Dir: Kenny Ortega. US. 2008. 109 mins.
Testing the maxim that happiness can't be contrived, High School Musical 3: Senior Year sets off a joy bomb, and attempts to charm tween audiences through an explosion of primary colours, bright production design and sheer, indefatigable force of will. The first film in the Disney Channel's hit TV movie series to receive a theatrical release is a relentlessly chipper toe-tapper, bluntly effective in its staged cathartic moments but powered by a puttering dramatic engine.
Previous evidence of the crossover power of the Disney brand can be found in the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds 3-D concert release earlier this year; never playing in more than 687 theatres, the movie opened to $31 million, and finished with over $65 million domestically. Similarly relying upon its huge built-in audience, High School Musical 3 should do big business with appreciative adolescents and their families. Internationally, the Disney brand has effectively built up its fanbase through TV outlets as well and the waters will be tested here theatrically.
Against the spring backdrop of their senior year, half a dozen students at New Mexico's Eastern High try to juggle competing interests and figure out the paths to their respective futures. Fresh off winning their second state basketball championship, school hunk and big-man-on-campus Troy (Efron) seems destined to follow in his father's footsteps to the local university by accepting a basketball scholarship alongside his best friend Chad (Bleu). Giving Troy pause, though, is the fact that his girlfriend Gabriella (Hudgens) is headed out-of-state to Stanford.
As they prepare for one last school musical, eagerly anticipated by the self-involved Sharpay (Tisdale) and her more open-hearted twin brother Ryan (Grabeel), the group's drama teacher adds a wrinkle to events by announcing that recruiters from Juilliard, the prestigious performing arts academy, will be on hand to observe and award one scholarship to a student.
Returning series director Kenny Ortega creates an immaculately presented fashion showcase, and places a heavy emphasis on theatrical gesticulation that makes High School Musical 3 seem ever solicitous of its audience's feelings, in ways perhaps contrived but no less forceful and effective.
A couple of musical numbers are shot in a seemingly-hurried fashion, with tight alternating close-ups, but for the most part there's a nice fleshing-out consistent with the bump in production values from the previous made-for-television movies. Sharpay and Ryan's I Want It All offers up a Broadway homage, while celebratory prom tune Night to Remember cheekily tweaks the very musical theatre roots that helped make the TV film such a success.
Somewhat unfortunately, the conflict here is of the paint-by-numbers variety, even for teen dramas. Sharpay's conniving and antagonism is rather blithely dispensed with and never carries over to later scenes. Similarly, because it's not evidenced by actual friction in their relationship, the emotional drift between Gabriella and Troy as they prepare for different post-high school paths never seems like more than a set-up for a song. Troy, too, often seems an incidental bystander in his own unfolding future, the one exception to this being My Own Dream, which is the movie's requisite Footloose-style, angsty teen solo number.
That said, there's not much in the film's look or execution to dissuade embrace by its core audience. Production design and overall packaging are slick, and the performances are sunny and engaging.
The chorus of the closing number ('High school musical/Who says we have to let it go'/It's the best story we've ever known'), meanwhile, is more than just wistful reflection; by integrating a freshmen cast (Matt Prokop, Justin Martin and Jemma McKenzie-Brown, the latter of the three colourfully inheriting the mantle of diva-dom from Sharpay) into the picture, the franchise seems certain to live on, if perhaps back on the small screen.
Borden & Rosenbush Entertainment
Walt Disney Pictures
Chris Warren Jr.