Okay, let's talk about "High School Musical 3," a.k.a. "High School Musical: The Movie."
After a surprise 2006 made-for-TV hit and a 2007 direct-to-video sequel proved that the public was still insatiable when it came to an appetite for all things Troy and Gabriella, Disney did the only logical (and humane) thing: they made a third film for the big screen, which was a big deal. It wasn't quite on a par with fathers racing against each other in high heels to win Hannah Montana tickets for their daughters, but parents who watched the first two films with their offspring eagerly awaited the chance to plunk down money and sink into a chair at the local multiplex. Because, let's face it, if our kids are going to go nuts over something, we'd prefer that it was something wholesome. HSM isn't the high school of today--the one with gangs, drugs, teen pregnancies, attitude, f-bombs, and disrespectful students. It's an idealized, squeaky clean version of high school that makes "Grease" look like the "Blackboard Jungle" by comparison. And happy? These kids wouldn't recognize angst if it bit them on the butt. That's because everyone is a winner in some way, and the Disney message is that all you kids can be princesses (I mean, winners) too . . . like the movie itself, which opened on 3,623 screens and topped "Mamma Mia!" for the first-weekend take ($42 million).
My wife, who took our daughter to the theater, came away from it thinking "High School Musical 3" was the best one yet. My seven year old, meanwhile, wouldn't commit. She liked all of them equally, which, of course, is what Disney is counting on. And me? When the Blu-ray screener arrived and we made our bowls of popcorn and grabbed our usual seats in the living room, I merely hoped for a film that was less self-conscious than the sequel. Give me a Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) that wasn't so "gosh am I cute" giggly and flirtatious in every frame, and a Troy (Zac Efron) that wasn't flexing or striking a GQ pose every time the camera was on him. Give me a plot that made more sense and musical numbers that were better integrated into the film, the way it was with the original.
But maybe that's because the structure of HSM3 is so similar to the original. It's senior year, and the gang is starting to feel down-in-the-mouth because they're going separate ways and high school will soon be behind them. See what I mean about idealistic? Half the people I went to high school with couldn't wait to leave! What's curious, too, is that Peter Barsocchini has already been announced as the writer (again) for "High School Musical 4," which is projected for a 2009 TV release, so what's left to report if they've all gone away? A homecoming? Anyway, while winning the big game was the climax of HSM, in HSM3 it's the opening sequence. What do you do after you win back-to-back state championships in basketball? You trigger the same kind of theme (this is my parents' dream for me, not mine) as Troy and his brainy girlfriend wrestled with in the first two films. All of the kids are anxious and feeling just a little lost . . . except for Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale), who's easily the most attractive and charming nemesis ever inserted into a Hollywood formula. Sharpay wants a career in acting, and the diva has plans to make this year's spring musical a one-person show, much to the amazement of her "better half"--brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel). When composer-pianist Kelsi (Olesya Rulin) signs everyone up for the musical to keep that from happening, at first they all balk. But soon they realize that mounting a production together gives them one more gynormous way to bond before leaving high school.
In a way, HSM3 reminds me a little of "White Christmas," which was constructed simply as a showcase for the song that emerged as a surprise hit in "Holiday Inn." The plot--a show put on for a beloved commander--was really just an excuse for the songs and dances. That's the way this 117-minute "extended version" plays out, too. It's all about the show.
What struck me, though, is how Broadway everything seemed. Though HSM3 is easily the most cinematographic of the three, all of the production numbers are high-concept Broadway tunes with elaborate staging. Disney has had success in recent years with movies like "The Lion King" and "Mary Poppins" transitioning to the stage, and I couldn't shake the feeling that maybe HSM3 was laying the groundwork for a Broadway and national touring company run.
It's that Broadway quality that makes HSM3 appealing. Otherwise, it's the same-old, same-old. Recruiters are still after Troy to join his father's alma mater, and Gabriella is still heading for her mom's Stanford dream, robot-like. Minor characters like Troy's best buddy Chad (Corbin Bleu), his girlfriend Taylor (Monique Coleman), and pianist-composer Kelsi get far more air time, and that should delight fans who will recognize far too many tropes from the first film (like Troy sharing his secret place treehouse in this installment, rather than the school rooftop). This time Sharpay gets an assistant, too, a scheming little British exchange student (Jemma McKenzie-Brown) with a Sharpay streak in her a mile wide. The additional five minutes that were added to this version are quiet moments that add a little more depth to character relationships and give fans a little more breathing room between big numbers.
What's interesting is that writer Barsocchini and director Kenny Ortega blur the line between the show and the emotions and situations that the kids are experiencing. There are times when you think it's "real," when really it turns out to be a number they're rehearsing. That blurred line is made possible by the theme of the production: "Senior Year."
But as I said, HSM3 is all about the singing and dancing. In this respect, it's easily the best of the three films. If there's a weak link, it's Hudgens' overprocessed throaty warbling that sounds like every other teen diva. But every number is staged with more energy, inventiveness, athleticism, and degree of difficulty than anything we saw in the previous installments. And the production and set design by Mark Hofeling and Ken Kirchner is, to borrow Sharpay's favorite word, fabulous. It's pure Broadway, and the talent level is such that you really don't mind watching these numbers again and again. Here too, though, they stick to the basic formula, with a big opening and closing number, ballads sung by the stars, duets, a Sharpay and Ryan showcase, and a couple of "guy" numbers. "I Want it All" (featuring Tisdale and Grabeel) is particularly fun, but so is "A Night to Remember," which has the boys and girls getting ready for prom. And "High School Musical" is that tie-the-bow song that makes you believe this is really the end of the line for the franchise.
So what about HSM4? If you read the interview with the HSM guys we recently published, you know that Efron said the door is wide open . . . if Disney wants them. So will it be minor characters carrying on, with a few major stars putting in cameos? That would be my guess. But I do know that HSM3 is as good as the original movie--not because of the plotting, but because of the music and dance. It's more musical than even the first one, and Ortega's choreography, combined with songs written by Matthew Gerrard,, Robbie Nevil, Jamie Houston, Andy Dodd, Adam Watts, Randy Peterson, and Kevin Quinn make this a feel-good romp of a "Senior Year."
Great picture! The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is a sparkling one, with natural-looking skin tones and vivid colors that (according to my wife) match what she saw in the theater. There are no visible artifacts from the transfer to a BD-50 dual-layered disc, and in 1.85:1 ratio there's a nice broad "stage" for the kids to dance and prance across. Black levels are strong, and the amount of detail is, well, fabulous.
Disney went with an English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio (48 kHz/24-bit) featured soundtrack on this title, and it does a good job of distributing the energy across the speakers. Bass notes are resonant without vibrating too much, and the treble and mid-tones are crisp and clean. No distortion or background noise. There's an additional audio option in Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, English SDH, and Spanish. Again, this is a dynamic soundtrack.
For a last hurrah (for many of the cast), you'd think that there would have been more in the way of bonus features. This is a three-disc Blu-ray set, but disc two is a DVD version and disc three is a digital copy that can be downloaded onto portable media. That leaves disc one, which, aside from the movie, has these same short features as the Extended Edition DVD: Deleted scenes (with intros by Ortega), HSM 3 bloopers, the cast talking about HSM and bidding each other and all of us farewell, a short feature on the girls of East High talking about their prom dresses, and cast members talking about their own proms as well as their movie one. Rounding out the bonus features is a sing-along function that allows you to play karaoke with this new batch of HSM songs. It's an okay bundle of features, but given the hype I frankly expected more.
"High School Musical 3" might be redundant and formulaic, but with such excellent music, choreography, and production design, it's at least as good as the original.
And when was the last time a G-rated movie had this much energy? While the real test will come with HSM4 and a new cast, this group proved that, like their characters, they could go out in style. Did I mention that the dancing and choreography are amazing?