To Be a Jock or Be at Juilliard
Before jumping to the conclusion that the popular Disney Channel franchise is artistically unsophisticated, consider that High School Musical 3: Senior Year begins "in media res." As any self-respecting graduate of Albuquerque's East High School will know, that's Latin for "into the middle of things" and this installment, the first to debut on the big screen, opens during the middle of the Wildcat's second consecutive state championship basketball game.
They're getting blown out as the first half ends, but instead of a rousing speech or innovative Xs and Os being the difference-maker, it's the singsong melody and teenybopper syncopation of a ditty entitled "Now or Never" that inspires the team, led by multitalented Troy Bolton (Zac Efron).
Once the hoops victory is in the books, the East High gang can turn their attention to other resume-bolstering tasks such as staging their last spring musical, publishing their final yearbook, and attending their senior prom. Beyond the climactic right of passage called graduation, four years at an elite college awaits. Four kids learn that Juilliard might be that institution, since representatives from the prestigious arts school will attend their musical and decide which of them deserves the one available scholarship.
Spoiled theater princess Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale), her brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), composer Kelsi (Olesya Rulin), and heartthrob Troy are in the running. Suddenly, an alternative to doing what his father expects -- playing basketball as a legacy at the University of Albuquerque alongside pal Chad (Corben Bleu) -- presents itself. Further complicating Troy's decision about his future is his brainy sweetheart Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), who's waiting to hear from Stanford early decision. Will he trod the path laid out for him, or will he blaze his own on stage?
That's the story in a nutshell, but of course plot is not paramount in a High School Musical. What passes for narrative and dialogue are just excuses for belting out ballads and more rhythmic gyrating. And the movie's message is beaten into the audience as if ten year's of rote learning had been compressed into a hundred minutes: Teens, you can have it all! The hard-court, the thespian boards, and the girl!
Best of all, you don't have to work very hard. At least not when it comes to academics. These multitasking adolescents apparently have time for everything they need and want, except studying. They're never shown in an actual class or hitting the books. Granted, the second semester of senior year is usually pretty easy, yet this escapist scenario goes overboard, even allowing for the fact we're in a fantasyland called musical comedy.
Offsetting this schoolmarmish quibble is the realization that the cast is clearly working its collective butt off. The soundtrack features all-new songs, though they sound uncannily similar to those from the first two movies. The best-staged and choreographed numbers are "I Want It All" performed by the tandem of Tisdale and Grabeel, who play well off each other, and "The Boys Are Back," sung by Efron and Danforth in a dynamic junkyard setting.
The larger budget that comes with being a theatrical release pays obvious dividends. The costumes, sets and locations are all spiffy. Director/choreographer Kenny Ortega and his team take full advantage, squeezing every last drop out of the senior year rituals. The movie goes on and on and has more false endings than puberty itself. That won't be a problem for legions of tween fans however, and it's undeniable that everyone appears to be having fun up on the screen.
Much of the credit for the movie's winsome genuineness should go to the charismatic Efron, who has filled-out nicely in the years since the franchise began. Although he acquit himself well in the screen version of Hairspray, it's unlikely his future is as a song-and-dance man. Then again, who's to say he can't have it all as an actor? He costars in next year's comedy 17 Again and has been cast in Richard Linklater's intriguingly titled drama Me and Orson Welles. High School Musical could turn out to be Efron's Juilliard and he may well excel in many facets of the performing arts. All the world's a stage. Isn't that right, Wildcats?
(Released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and rated "G" for general audiences.)