudy (Allison Janney) comes in to pick up her laundry from Edna and Penny has to hide behind the couch. She is disgusted by the Corny Collins show that Tracy is watching and Edna blows Penny’s cover by revealing that she is in the house watching it with Tracy. Prudy hauls her daughter out of the house.
Tracy and Penny are watching the Corny Collins show in a TV store window one day when Corny Collins (James Marsden) announces that one of the female cast members will be leaving the show temporarily (nine months, in fact) and they will be auditioning for a replacement for her the next day. Edna is against auditioning, but Tracy’s father Wilbur (Christopher Walken) encourages her to go for it if it’s her dream. Tracy and Penny cut class to attend the audition, but the station manager, Velma (Michelle Pfieffer) and her clonelike daughter Amber (Brittany Snow), who is dating Link, quickly and rudely pick apart the girls who are auditioning. They are especially harsh on Tracy, making fun of her size and saying that she doesn’t belong. Velma launches into a song-and-dance routine about how she used to be Miss Baltimore and never ate dessert. Tracy is dismissed and walks out with Penny, who was mostly there just to support her.
Tracy receives a detention for cutting class. In detention, she finds that she is the only white person. All the black kids are dancing around and one named Seaweed (Elijah Kelly) shows Tracy some moves which she replicates easily. Link happens to be walking by and sees Tracy dancing through the window on the door. He goes into the room and tells her that tomorrow is the Hop Day (or something) on the Corny Collins show and she should dance like that; he thinks Corny would like that. She does just this and draws all the attention on the show, including Link’s. This lands her a regular part on the show.
Velma is furious that Tracy has been allowed to join the show, as is her daughter Amber, who sees Tracy as a threat to her hold on Link. Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), who is Seaweed’s mother, directs Negro Day, the one day that black kids are allowed on the show every month. Velma gets angry at her for using the same song as the white girls for a routine.
Meanwhile, Tracy has become immensely popular. Girls are copying her hairstyle and her father is selling Tracy souvenirs at his joke shop. A plus-sized dress store calls asking Tracy to be their spokeswoman. Edna leaves the house for the first time since 1951 and gets a makeover at the store after Tracy convinces her that the world is changing and she shouldn’t feel ashamed for being plus-sized because the world is growing more accepting of people who are different.
Tracy introduces Penny to Seaweed, and it appears to be love at first sight. One day in class Amber gets Tracy in trouble but Link sides with her. They both end up in detention. Afterwards Seaweed and his little sister Inez take Tracy, Penny, and Link to his house for a party. Maybelle announces that Negro Day has been cancelled. The kids are angry and decide to protest. Tracy asks Link if he’s going to join in, but he says that Velma is letting him sing at the Miss Teenage Hairspray pageant and there are going to be agents there and he doesn’t want to ruin his chance at fame. Tracy is upset that he’s putting his career first.
In the meantime, Velma has taken t upon herself to get Tracy from returning to the show by trying to seduce her father Wilbur. Unfortunately for her, he does not pick up on any of her advances. Still, Edna catches them in a compromising position and is upset. He sleeps downstairs in the store but Tracy comes down and gives him the house key since Edna locked him out. He returns to the house and tells Edna how much he’s only had eyes for her and they reconcile.
The next morning Edna goes to wake Tracy up but she’s gone from her bed. Edna flags her down when she figures out that she’s protesting with Maybelle and the other black kids. The cops refuse to let them pass on their march and Tracy taps him with her protest sign. This lands her an arrest warrant for battery of a cop and she runs to Penny’s to hide. All of the other protestors are thrown in jail. Penny’s mother discovers that Penny is hiding Tracy and calls the cops before whisking her daughter upstairs and locking her into her room. Seaweed climbs in through the window and sets her free and they kiss. They break Tracy out on their way out and stick her in the trunk of their car. Wilbur claims that they’ll be eating beans for the next ten years because he bailed about twenty protestors out of prison, but it was the right thing to do. Edna agrees.
Tracy has a plan for the Miss Teenage Hairspray pageant the next day, which is at the station and that she was entered to compete in. She asks Edna to attend, dressed up, and meet Penny at the entrance. The police are outside of the building, carefully watching for Tracy. Wilbur dresses up like Tracy and tries to get in, which distracts the police and allows Seaweed to sneak in through the side entrance. He locks the front doors with chairs and the police pick up a gigantic hairspray can prop to burst in. Velma barks at them, asking what took so long, but one cop just replies that the hairspray can was heavy. Velma says the cans were hollow and realizes that Tracy hid in the hairspray can they used to bust into the building withthey literally carried her in. She then escaped up a ladder that Seaweed set up and his friends blocked off the backstage so that Velma and the police couldn’t get in.
The competition is nearly over and Corny Collins is about to announce the winner when Tracy appears on the set, dressed kind of 60s retro, with straightened hair sans hairspray. She starts singing and dancing to “You Can’t Stop the Beat” and Link joins her. Penny and Seaweed join in too, and Inez dances in the competition too. Corny Collins crowns Inez the winner and everyone pretty much gets onstage to dance, even Edna. Corny announces that the show will be integrated from now on while Velma fumes backstage. Amber says that Velma should just accept that she lost and Velma says no, because she messed with the ballots. Unfortunately for Velma this conversation was broadcast on TV and she is fired. Tracy and Link kiss while everyone tears up the dance floor in the background.
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