Sequels rarely top the original. Some are downright soul-scarringly wretched. Most leave the viewer vaguely aware that they’ve had their pockets picked by a large corporation’s greedy stab at recapturing movie magic by revisiting a lucrative well once or twice too often. Then there are the sacred franchises – all those Jedi knights and boy wizards and hobbits and pirates standing tall as lighthouses, inspiring a thousand ill-conceived sequels. Legions of diehard fans can’t get enough of these perennial box office champions, marking their calendars for the next installments and collecting tiny plastic effigies, posters, and other placeholders to tide them over in the meanwhile. Merchandising provides another kind of sequel; Disney, the empire built by a shirtless rodent, knows best how to milk a cash cow.
So now, dancing blithely into the theaters comes the third entry in a mega-successful Disney Channel telemovie franchise, this time direct not to video but direct to the even-bigger screen. Worthy of the upgrade or no, the multiplexes will be packed with squealing teenyboppers.
Coppola didn’t disappoint with his “Godfather Part II”. Hardly. More than a decade later, he sailed once more into the breech, trying to recapture lightning in a bottle, a complicated story in hand and much (but sadly not all) of his creative team intact. Too old for wizards and hobbits, we Godfather groupies waved bon voyage from the shore and waited, fingers crossed, to see if his third trip would prove worthy of the family.
So. It’s Gangsters versus Grads. If part two’s for the company, is part three the charm?
The title — “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” — says it all. The original HSM cast hits the big screen for the big game, for prom, for graduation, for their final musicale. We know their fans are delirious; at a Friday morning screening, the multiplex theater was filled to capacity with hysterical middle school girls who literally came unhinged when Zac/Troy strode into the locker room and removed his T-shirt. His bare back elicited universal swoons and screams unlike any I’ve heard since Paul had his first dreamy close-up in “A Hard Day’s Night.” The disappointed sighs of hundreds of pubescent girls as Zac/Troy donned his jersey without turning around first was audible. From outside the theater.
The few adults (chaperone moms) in attendance laughed out loud at the eerily synchronized reactions of the girls. But to be honest (and kind of creepy too) their sighs indicated they wouldn’t have minded a longer look either. Let’s face it. The boy’s a movie star. A radiant, born to be on the big screen movie star. For realsies. He can hold the screen with his ridiculously beautiful eyes and smile, he can sing, he can act, and, most wonderful surprise of all, the boy can really dance.
“HSM3” features several star-making set pieces that establish Mr. Efron as a true force to be reckoned with; director Kenny Ortega leans heavily (and wisely) on his two leads. Ms. Hudgens is a worthy partner; their rooftop waltz is absolutely lovely. But all Efron’s other numbers seal his place in the pantheon of male movie dancers. Some highlights include a terrific all-male number in a Disneyfied junkyard alongside charming co-star Corbin Bleu and featuring some equally terrific back-up dancers. Efron’s school-roaming solo references Fred Astaire in a fresh new way; it’s an eloquent soliloquy of post-adolescent confusion and frustration. In another well-staged show-within-the-show number, he runs/dances to his beloved through the theater, climbing and racing over theater seats and scaling her balcony. It’s a well-conceived moment made even more special when we see his understudy attempt the same number sometime later. No one comes close to his magnetism, his screen-worthy-ness. He’s sincere and earnest; he has that something special no one can fake and no one can teach. It’s a star-making performance.
Zac Efron is well worth the price of admission, and his fans will go more than once. They’ll buy the video. The doll, the pajamas, the lip balm, the diary. They’ll lipsync the soundtrack and watch the numbers on youtube. It’s a classic for their generation, and the good news is: it’s not bad. In fact, its message is actually pretty good. HSM honors its brains and its jocks; achievement is the thing. Talent Uber Alles. All that happiness and high spirits celebrate (and homogenize) all the individual differences. Oh sure, the music is pop in the very best sense. The first time hearing a song and you’ll think you already know it by heart.
The entire high school is Disney-fied; East High is the happiest place on earth. And why not? The only class is homeroom, and the school cafeteria is the prettiest set in the film. Every floor is sparkling white, and everyone dresses in candy apple red for the basketball game. (Frankly, all that red was more than a little agitating; I’d thought I could escape politics for two hours or so, and the first minutes of the film are Blue vs. Red.) Troy’s backyard treehouse looks like something right out of Adventureland. This is no complaint. The film has a real snappy palette; all the eyes twinkle, all the hair shines, all the teeth sparkle. There are no zits in Disney High School Land. No gangs, no drugs, no teen pregnancy, no sex. Just longing. And kissing. And dancing. Which, as any musical fan knows, is far better than sex.
Even conflicts with parents are simple. Parents are attractive extras which is probably as accurate and generous a depiction as one could wish. The truly exceptional and nice message-y moments pile on; the dancers aren’t too skinny, the girls aren’t anorexic-looking, the cast is racially mixed and attractive but mostly real looking.
Kenny Ortega’s choreography serves Efron far better here than in the previous two films. He’s more masculine and powerful this time out, without any nagging hint of musical theater boy and all the stereotypical baggage that goes with that stereotype. While too short to play convincing the kind of basketball that wins college scholarship offers, this is hardly reality. The college names are real, the anxiety of choosing a future is real, the wistful nature of the goodbye is palpable. At graduation’s end, future plans are finalized. Graduates are headed for Berkeley and Stanford, the University of Albuquerque, Yale and Juilliard. (Yes, that Juilliard. The Juilliard that sends recruiters/admissions officers to a high school in New Mexico to decide between four candidates for admissions based on the spring musical.) How Mickey and Judy for the New Millennium.
Oh sure, the story’s a little dopey. But the feelings are real.
The bottom line: Zac Efron’s leaving “High School” for bigger and better things, and the others might not get so stratospherically launched. The ending is charged with that realization. Oh sure, HSM was a terrific gig and they’re all sad to see it end, but there’s something in their eyes in the curtain call that tells me I’m not the only one who feels that someone in the class is going to make it super big.
The Defending Champion
“The Godfather: Part III” (1990) is the third and final installment of Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy. In it, the aging Don Michael Corleone still hasn’t managed to take his crime family totally legit. All the money in the world won’t redeem his sins, and his hunger for redemption brings the family full circle — back to Italy/Sicily for the final chapter. Operatic and Shakespearean in its scope and references, the family gets embroiled in the Vatican’s corruption scandals. Violent and beautiful, confusing and familiar, we forgive the film its excesses. Watching the Corleone family is like visiting a family reunion where the food on the banquet table might well be poisoned and where we’re pretty sure everyone dies at the end. Still, we’re happy to spend a few hours, connecting the dots and reminiscing. We even watch it again and again, hoping to make sense of the saga, giving it every benefit of every doubt. It seems important.
HSM3’s stars are cuter, and Disney managed to keep the original cast intact whereas the Godfather franchise suffered devastating losses on the casting front. I’ve seen Robert Duvall, and, George Hamilton, you’re no Robert Duvall.
Zac Efron is a leading man who can sing and dance and act. Knock me over with a feather.
Leading man Al Pacino does everything but dance on the ceiling and fix the kitchen sink in this over the top of the top performance. Let’s just say I prefer my Michael a bit more reticent. I find this whole Richard III thing unsettling. Connie has morphed into Lady MacBeth, and Coppola’s real-life daughter Sofia plays Mary, the Cordelia of the piece. There’s plenty of music in “G3”, but it’s mostly opera. You may think less of me, but I’ve never liked opera all that much. Too much showing off. Too much of a muchness. And there’s dancing too…but it’s never in the sunlight. It’s all leadfooted brown velvet and heavy tapestry dancing. No one looks light; if someone stepped on your foot dancing with you in this movie, it would hurt like hell. How can I not like “G3” because the dancing is too heavy? Consider it a metaphor. Or perhaps I’m losing my mind.
Please in the name of all you consider holy, don’t let this review propel you into the theater to see this movie unless you were already headed there or at least teetering on the fence. If you weren’t already marking your calendar, if you don’t already own a Sharpay doll or a Troy notebook with marabou feather pen, this is probably one of those niche entertainments that isn’t for you. Don’t go if you’re not already a fan. You’ll only think less of me, and my credibility as your go-to snarky-ranting critic means everything to me. I’d hate to lose your trust over a trifling piffle like this one.
But if your daughters are pulling you toward the multiplex this weekend and you’re wishing you could drink poison instead of taking them, blame the Chihuahuas. You’ll find something to enjoy in this harmless bundle of high-spirited dance-y love letter to individuality and free choice. And you’ll get to see a movie star in his breakthrough performance. Which isn’t nothing.
They thought “G3” would make Andy Garcia a star. Trust me. “HSM3” will do it for Zac Efron. Amazingly, counterintuitively, and mostly because the economy’s tanking and I just can’t handle another conspiracy theory right now, I need a happy ending and a happy middle and a happy beginning. With crayon bright colors and shining multi-racial faces filled with hope. It’s that kind of week.
Put my critic’s credentials in a lockbox for later. Save the chiarascuro for a rainy day. Call it temporary insanity.
“HSM3”. Coppola, forgive me.