High School Musical 3: Senior Years–Starring Zac Efron

Like its two TV predecessors, Disney’s High School Musical 3: Senior Year is more significant as a socio-cultural and demographic than artistic phenomenon.
Starring fave high school student Zac Efron, who is quickly becoming a heartthrob for the teenage generation, the musical is both simple and simplistic, but commercially, it’s critics-proof. No doubt, the film will get mixed to negative reviews from the harsher reviewers, but conventional and unpretentious to a fault, “HSM 3” (as it is now known) represents unadulterated fun, a movie that at once caters to and exploits its demographic status.

“HSM 3” is directed and choreographed by Emmy Award-winning Kenny Ortega, who helmed the first two films for the Disney Channel; he adds duties as executive producer. A shrewd filmmaker, Ortega knows that in a few years star Efron, who just turned 21, will be unable to play those roles anymore, and thus he exploits his on-screen charisma and his off-screen fame to the max. It’s fair to say that scribe Peter Barsocchini has compiled (or tabulated) the yarn’s ideas into a rudimentary structure rather than write a coherent, involving scenario, with fully developed characters and conflicts.

And, indeed, producer Bill Borden acknowledges that, “The phenomenon of ‘High School Musical’ began, because I wanted to make a musical that I could sit down and watch with my kids.” In this respect, “HSM 3” is an ideal family fare – what parents will object to their daughter dating a nice, clean-cut, honest, and hard-working guy like Efron’s Troy Old-fashioned, the musical is the closest we have had to a reincarnation of the Micky Rooney-Judy Garland MGM musicals of the 1930s and early 1940s, once again revolving around the plot of “Let’s put on a show.” The narrative premise is simplicity itself: Amidst a basketball championship, prom and a big spring musical featuring all of the Wildcats, Troy and Gabriella vow to make every moment as joyful and lasting as possible, since their college plans (and dreams) threaten to put their relationship in question, perhaps even terminate it.

A crew of sophomore Wildcats (Matt Prokop, Justin Martin, Jemma McKenzie-Brown) joins the more veteran ensemble. Other actors reprising their roles from the first two Disney Channel movies include Olysya Rulin, Chris Warren Jr., Ryne Sanborn, Kaycee Stroh, Bart Johnson, and Alyson Reed. As a genre, the musical had seen a minor revival over the past seven years, with the success of adult fare such as “Moulin Rouge!” and “Chicago,” but, strangely enough, the teen viewers, who constitutes the primary target audience for Hollywood pictures, was neglected.
There were always musicals for teenagers, beginning with MGM’s musicals starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. In the 1960s, we had “West Side Story,” and the saccharin family musical “The Sound of Music” (both Oscar-winners of their respective years). Then in the late 1970s, we saw the young Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease.”

All of the above are A-list musicals in terms of production values, scale, and talent. Combining elements of music and sports, the HSM movies belong more to the genre of the B-list musicals, borderline exploitation flicks, such as the 1960s Beach Party movies. Remember Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in “Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965) and its sequel, How to Stuff a Bikini” (how’s that for a title), arguably the sassiest of the five or six movies made with the team. The story of HSM 3 is told from a musical point of view in a lighthearted, joyful way, consciously steering clear of any serious issues or complicated characters. As high school seniors, the filmmakers give the adolescents all the pressures and anxieties that “average” high school seniors face about prom, final exams, graduation, and going away.

No doubt, the movie could use better songs, more energetic choreography, subtler mise-en-scene, less ostentatious color palette, but it delivers the basic goods in an appealingly joyous package (and it is a package), which is infectious. You can easily understand sociologically why the three movies are such a cultural phenom. Dealing with universal themes of growing up, the two previous installments became Cable TV’s highest-ever-rated telecast, highest-ever-rated Disney Channel movies, two multi-platinum soundtracks, a concert tour, an ice show, numerous awards and accolades, and a source of joy to teens all over the world.

(Disney’s exit polls report that the prevous TV movies even had an inspirational effect on youth. Go figure!)