The strange thing about the third High School Musical is it could have been a good movie. With Disney throwing so much money behind its cash cow, director Kenny Ortega could have hired a screenwriter more talented that Peter Barscocchini, who created the characters when they first debuted on the Disney channel in 2006 (was it really just two years ago?) With plenty of interpersonal dramas and angst sprinkled among the fresh-faced cast, there was room for a narrative with real drive, and maybe even some coherent messages along the way.
But as the massive success of the High School Musical franchise has proven, it doesn't need any of that fancy stuff. Hey, if the famous backstage musicals of the 30s had flimsy plots, why shouldn't High School Musical 3? Even adults may find themselves surprised at how quickly they move past the one-dimensional characters and blank, G-rated optimism to start tapping their feet and quietly humming along.
As senior year winds down, Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) are still happily in love, as we learn in no less than four romantic duets between them. Troy has a basketball scholarship to the local college, where he and best friend Chad (Corbin Bleu) will keep playing together, while smarty-pants Gabriella is off to Stanford. They and the whole gang are putting together their final spring musical, which will be about them and their own fears as they prepare to graduate and head into the real world.
In the meantime Sharpay (the hilarious Ashley Tisdale) is up to her usual schemes, with her brother Ryan (the ridiculously talented Lucas Grabeel) roped along; the two express their dreams of global domination in the Broadway tribute "I Want It All," a splashy musical number that puts Troy and Gabriella's soppy ballads to shame. Sharpay and Ryan are both hoping for a scholarship to Juilliard, which has been offered to them as well as Kelsi (Olesya Rulin) the composer and, to everyone's surprise, Troy. Will Troy choose to pursue his love of theater rather than basketball? Will his and Gabriella's survive separation? Most importantly who will everyone take to prom?
Potential plots, like Sharpay's undermining or Troy and Gabriella's relationship crisis, never really get under way, so the narrative bops along merrily with its musical numbers, which range from just OK to transcendently fun. Songs like "I Want it All" and the prom song "A Night to Remember" are ensemble dance numbers worthy of Busby Berkeley, while "The Boys Are Back" and "Scream" take advantage of Efron's immense, career-making talent. It's beautifully retro to have a matinee idol revered for his singing and dancing, and Efron, joined by Bleu in "Boys are Back," is a joy to watch. The songs themselves are mostly forgettable pop, but paired with snappy choreography and pretty stars, they do just fine.
There are a lot of things I wish High School Musical were-- a real musical, for one, with actual numbers rather than pop songs retrofitted for a story. I don't begrudge its G-rated vision of 17-year-olds, but I do wish they'd made room for real conflict-- even the target audience of 9-year-olds understands the basics of jealousy, heartbreak and disappointment. But High School Musical 3 isn't for me, but for those 9-year-olds, who squealed in unison as soon as the theater lights went down. I'm just glad I found so much in the movie to enjoy, and even a song or two I'll never, ever admit to having on my iPod.