It’s days before Halloween, and Kenny Ortega’s High School Musical 3: Senior Year—Disney’s love letter to everything that is upbeat and cheery—has beat the box-office gross of the holiday stalwart, Saw V, by nearly $3 million. While this may say something about the quality of the previous four Saws, it’s actually more an indicator of the almighty tween-girl market.
If judged solely by box-office totals and the film’s ability to please its target audience, the movie’s certainly a success. Honestly, I’d have been more amazed if the film had been a failure, given the limited demands of the movie’s rabid teenybopper fan base. All the filmmakers had to do to guarantee the film’s success was provide a sufficient number of close-ups of heartthrob Zac Efron’s (Hairspray) face and the opportunity for him to take his shirt off.
Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with this approach. This kind of pre-teen-centric entertainment has, and always will, exist. As long as there is Tiger Beat magazine, there will be the Efrons and Jonas Brothers of the world. But as anything other than a 12-year-old girl’s escapist fantasy, High School Musical 3 is a tedious, undistinguished, just plain dull mess.
Since the previous two installments of High School Musical were purely TV affairs, I have not had the opportunity—nay, the privilege—of seeing either one, though I can honestly say that I was never lost in the film’s story line. In fact, all you seemingly need to know is that the series is set in high school and there are musical numbers.
There is a plot, involving the G-rated trials and tribulations of being a TV-pretty, affluent, neatly categorized teen. When the film’s biggest issue is school hunk Troy’s (Efron) faulty fuel pump, there’s a definite lack of tension going on. But it’s all simply a means of getting from one song to another. The tunes are of the over-produced, radio-friendly pop variety, with not a one of them being memorable. They also make the fatal mistake of having little to do with advancing the story, so instead of the movie creating any genuine flow or pace, you get things like five minutes of singing and dancing about basketball.
Ortega’s direction doesn’t help either, since his idea of shooting a musical number is having people line up in rows and dance, while having the camera pan left, right and occasionally—one would assume while he’s feeling saucy—up. Thankfully, none of it’s as shrill or pound-you-in-the-face happy as Mamma Mia! (2008), but at least that movie was vaguely entertaining in a wrongheaded train wreck sort of way. Maybe Ortega should’ve taken a cue from Meryl Streep and had Efron goosed by a goat. But even so, High School Musical probably still would’ve been boring.
Things aren’t helped by the fact that Disney’s forced the film to be as white-bread as possible. I understand that this is just good, wholesome family entertainment, but what need is there for the obviously enchanted choreographer (Lucas Grabeel, College Road Trip) to be shoehorned into a relationship with the nerdy girl (Oleysa Rulin, Forever Strong)? Actually, I’m amazed—with the constant forced saccharine happiness and the random breakings out into song—that anyone could attend this school without dying from ennui or Type II diabetes.
But ultimately, the film is—with its built-in audience of preteen girls and their parents’ disposable income—critic-proof, which means we’ll probably be seeing High School Musical: The College Years coming down the pike in a few years. Personally, I’m hoping they go for a musical adaptation of Roger Avary’s The Rules of Attraction, but that’s simply because I have high hopes for the hit song “It’s Toe-Tag Time in Teen Town Tonight Again.” Rated G.