If I didn't have kids, I would never have asked to review the latest chapter of Disney's wildly perky, squeaky clean 'High School Musical' series. Any rabidly popular film always gives me pause, and usually by the third installment, even the freshest formulas start to go stale (or rancid). But my 12-year-old son loves this movie (no cracks!); he has all the songs on his iPod, a Now or Never ringtone on his cell phone, and plays the soundtrack over and over (and over) on his computer, all the while singing at the top of his lungs. (I said no cracks!!) He also confided to me that he has a major crush on the film's star. No, not Zac Efron (I know that's what you were thinking), but rather the fiery teen hottie Vanessa Hudgens. (He also thinks Ashley Tisdale is pretty cute, too.) So how could I not put dibs on this disc? I'm sure my HDD colleagues Josh, Tom, Ernie, and especially Peter, who recently reviewed the original 'HSM' and was probably salivating over this sequel, haven't yet forgiven me.
In all honesty, if my son does harbor a not-so-secret affection for movie musicals, he gets it from me (once again, no cracks!). I've almost never met an MGM musical I didn't like, and though I somehow managed to avoid the two preceding 'HSM' installments, I must admit to a certain degree of natural curiosity regarding chapter three. Now that the series had outgrown its Disney Channel roots and graduated to the big screen, I anticipated splashier, higher voltage numbers, a slicker look, and more narrative meat than a garden variety made-for-cable movie. I wasn't foolish enough to expect 'Chicago' or 'Dreamgirls,' but I was hoping at least for another 'Grease.'
Unfortunately, I didn't get it. Though attractive and talented, Efron and Hudgens can't eclipse John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John (nobody can eclipse Olivia!), and 'High School Musical 3: Senior Year,' for all its energy, earnestness, and catchy melodies, will never rival 'Grease.' Kenny Ortega's film, however, possesses many endearing qualities as it celebrates the pluck and wholesome fervor of today's teens. Say what you will about its bubble gum blend of music, puppy love, and friends forever attitude; it's hard to knock such a well-intended film that telegraphs a positive, relatable message. Packed with good role models and admirable ideals, 'HSM3' is inoffensive, nicely packaged entertainment the whole family can enjoy. (And no, I'm not a card-carrying member of the Moral Majority.)
Does it reflect reality? Of course not. One cursory glance at the manicured landscaping, spotless hallways, antiseptically clean lockers, and impeccably dressed and coiffed student body of East High and it's quickly apparent Disney has fashioned a fairyland campus that bears no resemblance to any American high school, let alone one in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the story takes place. How do I know? I happen to live in Albuquerque, and the lush, foliage-laden town depicted on film looks more like New England than New Mexico. (It's actually Utah.) Sure, there's racial diversity at East High (though not nearly enough Hispanics), but all the kids seem to share the same socio-economic background and clean-cut cliques. Where are all the bullies, druggies, Goths, and outcasts – the people my kids (and others all across America) go to school with every day? But hang on, before we phone the ACLU, we have to remind ourselves this isn't 'Blackboard Jungle,' 'To Sir, With Love' or 'Up the Down Staircase.' 'HSM3' is pure escapism – an homage to the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland let's-put-on-a-show musicals of yore, with a little 'All About Eve' thrown in for fun – and if along the way it inspires our kids to follow the straight-and-narrow, more power to it.
In essence, all this film really cares about is whether sweethearts Troy (Efron) and Gabriella (Hudgens) can find a way to follow their dreams, attend the college of their choice, and stay together after graduation. Troy is torn between accepting a basketball scholarship at the local university or following his theatrical aspirations, while super-smart Gabriella laments leaving home to go to Stanford. Amid such strife, the couple rehearses for the school's annual musical along with stuck-up Sharpay (Tisdale), her androgynous twin brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), Troy's hoops buddy Chad (Corbin Bleu), and Gabriella's bosom pal Taylor (Monique Coleman), all of whom must sort out their own coming-of-age issues as well.
'HSM3' does a pretty good job of superficially addressing the fears and insecurities of seniors as they look toward the future and choose a path. I can say this with some measure of certainty because Troy's internal dilemmas strikingly mirror those my 17-year-old son faces this year…although he'll never gain any insight from the similarities because he wouldn't be caught dead watching this movie. (I just hope everything works out as neatly for him as it does for Troy, but that might require a sprinkling of magic dust from Tinkerbell.) Ortega, though, takes care not to let any introspection overshadow the frequent bursts of singing and dancing, which the sprightly cast performs with requisite verve. The generic pop tunes, from the romantic Right Here, Right Now to the rambunctious The Boys Are Back are easy on the ears, and the athletic choreography keeps the guys' masculinity intact. Staging a musical number inside an ongoing basketball game without making the players look like sissies is no easy task, but Ortega pulls it off in the opening number, Now or Never, without a hitch.
With not much story or conflict, 'HSM3' drags in parts (at 117 minutes, this extended version, which adds only a single scene, is about 15 minutes too long) and much of the acting is amateurish, but the effervescent personalities, peppy songs and dances, and above average production values string us along. 'Tweens and young teens will hungrily lap it up, and mom and dad may even get a kick out of it, too. As you can imagine, it's already gotten a fair amount of replay at my house.
The 'High School Musical 3: Senior Year' 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer rivals the film's vivacious nature with plenty of bold color, but the hues often look a tad overpushed. Reds are especially problematic, and always seem on the verge of bleeding, especially during quick pans. It almost seems as if Disney technicians tried to recapture the heavily saturated look of three-strip Technicolor that distinguished Golden Age MGM musicals, and overplayed their hand. Fleshtones also fall victim to the color laden transfer, adopting a slightly rosy tint that makes Efron look almost as pretty as Hudgens.
The spotless source material renders a crisp and clean high-def picture with properly tuned contrast, but lacks the visual pop one expects from this material. No 3-D window effects here; a definite flatness keeps the image at arm's length. Black levels, however, are strong and deep, shadow delineation is good, and fine details are evident in the close-ups, but nothing on the screen ever dazzled me. Disney's Blu-ray reputation is quite high, but this effort falls slightly short of expectations.
I also expected more out of the 5.1 DTS Master Audio track. The musical numbers enjoy good dynamic range, with some nice bass accents, but they never provided the sonic pow I kept craving. I like a little level boost when characters break into song, but this track keeps the audio on an even keel throughout; many will appreciate that, but it bugged me. Surround effects kick in with decent frequency and offer subtle ambient flavor, while front channel directionality is distinct and naturally balanced. Dialogue comes through clearly, too, and background music nicely shades various scenes without muscling in on the action. All in all, a very good track, but not quite up to snuff for a musical.
This 3-disc deluxe extended edition ensures your 'HSM3' fanatic will be able to play this movie any time their tween heart desires. In addition to the Blu-ray disc, the set includes a standard DVD (for sleepovers with technologically-challenged friends) as well as a Digital Copy disc for transfer to a portable media player. The yearbook-themed menu structure includes a song selection index as well as a sing-a-long mode option, which provides highlighted lyrics to all the film's tunes. Click on "Table of Contents," and you'll be able to leaf through a virtual East High yearbook filled with pictures and links to all the supplements. Many pages also feature a clickable paw print, which reveals a hidden backstage featurette.
The 'High School Musical' franchise sashays onto the big screen with all its 'tween-friendly traits intact, and this third installment's solid Blu-ray release will surely quicken the pulse of youngsters worldwide. Video and audio don't quite hang with Disney's best, but they're far from inferior, and a healthy line-up of extras provides fans with a coveted backstage pass. I'll take Mickey and Judy over Zac and Vanessa any day; just don't tell my 12-year-old son or he'll discover how uncool his dad really is.