The preferred method for consuming an episode of Disney’s revolutionary High School Musical franchise is to watch the debut on television while DVR-ing it, and then watch it again, and again . . . and again. So don’t ask me for the final verdict on HSM3 just yet – I’ll let you know how it holds up after I’ve been force-marched through its glittery production numbers a few dozen times. Multiply that dynamic by a viewing audience of several million teenagers and you’ve got one of the reasons HSM3 seems destined to have less of a cultural impact than its straight-to-cable predecessors — at least until the inevitable karaoke bonus edition DVD hits shelves. (Then again, HSM3 took in $42 million in opening-weekend receipts – maybe the audience’s watch/rinse/repeat viewing pattern is paying off at the box office.)
While Senior Year makes the most of its big-screen debut by increasing the body counts in its group-choreography numbers, it’s a smaller movie. For shits and giggles, I watched HSM3 the way its intended audience will – and I’m pleased to report the plot lines are so predictable that text-messaging furiously between songs will not prevent you from following them. The hero of this third installment is, oddly, not its star – the Travolta-like pinup Zac Efron as working-class b-ball captain Troy Bolton. As HSM3 opens, the West Side Story-book romance between Troy and Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) fizzles as an inevitable college dispersal looms (or maybe Vanessa’s still pissed about those naked photos on the Internet) and so center stage is ceded to the fight among the cast for a competitive scholarship to Julliard. What transpires is cleverer than what Disney’s chaff-of-late-capitalism machine is generally given credit for. The HSM franchise likes to frame East High’s class struggles in bubblegum-Marxist terms, and Senior Year is no exception: there’s Gabriella, alienated from her artistic talents and tractor-beamed towards the corporate path mapped out by her petit-bourgeouise mother; the proletarian student composer Kelsi (Olesya Rulin), who turns this year’s East High spring musicale into a celebration of social realism; and spoiled rich-bitch Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale), the trilogy’s obligatory Disney villain, undone by greed, privilege, and powerlust. As the Star Wars trilogy was eventually revealed to be a story about the redemption of Darth Vader, so does HSM3 reveal the trilogy as an arc about the redemption of Sharpay’s flamboyant, showtune-loving brother and former partner-in-crime Ryan (Lukas Grabeel). Marionetting Troy and Gabriella through their moves as HSM3’s musical-within-a-musical takes shape, Ryan becomes a barely-veiled stand-in for director/choreographer Kenny Ortega (whose storied career includes Madonna’s “Material Girl” video in the 1980s, and arguable surpassed HSM itself with Miley Cyrus’s record-breaking “Best of Both Worlds” concert/film last year). It’s only when the characters are removed from their Hollywood soundstages and thrust into East High’s auditorium – with revolving-door set changes that double as a blueprint for the inevitable high-school productions and ice-capade tours to follow – that Senior Year hits Ortega’s high notes of collaborative egalitarianism.
112 minutes | Boston Common + Fenway + Fresh Pond + Chestnut Hill + Suburbs