High School Musical 3: The Critic's Review

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Fred Hayes / Disney Enterprises Inc. / AP

From left, Vanessa Hudgens, Zac Efron, Ashley Tisdale and Jason Williams in High School Musical 3

The lights snap off at the Empire Theatre on Times Square and a piercing chorus of girls' squeals instantly fills the room, zero to sixty in a half-second, like audio-electroshock therapy or the first jolt of Beatlemania. It's a release of energy the Disney marketeers have savvily built up since High School Musical made its debut on the Disney Channel in Jan. 2006. The TV movie broke ratings records, and so did its spinoff CD, which was the year's top-selling album in the U.S. Last year's High School Musical 2, also on the Disney Channel, topped that: the CD was #1 in America and the world. But all this was so much seed-sowing for the first installment — High School Musical 3: Senior Year — to play in movie theaters. Industry savants are predicting a robust $35 million gross this weekend, which could amount to the all-time biggest tweener pajama party.

The squealing at the Empire told you that kids (mostly girls) who are the franchise's target audience know the difference between watching a TV movie at home and seeing their idols on a 50-foot screen. The smooth adorableness of teen dream Zac Efron is now available in giant economy size. The deep dimples of his costar Vanessa Hudgens now loom, in microscopic close-up, like the mountain crevasses in an IMAX travelog; a bear cub could hibernate in one of them. And the dance numbers — the real reason some adults don't mind a 100-min. HSM babysit — now have the size and breadth they deserve. High School Musical 3 is High School Movie 1.

Written by Peter Barsocchini and directed by Kenny Ortega — the team behind the first two films — HSM3 takes us back to Albuquerque's East High School, where jock-muffin Troy (Efron) met and fell in love with brainy exchange student Gabriella (Hudgens) in the original HSM; they and their pals all took summer jobs at a local resort in HSM2. Now it's senior year, a time for looking back and ahead, for wondering whether the friendships soldered at East High will be sundered as the kids move on to college. Can they remain Best Friends Forever? Gab has been accepted to Stanford; Troy is expected to be the star of the local U. of A. basketball team. But before they graduate they must compose, stage and star in a musical about the relationships they've formed in the last four years. They'll call it... High School Musical!

That a 5ft. 9in. white kid would be seen as a hoops savior is just one cue that the HSM movies dwell in a Disney fantasyland. Another is the obsessively color-coordinated outfits the kids wear to school, and touches of extravagant decor, like Troy's tree house, as big as an Astaire-Rogers Deco suite, redecorated in retro-rustic. (The roof opens too, apparently at voice command.) The biggest leap of make-believe is that the high school experience is wunnnnnderful — though this view is no less reductive than the one, in so many comedies and horror movies, that says high school is a Hades of sadistic cliques in constant turmoil. Where films in those genres go for the gross, the G-rated HSM is freakishly squeakishly clean. Nobody's going to say a bad word or poop in the soup. What Disneyland's Main Street is to suburban planning, this movie is to adolescence.

Though it is set in Albuquerque, the movie, like its predecessors, was shot in Salt Lake City; and there's something cheerfully (if secularly) Mormon about the whole enterprise. It dares to dramatize the innocent emotion of good kids. The movie has its rich-bitch marplot in Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale), the Sarah Jessica Parker of East High, who's sometimes abetted by her twin brother, the prematurely gay Ryan (Lucas Grabeel); but there's not a drop of danger in Sharpay or any other character here. The friction between Danny the hood and Sandy the prom girl in Greaseis psychodrama compared to Troy and Gab. They're really the musical soulmates of old MGM's Mickey and Judy, or maybe old Disney's Mickey and Minnie.

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