Are you ready for the most meta musical of recent Hollywood history? Probably not, but you’re fairly likely to see it anyway, if you haven’t already. It turns out High School Musical 3: Senior Year, the final installment in what seems likely to be only the first generation of HSM movies (a fourth installment reportedly is in the works, featuring the next class of East High students), namely is a highly self-aware movie, though not in an particularly ambitious or (luckily) heavy-handed way. This time, Troy, Gabriella et al. are set to stage a school musical about their school year (which, obviously, includes staging a musical). This story then, is what adds up to the HSM3 we’re seeing in theaters, with actors singing lyrics highly conscious of the role musical franchise itself has had in making them famous (High School Musical/it’s the best part we’ve ever known). Though a little corny at times, the meta-narrative is sure to bring roars of approval from its target audience, as it signals that to some extent you have to have been there all the way to get all the jokes. Also, this perspective allows the movie to as predictable as it damn well pleases, not only because the core audience is young enough to still thrive on the joys of the already known, but also because it helps solidify HSM as a franchise with a fairly consistent overarching storyline.
That said, my point here is neither to over-intellectualize what’s essentially a kids flick, nor to take from the escapist quality it so clearly posits. If I could change one thing, however, it would be no less than to toss out the whole idea that dialogues should be an important of its storytelling. Every single moment in this movie not spent singing, dancing or otherwise hopping enthusiastically around in a choreographed way border on the painful, so I’d love to simply replace the often message-heavy (‘It’s always been my dad’s dream!) or pompous (‘I guess my heart doesn’t know this is high school‘) with one simple credo: Shut up and dance!
Many of the song numbers in this movie are truly amazing. Having basically told the same story three times over, the writing and choreographing forces seemingly have perfected how words and music interact, so as to make narratively efficient yet visually stunning scenes out of even some of the songs that sounds at best bland outside of the movie. This is especially true of I Want It All and A Night To Remember, two decidedly non-extraordinary songs about personal ambition and the social pressures of prom night, respectively, In Kenny Ortega’s absolutely magnificent choreography, I was caught nodding my head approvingly to the beat, absorbed by the sheer energy of what unfolded on-screen, where the plot (as far as there ever was one) was steadily shepherded forward.
Or consider Scream, a Zac Efron solo number slightly reminiscent of his Bet On It from HSM2. On a base level I of course appreciate each and every opportunity for Efron to have some alone time on screen, but that’s not the point here. It’s a catchy song in and of itself, but some of the visual tricks make for a particularly exhilarating experience. Again mirroring Justin Timberlake’s video for Cry Me A River, with jump-kicks, rotating walls and what have you, the number also play directly to Efron’s strengths; He’s not a particularly good actor, but he has a physical present that the HSM team has learn to capitalize. He exudes an energy that lifts both the moves and the song, and he can concentrate on show emotions in broad strokes, instead of going down in nuances he wouldn’t be able to deliver on. Same goes for The Boys Are Back, which he shares with Corbin Bleu. The song, celebrating the life-long bond of two best friends, is much more effective when it comes to establishing the nature of their long-running emotional bond, and does it in a more cheerful way than another one of those never-ending dialogues ever could. Also, the scene has a nicely integrated moment in which we get to see younger versions of the characters. It done so seamlessly, I ended up simply enjoying it for its elegance.
The main weakness of HSM3 of course is that its so reliant upon the songs. It may be the best movie of the series, but that’s because it’s better paced and composed, and by any means because it’s the best written. Its reliance upon the loyalty and self-identification of its fan base, seemingly has convinced the creators to get rid of altogether any central conflict to drive the story, but to me, all is forgiven as long as thoughts are expressed in song. Still, count me among the seriously skeptical when it comes to the ability to place the next movies on the shoulders of the new characters introduced. I’m not exactly thrilled with that new Sharpay clone (and no, talking with an accent is not my idea of newness), and slacker Jimmy definitely should stay in the supporting cast, if you get what I mean (though the guy who’s playing him, Matt Prokop, looks a little like a younger version of Zac Hanson).
All this is not to say that I enjoyed HSM3 just because I suspended my critical judgment for the evening. It’s a really entertaining little movie, and as long as it remembers to be a musical, it’s great fun. Thus, It could be that much of my criticism is unfair, since it has never portended to be anything more than that (it’s even inherent in the title, for God’s sake!) It’s a pity if you came for the dancing, you have to stay for the lecture.