Unlike the "Harry Potter" series, Disney's relentlessly sunny franchise seems to be saying: "Let's not mess with success."
First, allow me to out myself. I was the star of my high school musical (the reviews were ... kind). So when I tell you I wish “High School Musical 3” was much better than it is, understand I write not as a curmudgeon begrudging young kids their fun, but as a veteran disappointed that it misses its potential. It’s decent.
It should have been great.
Tween heartthrob Zac Efron stars as Troy, an Albuquerque East High senior with three loves: basketball, theater and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens). Troy’s dad is pressuring him to pursue sports at his hometown alma mater, but Juilliard beckons with a performing arts scholarship.
But how could he deal with separation from his steady girl, who will be at far-off Stanford? The only way to resolve these conflicts is with nonstop songs and dance.
Orbiting around Troy are his best buddy, Chad (Corbin Bleu), Chad’s honey, Taylor (Monique Coleman), pampered stage-hog Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) and her fabulous brother, choreographer Ryan (Lucas Grabeel). They put on a show with production values that would shame golden age MGM (East High apparently isn’t experiencing any budget cuts) and work out their crushes, rivalries and worries onstage. The screenplay by series creator Peter Barsocchini cobbles together scenes from the basketball championship game to prom to the big spring stage show, finding musical cues at every stop along the way.
The peachy keen, squeaky clean ambience of the Disney Channel movies remains intact in this third installment. The series celebrates the pure, sunny joys of innocence. Unlike the Harry Potter films, which test their characters in increasingly painful challenges as they mature, the guiding principle here appears to be, “Don’t mess with success.” Or perhaps, “Keep it simple, stupid.” The film has one purpose: to be cheerful. Antagonists, worries, any kind of emotional roughage that might enrich the mix, are rigorously excluded.
So in place of songs that illuminate character, frame a situation or advance the story — as in “Grease,” “Hairspray” and classic Disney musicals — we get bland ballads with lots of heart, but little personality. They’re not lyrically distinguished or melodically memorable. They don’t feel like they’re expressing the characters’ deepest feelings. But they’re upbeat. The dances are inserted into the proceedings awkwardly, not where the story demands them, but they’re visually busy and energetic.
Efron smiles and flips his bangs fetchingly, and when he slips off his basketball jersey, you can hear girlish gasps all over the auditorium. He’s a nice, chaste, transitional fantasy for girls who have outgrown My Little Pony, but his acting chops don’t match his appearance. Tisdale makes a meal of her spoiled-fashionista role, and Grabeel is both fey and dashing as her gender-questionable brother. What’s unfortunate isn’t that this is a bad film, but rather that it had the potential to be such a good one and fell short.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186