HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL - Blu-ray review

High School Musical has never looked better . . . and in 1.78 widescreen, for the first time!

James Plath's picture

"High School Musical Remix"?

Lest anyone become confused, this is the original made-for-TV "High School Musical" movie that debuted on the Disney Channel on January 20, 2006. Teens and 'tweens liked what they saw in promo teasers, and "High School Musical" drew 7.7 million viewers--the biggest audience to date for a Disney TV offering. That was the first surprise, especially since the movie was filmed in just 24 days and the soundtrack recorded in five.

But while the studio had been making live-action movies aimed at teens since teens started making out in the backs of their parents' cars, no one at Disney could have predicted the enormous response that would follow or that its actors would become megastars overnight. Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens won the Teen Choice Award for Choice Chemistry, and Efron also was named Choice Breakout Star. Kenny Ortega's energetic choreography earned an Emmy, and the "High School Musical" CD won Billboard Soundtrack Album of the Year. Just another Disney Channel movie? Not!

It's safe to say that not many made-for-TV movies inspire sequels. But "High School Musical" was a concept that was almost too big for its medium, right from the start, with two sequels and a third in the works. Almost immediately there were HSM backpacks, lunch boxes, dolls, kitchenware, jewelry, clothing, games, and all sorts of products designed for young fans who couldn't get enough. It wasn't just teens and 'tweens who rallied around the merchandising campaign--it was grade school children of all ages. And watching alongside them were parents who were surprised to see such a high level of plotting, dancing, and energy on a crank-it-out Disney offering.

Now, finally, the movie that started it all is out on Blu-ray, and it looks really good. The master remixers and remasters at Disney have cleaned up both the video and audio to try to give this film the treatment it deserves. Though they were working with the limitations of throwaway source materials, I can report that "High School Musical" has never looked better . . . and in 1.78:1 widescreen, for the first time!

The movie is a clever "Romeo and Juliet" and "Grease" update that mixes themes that both genders can identify with. East High basketball star Troy Bolton (Efron) is spending New Year's Eve at a ski lodge with his parents, one of whom happens to be his coach. At their insistence he wanders down to the "kiddie" party and finds himself suddenly spotlighted and pushed onstage to sing a karaoke duet--with, it turns out, a pretty Latina named Gabriella Montez (Hudgens) who's been the brainiac wiz-kid at every school in her much-traveled life. Kindred spirits, they're both shy and they both secretly love to sing, and they turn out to be quite good at it. They click, and "The Start of Something New" truly becomes that when Gabriella turns up (as Sandy did in "Grease") as the new kid in school.

At East High, though, it's "Stick to the Status Quo," and skate punks, brainiacs, jocks, and other cliques are expected to act according to type and socialize only with those of like mind. So how are Troy and Gabriella to get past that? Normally that would be enough plot for a made-for-TV movie, but "High School Musical" has a slight postmodern twist: it's not just a musical about high school; it's a musical about high school students making a "High School Musical."

Troy and Gabriella's homeroom teacher is the drama diva, Ms. Darbus (Alyson Reed), who says everything with theatrical flair and who conducts auditions that are "American Idol" funny for their sheer awfulness and her delicious responses. But as far as rich brother and sister Sharpay and Ryan Evans (Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel) are concerned, the lead parts are already theirs. They've starred in every production thus far, and it throws their world off-kilter when they get wind that Gabriella and Troy might also audition. And when the four of them get a callback, it's benign Disney villain time as Sharpay does what she can to keep their rivals from winning. Throw in a state basketball championship that's on the line, and an academic competition that Gabriella's involved in, and you've got plenty of things going on in the space of 98 minutes.

So what makes it so phenomenal? A number of things, really, starting with the cast. The new stars are warm, personable, and distinctive. There's no confusing them, and you end up liking all of them, even minor characters, who are given bigger roles with each new sequel-characters like best-bud jock Chad (Corbin Bleu), brainy Taylor (Monique Coleman), or the talented pianist-composer who represents the "geek" population (Olesya Rulin as Kelsi). What's more, HSM is an "attitude-free" zone, and the parents in this film are as likable as their offspring--no dopes here. The broadest character is, in fact, the drama teacher, but we see her in "down" moments too, which reinforces that her speaking with flair is part of her teaching. Among the young set, Sharpay and Ryan are played for comedy, but even that's more subtle than the typical Disney TV fare.

The script by Peter Barsocchini is also a nice surprise. There's a natural balance of funny moments that aren't too strained and scenes involving romance or teen angst. But mostly there's the music and dancing. Director Kenny Ortega is a choreographer, so Disney went with someone who could infuse this production with energy and put dance and music at its center. Here too there's a nice balance, from romantic duets to soul-searching solos, and memorable fun songs as well as two big production numbers-one in the cafeteria, and the other a "Grease"-like finale.

Yes, it's aimed at a young audience, but just as you don't have to be a fan of Westerns to enjoy "Paint Your Wagon," you don't have to be a teen to appreciate this energetic musical. And I think that, for Disney, was probably the biggest surprise of all. Parents actually watch this and looked forward to taking their kids to see "High School Musical 3" when it made the leap from TV to the big screen. As I said, this film wanted to be bigger from the start.

The DVD of "High School Musical" had a bunch of grain, and by comparison there's only the slightest grain in the Blu-ray, and it's not constant. I think the folks at Disney did a fantastic job of cleaning up this franchise flagship, using a flawless AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a BD-50 dual-layered disc and apparently applying edge enhancement with such subtlety that you wouldn't notice unless you compared the indistinct shapes from the DVD. I can't say that there's a vibrant plasticity to the surface, though, because there are scenes that look a little soft. But again, compared to the DVD it's like night and day, the Blu-ray is so superior in quality. There are also no noticeable artifacts in the transfer. Nice job, Disney!

Kudos too for giving fans a space-consuming PCM audio track to really make these remixed songs sparkle. The English 5.1 uncompressed audio (48 kHz/24-bit) really has a nice pop to it on the big numbers, and on breathless ballads you don't hear any hiss or distortion whatsoever. The mix does a good job of delivering pure tones at both ends. Additional options in English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 aren't as robust and seem to have a narrower spread across the front speakers. Subtitles are in English SDH, French and Spanish.

There are no Blu-ray exclusives. Mostly it's music, and mostly it's for young viewers. There are music videos of "I Can't Take My Eyes off of You," "We're All in This Together," "Breaking Free" (remix), "We're All in This Together" (remix), and "Eres Tu." You can also choose to watch the movie as a sing-along, with lyrics popping up on the screen. Young Zac and Vanessa wannabes will enjoy the Disney Channel Dance-Alongs and a four-minute feature that shows the cast learning some of their moves, including different angles and the final production. The Dance-Alongs provide some actual instruction.

The "making-of" feature is under 10 minutes. Normally I'd wave this off as a pre-release promo, but given the enormous success of HSM it's kind of fun to hear the cast talk about a much smaller film, in their minds. Rounding out the bonus features is a six-minute "reunion" clip that doesn't tell you much, and an under two-minute clip of "The Hollywood Premiere," which is really just a DVD launch with interviews.

Bottom Line:
Disney did an amazing job cleaning up some awfully rough source materials to offer a Blu-ray of "High School Musical" that looks surprisingly good. And in widescreen, what's not to like? But fans wanting more in the way of bonus features are going to have to buy "High School Musical 3," which offers plenty on all three films.


Film Value