High School Musical 3: Senior Year

(2008) ** 1/2 G
100 min. Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. Director: Kenny Ortega. Cast: Zac Efron, Ashley Tisdale, Vanessa Hudgens, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu.

/content/films/3251/6.jpegHere's a surprise: there's not a single surprise in High School Musical 3: Senior Year. C'mon, Disney? Where are the risks? No spiral into drug dependency? No coming out of the closet? No out-of-wedlock pregnancy? I kid the Mouse House: this unprecedented big-screen sequel to two cable TV movies knows its priorities: to make the legions of High School Musical fans dewy-eyed, toe-tapping, soul-soaring happy, and to pave the way for High School Musical 4. The franchise's fearless leaders—writer Peter Barsocchini and director Kenny Ortega—nakedly pursue and capture these goals, hitting the Hollywood sweet spot of crowd-pleasing populist art (for its target audience and their parents) and guaranteed commerce.

Any adult stumbling into this franchise is likely to go into severe sugar shock, but young fans will squeal with glee. The plot could hardly be more obvious: it's senior year for the familiar cast of East High characters, which means one last basketball championship, one last "musicale," one last dance (a prom, natch). With the basketball season dispatched in the opening sequence, the film's attentions turn to the theatre, where composer-arranger-pianist-conductor Kelsi (Olesya Rulin) and dotty drama teacher Mrs. Darbus (Alyson Reed) conspire to rope the gang into one more musical review. "Kelsi's right," says Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens), the group's unofficial morale officer. "This is our last chance to do something together really fun." Until "High School (Musical) Reunion," that is.

Yes, Mickey and Judy would be proud. To raise the stakes, Juilliard has pledged to send representatives to award a single scholarship, an announcement that sets über-diva Sharpay's eyes blazing. College choices loom and, with them, questions about vocational paths and separation anxiety: what will happen to lifelong friendships and puppyish—but possibly true—love? Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) and Gabriella cheerily hold hands, serenade each other in a treehouse, and waltz on the school's garden rooftop, but there's trouble in paradise (again) for the well-scrubbed boyfriend-girlfriend team (I'd call them young lovers, but the plotting would suggest these two are no more capable of mating than Ken and Barbie).Victims of their own success, they're lured to faraway colleges that spell long-distance relationship or bust. No matter what happens, there'll be a parting of ways for the tight-knit group that has worked and played together for four years. As much as they'd like to stop time, graduation waits for no boy or girl. A distraught Troy finds himself asking, "Why do you keep saying goodbye?"

Indeed, the picture might as well be called "High School Musical: The Long Goodbye," if not for the blunt insertion of three characters from the next generation (and yes, High School Musical 4 has been officially announced). Troy doesn't pass the torch (he's holding that for Gabriella), but he does pass the basketball, directly to his geeky protégé Jimmie "Rocket Man" Zara (Matt Prokop). Sophomore Jimmie has his own African-American best bud, Donny Dion (Justin Martin). Like Troy and Chad (Corbin Bleu), the new boys do double duty on the basketball team (Donny's a towel boy) and in the Drama department, where they're lured by their prankster mentors. Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) has her own lady-in-waiting, a British Eve Harrington named Tiara Gold (Jemma McKenzie-Brown). In case we miss the point, Darbus casts Jimmie and Tiara as the understudies to Troy and Tiara. Martin has little to do, but Prokop and McKenzie-Brown bring enough bright energy to suggest that, though the next round seems doomed to diminished returns, at least their characters have legs.

The film's calculation is of a piece with the "musical" part of High School Musical: Ortega's splashy and kinetic musical numbers can be guilty of overkill in this bigger-budgeted outing, and the Stepford musical vibe is completed with pumped-up colors and the unnatural "airbrushed" sheen of the young stars (do they cut their makeup with olive oil?). The first number, "Now or Never" proves guiltiest of hyper-synthetic vocal "sweetening," though later songs sound more natural. The energy, earnestness and general good vibrations of the ten songs cannot be underestimated: even the skeptical may find themselves won over, even by the corniest of numbers. Not fixing what ain't broken, the songs hew closely to formula: three "get a room" duets for Troy and Gabriella ("Right Here, Right Now," "Can I Have This Dance," and "A Night to Remember"); a character-baring sung soliloquy for each ("Scream" and "Walk Away," respectively); Sharpay's declaration of divahood, shared with saner twin brother Ryan ("I Want it All"); and a faux-"hard," Stomp-like dance number featuring Troy and Chad ("The Boys are Back").

/content/films/3251/8.jpegThe latter is a showstopper among showstoppers, silly though it is. While paying homage to "Greased Lightning" with its junkyard milieu, the number merges the athletic and theatrical. Under the musical machismo, the song is at heart a sweet, nostalgic ode to longtime friendship and the unlimited self-definition of childhood, when "let's pretend" meant anything was possible. As such, it's an encapsulation of the trilogy's central theme: that being oneself means not resigning oneself to live within the contours of society's boxes, but instead eternally to think outside them. And so "The Boys Are Back" meets its match in "Scream," which likewise looks backwards in musical history (with a somewhat less graceful variation of the rotating room gag made famous by Fred Astaire) and underlines fluid modern masculinity in the era of metrosexuality: like the feminists, maybe men too can "have it all": basketball and song and dance. (As for the un-outspokenly gay student choreographer Ryan—played by Lucas Grabeel of the upcoming Milk—he'll have to settle for taking Kelsi to the prom.)

The whole gang is likeable, but for some time, there's been no question that there's one breakout star in this mix certain to have a long career ahead of him: Efron. He's more than a triple threat, with top marks in the song, dance, looks, and charm departments that add up to the test-tube baby of Gene Kelly and Abercrombie & Fitch. Rumor has it that Disney played hardball in salary negotiations, but I hope the kid got points in addition to his $3 million dollar salary: this movie is going to rake in the bucks, and though Disney made him, he also deserves fair compensation for anchoring a franchise that has already paid out hundreds of millions of dollars (and will continue in perpetuity). The whole film's a metaphor for the stars' departures, but the tallest-looming funhouse mirror moments come with the big finish, a song called "High School Musical." The cast sings (under duress?) lines like "No matter what, it's somethin' we're a part of!", "Let's celebrate where we come from!", and "Who says we have to let it go?/It's the best part we've ever known."

High School Musical 3: Senior Year is, to quote another teen idol, "phony as hell," but to chastise its chaste G-rated pleasures would be curmudgeonly. It is what it is: a training-wheels musical revue that encourages kids to be true to their school and themselves, make friends, and get their butts in gear and get involved.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 3

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 2/17/2009

Distributor: Walt Disney Home Entertainment

That's right, kids! High School Musical 3 is coming home on Blu-ray and DVD. Though Disney leaves room for a double-dip down the line, it's a safe bet that the young'uns will be plenty pleased with the "Deluxe Extended Version" of the film, which reincorporates some trims like Gabriella and Taylor in Gabriella's bedroom, chatting about her future; a dinner party with the Boltons and the Danforths; and a "Right Here, Right Now" reprise (conveniently, these added scenes all line up together to comprise all of the disc's Chapter 10). There's also an optional "Sing Along Mode." As for the picture and sound quality, they're unimpeachable, as shiny and squeaky clean as the characters. The image is perfection, and the DTS-HD Master Audio track bottles every perfectly processed note of the original soundtrack.

Bonus features are substantial and bound to deliver plenty of fun (and tears) to the fans. Eight "Deleted Scenes" (7:15, HD) offer a collection of trims introduced by director Kenny Ortega.

"Out of Sync: HSM 3 Bloopers" (2:45, HD) is a sunny bunch of foul-ups.

"Cast Goodbyes" (5:40, HD) allows Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Corbin Bleu, Ashley Tisdale, Ortega, Monique Coleman, Lucas Grabeel, and co-producer Don Schain to reflect on their swan song as East High schoolers.

"It's All in the Dress" (2:30, HD) examines the girls' fashion in the movie, with comments by Ortega, costume designer Caroline Marx, Hudgens, Coleman, Olesya Rulin, and Tisdale.

"New Cast Profiles" (13:18, HD) offers at least a hint of spontaneity every once in a while and is therefore the most interesting extra. We see audition footage and video diaries by the newcomers, and footage from the world premiere, as well as interviews with Efron, Tisdale, Bleu, Hudgens, Coleman, Tisdale, Matt Prokop, Justin Martin, Jemma McKenzie-Brown, and Ortega.

"Night of Nights" (7:27, HD) serves up dance rehearsal footage and behind-the-scenes set footage of the film's "theatrical prom" and "waltzing prom." Coleman, Hudgens, Efron, Rulin, Bleu, Tisdale, Grabeel, Chris Warren, Jr., KayCee Stroh, and choreographers Chucky Klapow and Bonnie Story offer their thoughts.

"East High School Wildcats Senior Awards" (2:15, HD) gives us a glimpse of the in-house awards given to the cast. Ortega, Coleman, Bleu, Grabeel, Tisdale, Efron, Prokop, Bart Johnson, Warren explain.

My Pages is a cute feature allowing the Blu-ray owner to upload a picture and add herself or himself to the East Side High yearbook.

Finally, there are no fewer than ten Easter Eggs: "Easter Egg #1" (1:00, HD) shows Grabeel unnerving the cast with his choreographic improvs, "Easter Egg #2" (1:21, HD) allows Tisdale and McKenzie-Brown to explain the "Battle of the Sharpays," "Easter Egg #3" (:56, HD) takes a look at the dance partnership of Bleu and Coleman, "Easter Egg #4" (1:18, HD) finds Ortega and Efron explaining what it took to sing and dance among dropping basketballs, "Easter Egg #5" (:53, HD) is Bleu's take on dancing with basketballs, "Easter Egg #6" (1:03, HD) shares the cast's advice on how to ask someone to prom, "Easter Egg #7" (1:04, HD) takes a look at the dance partnership of Warren and Tisdale, "Easter Egg #8" (:31, HD) looks at the shooting of the graduation finale, "Easter Egg #9" (:36, HD) features Grabeel cutting up in outtakes of the graduation finale, and "Easter Egg #10" (:36, HD) shows Klapow giving Tisdale a "rock star" move.

The 3-disc Blu-ray set includes a Digital Copy on Disc Two and a DVD Copy of the Extended Edition movie on Disc Three.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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