Friday, October 24, 2008

High School Musical 3: They want it all!

High School Musical 3 (2008) • View trailer for High School Musical 3
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.24.08
Buy DVD: High School Musical 3 • Buy Blu-Ray: High School Musical 3: Senior Year (Deluxe Extended Edition + Digital Copy + DVD and BD Live) [Blu-ray]

Hey, the kids have put on another show!

Although it takes almost half an hour to build the proper momentum, High School Musical 3: Senior Year demonstrates — and quite enthusiastically — that the franchise is well-equipped to make its leap to the big screen.
Is it their actual prom, or the prom-within-a-play? The lines blur quite cleverly
in this film, as four of our favorite characters — from left, Chad (Corbin Bleu),
Monique (Taylor McKessie), Gabrielle (Vanessa Hudgens) and Troy (Zac
Efron) — cut a rug in one of the many opulent production numbers.

Indeed, it seems genuinely sad that the film's finale hints at closure, as if — mirroring the transition its characters are making, from high school to various colleges — we'll never again see these fresh, apple-cheeked faces on the same stage again. Of course, that could well depend on box- office returns; if Johnny Depp can be persuaded to sign on for a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean entry, then I suppose Disney could somehow coax these talented young people into another round.

After all, the summers between college years offer at least three more opportunities, right?

Director/choreographer Kenny Ortega hasn't changed the formula a jot, which is both good and bad. Good, because the production numbers are just as inventive and irrepressibly buoyant; bad, because we've lost the first film's freshness.

It's not that the 10 new songs are any less sparkling than their predecessors; I remain impressed by the witty lyrics and clever rhymes, which hearken back to classics from the great American songbook. It's more a function of familiarity: Ortega stages his film in such a way that we know when it's time for a romantic pas de deux between Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens); we can anticipate the angst-filled solos by Troy and Gabriella; we smell fresh betrayal in the wind when Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) glances with unholy glee toward the camera and gets set for one of her numbers.

(By the way, the decision to call Troy's power ballad "Scream" seems a questionable swipe from beat poet Alan Ginsberg's "Howl.")

No doubt this franchise's avid fans — many of whom audibly swooned, during Wednesday evening's preview, each time the camera zoomed for a close-up of Efron's enticing baby-blues — couldn't care less. But some of them did seem to notice the sugar-coated, overly sentimental tone that hung over the first two songs, and particularly the first duet between Efron and Hudgens.

I began to worry that Ortega had succumbed to a desire for too much schmaltz, which would have crippled this film. Fortunately, that cloying tone vanished utterly during the first splashy production number — a sensational, show-stopping ode to self-absorbed greatness by Sharpay and twin brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), appropriately titled "I Want It All" — and everything remained fine for the rest of the picture.

All three High School Musical films are designed along identical lines; each exists as a delivery system for a boatload of song-and-dance numbers, separated by afterthought snippets of character interaction and plot development. In that respect, the formula hasn't changed a jot since the days when Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney gathered their friends with that now-infamous line ("Hey kids, let's put on a show!") ... and Ortega is well aware of this.

More than the previous two films, in fact, High School Musical 3 pays tribute to those who came before; older viewers will recognize when Ortega clearly riffs choreographic styles and dance routines by Bob Fosse, Michael Jackson and even Fred Astaire (the famous "dancing on the ceiling" routine from Royal Wedding).

Peter Barsocchini's script also includes a significant nod to All About Eve in one of the story's subplots, although you may not make that connection until its hilarious climactic payoff.

The only problem, this time, is that the admittedly sketchy plot sometimes takes too much of a back seat to the musical stuff.

We need to spend a bit more time with newcomer Jimmy "The Rocket" Zara (Matt Prokop, quite amusing), who has his eyes on Troy's position as Wildcats basketball team captain. And much more could — should — have been made of the growing attraction between Ryan and songwriting genius Kelsi (Olesya Rulin); this becomes so much of an afterthought that it almost doesn't even happen.

(Sidebar gripe: I have never understood why Rulin gets so ill-treated by this franchise. She's the seventh regular who never gets pictured in any of the publicity, and that's shameful for all sorts of reasons. For openers, she's cuter, more talented and a better actress than, say, Taylor McKessie, who plays Monique. More importantly, Monique hardly figures in this picture, whereas Kelsi has her usual prominent placement. So what's the deal?)

On the other hand, Barsocchini does successfully establish another new character, sophomore transfer student Tiara Gold (Jemma McKenzie-Brown, well remembered from her co-starring role in the recent British miniseries The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard). Tiara eagerly signs up to become Sharpay's new personal assistant and evil co-conspirator, although there's more to this relationship than meets the eye ... if only Sharpay could step out of her own head long enough to see the bigger picture.

Unlike High School Musical 2, which went out of its way to set up stupid character conflicts — that film, unhappily, succumbed to the stereotypical "sophomore slump" decision to make all the protagonists mad at each other — this one centers around a genuinely legitimate crisis that every high school senior will recognize: the fact that all these folks, about to scatter to the four winds, may never see each other again.

Even Gabriella and Troy aren't immune. She has been accepted to Stanford, while everybody always has assumed that he'll simply follow family tradition and enroll at the local Albuquerque university, with best friend Chad (Corbin Bleu).

That puts a thousand miles between lovebirds Gabriella and Troy, an impending tragedy that troubles both of them.

When in doubt, though, these kids know the solution: Mount another musical, with the wise guidance of drama teacher Ms. Darbus (Alyson Reed), this franchise's token Yoda. This production, sorta-kinda dubbed "Senior Year," mirrors events as they occur in this story's "real" world: integrated so deftly that several of the production numbers bleed back and forth, from this show-within-the-movie to the ongoing minor crises affecting these kids in the East High School corridors.

Beyond such real-world concerns, however, we never really escape the film's fantasy elements. Troy has a treehouse in his back yard that appears to have been constructed by the Imagineers who built Disneyland's Swiss Family Robinson attraction, while East High has the most impressive drama department this side of Broadway.

The school also seems to have an open-door policy 24/7, which allows Troy to stalk its corridors during his late-night "Scream."

All inconsequential, of course. All that matters is that Efron still owns the screen; it's impossible to take your eyes off the magnetic young hunk. And, in fairness, he's a decent actor getting better with each film. Similarly, he and Hudgens make the most of their romantic chemistry; they're a cute on-screen couple, even when she gets stuck with a few too many wise-old-owl lines.

More crucially, you'll exit the theater charged by the film's concluding power anthem, and I've no doubt soundtrack sales will be as brisk as box-office results.

And y'know what really matters the most?

When a franchise this squeaky-clean and retro can be so popular with today's (supposedly) jaded youth, it suggests there really is hope for the future of the world.

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