The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
High School Musical 3: Senior Year

Reviewed by Anna Cooper Sloan.

Director Kenny Ortega
Length 112 mins
Certificate U
Rating *****-----
Filmmaking: 1  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article High School Musical 3: Senior Year is a charming hybrid of the musical and teen movie genres. The adorable Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens play the romantic and musical leads - two seniors who, along with the rest of the cast, are working on a final play to put on for their graduating class. The plot is thin, involving some nonsense about a scholarship to Juilliard and devious intrigue on the part of a bitchy blonde named Sharpay (played almost too well by Ashley Tisdale). Yet the music is buoyant, the dancing is creative and fun, and the whole affair is thoroughly enjoyable in that facile way that Hollywood can do so well.

If you are asking yourself, ‘How did I miss High School Musicals I and 2?’ then I would like to assuage your latent fears by telling you: You are likely not crazy or senile, and have not spent the last 3 years in a cave. Rather, the first two films of the series were released initially on television in the United States and went on to enjoy great popularity on DVD, especially amongst the pre-teen female demographic. In this latest addition, Disney has gone for the fiscal gold with a worldwide theatrical release.

True to classic Disney form, High School Musical 3 is more or less entirely honest about its status as the primary hype-generator in a brazen pursuit of tie-in profits. Nowadays they don’t even wait for you to leave the cinema before they start bombarding you with franchise-related advertising: before the movie began, in lieu of the usual trailers, there were advertisements for High School Musical games (on Wii, Playstation and X-Box), toys, and soundtrack albums. Only Hannah Montana is more ubiquitous than Zac Efron’s face these days on Chinese-made plastic bric-a-brac and cereal boxes. You don’t know whether to envy or pity the boy.

Now that the obvious is out of the way, the apologia can begin. It is almost too easy to dismiss this film on any number of grounds: not only its overt commercialism but also its lack of seriousness, its conventionality, its blatant pandering to the whims of pre-teen culture, or - perhaps most of all - its bizarre fantasy with regard to racial and cultural divisions, and the way these play out in terms of the film’s geography (more on this in the Alternate Take). Yet for all that, I found myself liking the film.

Before I explain why, I wish to point out that the criteria by which we judge a musical are, and should be, very different from the criteria by which we judge many other kinds of films. Musicals move relatively slowly, carrying out their own, rather peculiar sense of the passage of time; plots are by and large predictable; ‘acting’ skills are of little importance compared to singing and dancing abilities. So it would be a category error to say, for example, that High School Musical 3 kept us on the edge of our seats, or that the performances of the actors moved us.

Instead, it should be the highest praise of a musical that it unfolds at just the right pace, neither too fast nor too slow; that the music and dancing were a delightful spectacle; that the players were affable and charismatic; and that the whole was integrated into an engaging, gracious experience. And High School Musical 3 does all these things to a degree not easily surpassed. The dancing, I’d like to add, was especially remarkable in this case, with significant nods to hip-hop, breakdancing and parkours. But this is not to deride the rest of the film - only to point out its special strength.

The musical is the supreme Hollywood entertainment - the most peerlessly commercialised as well as one of the most masterful of Hollywood genres. Recent examples such as Chicago (2002) and Moulin Rouge! (2001) amply demonstrate Hollywood’s continued ability, in spite of our current age of distrustful postmodernism, to turn out musicals which genuinely delight. High School Musical 3 lacks the epic ambitions of these others, but for that it deserves a place in this pantheon: its very understatedness, its simple faith in the continued value of entertainment for entertainment’s sake - like Mozart compared to Wagner - is its highest virtue, and one that is all to often drowned out by the bombast of today’s Hollywood.

This review was published on February 08, 2009.

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