High School Musical 3: Senior Year Review

The kids of East High are in senior year and graduating…

It seems like only yesterday that Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) and Gabriela Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) were taking their first steps together as a couple. That meeting at a New Year’s Eve party at a ski lodge. Their singing Start of Something New in a karaoke contest. Their coming together at school when Gabriela joined the students at East High. Their success in the school play, usurping the tried and tested brother-and-sister act of Ryan and Sharpay Evans (Lucas Grabeel and Ashley Tisdale). And, in High School Musical 2, their finding that growing up meant that being together wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed, at least not when Sharpay decided that she and Troy would make for a more attractive couple. And now, here they are, ready to graduate! Will Gabriela, in the words of her fleeting farewell, feel that she’s Gotta Go My Own Way? Or will they, in the tradition of High School Musical, learn that We’re All in This Together? It’s Senior Year!
There are sixteen minutes left on the clock and the East High Wildcats are behind in the final of the State Basketball Championships. There’s a stoppage. The teams return to their changing rooms for a pep talk and Troy Bolton does what a captain is supposed to do. He turns his team into winners. “What team? Wildcats! What team? Wildcats!” Those sixteen minutes see a reversal in the Wildcats’ fortunes and their winning a back-to-back championship. But the after-game party sees Bolton in a less-than-celebratory mood. The basketball coach from the University of Albuquerque greets Bolton and Chad Danforth (Corbin Blue) by telling him that he’s already got lockers with their names on. Only that Troy isn’t sure that U of A is where he wants to go. Not when Gabriela is hundreds of miles away from home.

As the year drifts through its final weeks and months towards graduation, Troy tries to find what it is that he wants out of high school. His father and best friend want him to attend U of A and to play basketball for the Redhawks. Even his mechanic has bought a Redhawks season ticket in the hope of continuing to watch Danforth and Bolton play together. Troy only wants to be close to Gabriela. But there’s a surprise in store when Miss Darbus (Alyson Reed) announces that there are three candidates for a scholarship at the prestigious Juilliard School of performing arts. Ryan and Sharpay Evans are unsurprising choices but Troy Bolton is a good deal more unexpected. As prom night, graduation and the senior year musical approaches, Troy Bolton has but a little time to figure out what he must do. His own words come back to haunt him. “My head’s in the game but my heart’s in the song…”
If you have any memories of those British sitcoms of the seventies that, thanks to the mighty Hammer studio, left the bus shelters, council estates and department stores in which they were set for the wide open road that led to movieland, you will remember that most of them simply featured many of the same gags, pratfalls and situations that we’d seen on the small screen but in a new and often more glamourous situation. High School Musical 3 is not so very different. Instead of the smaller, squarer size of the original films, this widescreen movie makes the most of its made-for-the-cinema budget right from the very beginning. The basketball game that opens the film is the kind of sports event that the first film only hinted at. Here, though, they look like proper (if short) basketball players and actually rustle up an exciting game. But, in a moment of self-doubt that will be reprised several times in this film, the lights dim and Troy Bolton frets over what will be. Only Gabriela, rising from the crowd and picked out by the spotlights, hears his thoughts. It’s game on for the Wildcats but a tricky time for Troy Bolton.

Of the three High School Musical films, the first remains the best, mostly on account of it being a good all-rounder. It has the songs, the comedy and the romance. Its sequel has too much comedy and relegates Gabriela to something of a supporting player for most of its running length. Little of it even takes place in the high school of the title, preferring, instead, the Lava Springs resort. This doesn’t have quite enough laughs but after two films so light as to almost float off the screen, it’s probably fair to give actors Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens more to do than be the object of Ashley Tisdale’s catty remarks. To be fair, we’ve been here before. High School Musical 2 also saw a breakdown in the Troy/Gabriela romance. In that, Gabriela sang Gotta Go My Own Way before walking out on Troy, while he responded with Bet on It during a particularly low point in his jollying around Lava Springs. Here, those lows in the love affair come with Walk Away and Scream, the latter finding a very upset and hooded Troy walking back into school at night to vent his frustration on the basketball court, in the corridors and on the stage of the school hall, complete with a Dancing On The Ceiling-styled rotating school corridor. Whilst there’s never really any doubt that Troy, Gabriela and the rest of the cast will be tossing their mortarboards into the air together at graduation, this are a number of surprisingly low-key moments in this film. So much so that very young fans of High School Musical, being the preschoolers who have garbled their way through the pineapple Princess Tiki of Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, might find themselves a little bored.

High School Musical deserves all of the acclaim that it gets, even if most of it comes from girls of primary-school-age. The three films, the soundtrack albums and all of the tie-in bits and pieces get so much right. It’s not unlike Grease but in a modern day setting and without any of the is-she-pregnant? complications that might go on outside the doors of East High. Instead, High School Musical offers nothing more complicated than hand-holding, dancing together, albeit with a reasonable distance between boy and girl, and a prom night in which no one ends the night wearing a tuxedo decorated with the spoils of excess. In short, it’s about singing, dancing and having fun and with a budget considerably bigger than High School Musical or its sequel, director and choreographer Kenny Ortega constructs a set of dance numbers that haven’t been seen since the glory day of the musical. Be it his paying homage to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (and Madonna’s Material Girl), the Busby Berkeley movies of the thirties or even the modern dance of Stomp with the salvage yard scrap of The Boys Are Back. A Night To Remember is just one highlight with it showing off a terrific point/counterpoint between the boys choosing tuxedos and the girls the evening dresses before fake frontage is wheeled onto the stage and the boys, perfectly choreographed, knock on doors, greet the date’s parents and wait to escort their girls to the prom. It’s so sweet Doris Day could appear and no one would blink an eye.
The film cuts between what is real and what are rehearsals for the school play such that it plays with expectations. However, come the film’s end and it tosses away any such movie slight of hand for a barnstorming song’n’dance finale. Everyone has their moment in the spotlight, with Ryan reprising I Want It All, Troy and Gabriela doing the same with Just Want To Be With You and even newcomer Jimmie ‘The Rocket’ Zara (Matt Prokop) stealing the show with his appearance alongside Tisdale in yet another turn of Just Want Be With You. And just in case anyone had forgotten just how awful Sharpay Evans can be – her cattiness has been toned down from High School Musical 2 – she and protégée Tiara Gold (Jemma McKenzie-Brown) fight it out for the spotlight in A Night To Remember. But in the end and to the sound of We’re All In This Together, the senior year step forward and declare their intentions for the coming year. And Troy Bolton makes a decision that ought to keep everyone happy. Sentimental ladies accompanying their children to this may even have cause to wipe away a tear.

It all ends with the performance of a song titled High School Musical that feels like a montage of the greatest hits not only of this film but the previous two. In his graduation speech, Troy even makes reference to High School Musical, drawing attention to each of the stars and even, recalling Stick to the Status Quo, picking out the jock who can also make a wicked crème brûlée. It feels like the end. But it won’t be. Three new characters, including Tiara Gold, Donny Dion (Justin Martin) and Jimmy Zara, and Miss Darbus promising that Sharpay Evans will return the following year to aid and assist with the drama department mean that we’re a long way from seeing the end of this particular series of films. But it may be that it’s to television, rather than the cinemas, for High School Musical 4 in whatever shape it takes. Still, for now, girls aged between four and fourteen have a lot to enjoy with this film. The songs may well be on a par with what has gone before, as has the story, but the dance numbers prove that Kenny Ortega hasn’t rested on his laurels this past year. They’re better than ever and proof that the man who got Ducky dancing through the record racks in Pretty In Pink still has it. Even I enjoyed it although, if you asked my eight-year-old daughter, she may have short shrift for my score of seven, choosing instead a ten.

Eamonn McCusker

Updated: Oct 23, 2008

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