Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m old and have bad taste, but Disney’s High School Musical 3: Senior Year kept reminding of my favorite bad movie musical of all time: Grease 2.
You’ve got a story that goes nowhere, a primary romantic couple that hits a few road blocks but ends up together, a cap-tossing graduation scene and the must unrealistic school musical of all time (in Grease 2 it involves the wretchedly wonderful production number “Girl for All Seasons”). You’ve also got a leading man in a salvage yard (in Grease 2, Maxwell Caulfield is building the ultimate chick-magnet motorcycle) and a song that echoes one of the worst numbers ever: “Who’s That Guy?” (in HSM3 the line occurs during a paean to prom night called “A Night to Remember,” which also happens to be the name of a movie about the Titanic, but I digress).
Surely, HSM3 is far more accomplished than Grease 2, and the stable of Disney stars, now in their final round of HSM servitude, actually appear to be close to their characters’ age and not 35. Though all those fresh-faced kids should mightily try to avoid playing high school students in their ensuing projects.
I’ll say this about Senior Year — it’s not as good as HSM2, which just about gets the formula perfect, and it’s a heck of a lot more fun than the dreadful, soul-numbing movie version of Mamma Mia!.
Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens are as appealing as ever, though Efron’s charisma pretty much blows pretty Vanessa off the screen. Ashley Tisdale, with her sassy new nose, has fun with her ultra-bitchy character, Sharpay, though on the big screen it becomes quite apparent that Ms. Tisdale is not a great actress, nor does she have a whole lot of comic flair. Lucas Grabeel (right) as Sharpay’s, twin, Ryan, is mostly consigned to reaction shots as Sharpay flounces about, flipping her extensions and making the most of her cutie cute outfits. I’m a little sorry Ryan doesn’t get to fully come out of the closet and take a boy to prom. Instead he takes Kelsi(Olesya Rulin), the “composer” of the school shows. I’m not sure if that means Kelsi is a budding lesbian and the two recognize each other through the golden high school haze or Kelsi is doomed to a life of fag haggery. I’m hoping for the former. For the best analysis of HSM3 as gay metaphor, check out Prince Gomolvilas’ Bamboo Nation report here.
The songs in this final installment, well, they stall. There’s a sameness to them such that when there’s a reprise of “We’re All in This Together,” it’s like a fresh New Mexico breeze. Efron sounds like a boy band standby and Hudgens sounds more than a little electronic, which is strange.
Sharpay and Ryan’s Broadway-size duet, “I Want It All,” is fun, but the best all-around number is Efron’s duet with Corbin Bleu, “The Boys Are Back,” complete with a childhood flashback and an homage to Kevin Bacon in Footloose, the remake of which happens to be a future Efron project. Sure Efron’s got the goods, but Bleu matches him in the charisma department, and of all the HSM stable other than Efron, this is the guy to watch.
The ballads are boring, but because the budget is bigger this time out, we get boring ballads in the rain, in a rotating treehouse and on the Stanford campus. Oddly, many of the production numbers are performed on moving sets that appear to be stage ready — could it be director Kenny Ortega is just making it easier for the inevitable stage productions of HSM3 to replicate its “movie” magic?
The choreography — by Ortega, Chucky Klapow (sorry, credited onscreen as Charles Klapow) and Bonnie Story is actually a lot of fun. There’s a heavy Michael Jackson influence and a whole lot of irresistible energy. Watching the beefed-up cast dance to the lame title song (it took three tries to finally get a song called “High School Musical”?), it made me sad for Ortega — not that he needs my pity, but I lamented the missed opportunity known as Newsies, the early ’90s Disney musical helmed by Ortega that should have been great. If Ortega had only had anything approaching this budget (reported to be measly $13 million but still bigger than the TV versions), he might have made Newsies something more than a wonderfully awful little musical that has spawned gazillions of fans over the years.
This is innocuous movie musical making, and there’s surely a place for that (no one has quite revived the harmless spirit of the old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musicals quite as effectively). But I wanted this final installment, since it already has the attention of the world, to be a little bolder and fold some real life into the fantasy. There was a chance to be great or be fabulously bad — like Grease 2 — but that would have required taking a risk, and this money-minting Disney thoroughbred wasn’t about to do any such thing.
And now, just because I worked up an appetite for it, here’s Michelle Pfeiffer singing “Cool Rider” set to a montage of scenes from, yep, Grease 2.