"It's not bad. It's a lump, but it's a benign lump."
Taking potshots at High School Musical is easy, not to mention fun and profitable. The original Disney Channel film was cheap and simple-minded (but harmless), and its sequel was more of the same. Now the geniuses at Disney have figured out that they should be selling these movies, not giving them away on cable TV, so the second sequel, High School Musical 3: Senior Year, is playing in theaters. And you know what? It's not bad. It's a lump, but it's a benign lump.
Just to get our timelines straight, and to reveal more detailed knowledge of this series than I ought to have, HSM took place in January of the kids' junior year, HSM 2 covered the summer, and now HSM 3 picks things up several months after that, near the end of senior year. Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) has just led the East High Wildcats to another basketball championship, and he and his girlfriend, Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens), are making their post-graduation plans. Gabriella has been accepted to Stanford. Troy has always assumed he'd go to his hometown University of Albuquerque with his best friend and teammate, Chad (Corbin Bleu).
But thoughts of the future make everyone nervous and angst-y! Stanford is far away from Albuquerque (as are most things, actually) -- plus, Troy has been getting scholarship offers from other schools. Then, because this franchise has an obsession with making Troy a perfect model citizen in every possible regard, he is ALSO being considered for an exclusive Juilliard spot, on the basis of his one (1) performance in exactly one (1) high school musical. The movie also tells us that Juilliard is very hard to get into, though this is obviously belied by their interest in Troy.
Apart from the senior-year anxiety (which sometimes gets a bit too serious), very little about the basic plot of this HSM is any different from the others. This means, yes, that none of the characters ever actually learn anything. Troy still insists he doesn't want to perform in the spring musical, then changes his mind. His basketball buddies still think singing and dancing is ridiculous, then do it anyway. Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) still wants Troy for herself, both on stage and off, and still connives to make that happen, then doesn't really seem to care when it doesn't. Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), Taylor (Monique Coleman), Kelsi (Olesya Rulin), and Ms. Darbus (Alyson Reed) are all still around.
In a transparent effort to sow seeds for the next generation of HSM, three new characters are introduced -- freshmen or sophomores, all, so they can appear in at least three films before they're forced to graduate. Jimmie "Rocketman" Zara (Matt Prokop), the new Troy, is stalking the current Troy in a rather unsettling manner. His buddy, Dion (Justin Martin), is a tiny black kid and Chad's heir-apparent. Rocketman's nemesis will be, I kid you not, Tiara Gold (Jemma McKenzie-Brown), a British girl who is now working as Sharpay's assistant in a very All About Eve kind of way.
Franchise director Kenny Ortega, whose last theatrical films (including "Newsies") were 15 years ago, justifies HSM 3's big-screen format by staging larger, more visually interesting musical numbers. Where most of the numbers in the previous films were down-to-earth, this time Ortega indulges in the fantasy elements typical of movie musicals -- for example, a school quad becomes a ballroom for the duration of a song, then reverts back to reality when it's over. Sharpay and Ryan's "I Want It All" number is hugely lavish and entertaining. Troy's big solo, "Scream," effectively conveys his indecision (never mind that it's the same indecision he's had twice already), and is ambitiously staged and edited.
I still like to make up dirty meanings for the generic pop songs that comprise most of the soundtrack. My favorite this time is in the number about prom, where the guys sing to the girls:
"It's the night of nights,
You know we're gonna do it right."
This is a generic lyric where "it" just means "prom." But I like to imagine the line being punctuated like this:
"It's the night of nights:
You know we're gonna 'do it,' right?"
I still can't say much for Vanessa Hudgens' bland, personality-free performance, or her grating, nasal singing voice. (Why does she have a mouth when she apparently only needs her nose?) Ryan, once an amusing sidekick to Sharpay, has been relegated to the background. The school musical that closes out the film has one of those audiences that only communicate via standing ovation. The logistics of Gabriella's visit to Stanford, her returning for the show, and the use of understudies are all baffling and almost certainly impossible. You could spend all day pointing out shots that don't match up, characters who are in one place one moment and somewhere else the next, extraneous people who are only in the film because they were in the last two, etc.
But why would you waste a whole day doing that? The film isn't exactly nourishing, but it's not unhealthy, either. It's fine for its target audience, and maybe for the target audience's parents who will be obligated to drive them to the theater. Those parents will be tired of it after the thousandth DVD viewing, but the same would be true even if it were a brilliant and clever movie. The final lyric of the film says, "I want the rest of my life to feel just like a high school musical," and if that's what you want, hey, knock yourself out. I hear you only have to be in one to catch Juilliard's attention.
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Eric D. Snider (website) was in one high school musical, too, but never got so much as a phone call from Juilliard.