Sunday, March 16, 2008

Random Movie Report #44: High School Musical

I was curious. HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL was a surprise smash hit for the Disney Channel and has become a major tween phenomenon. Hearing about this, I wanted to know whether it was any good. Was it the kind of kiddie entertainment that parents gladly watch alongside the youngins, or the kind they barely tolerate? Was it SESAME STREET or BARNEY? (Okay, it’s aimed at a slightly older audience but you get the idea.) So I eventually rented it, and eventually watched it, and have come to the decision that it’s kinda good. Not great, but I can see what the appeal is and have to admire its spurts of cleverness. It’s nice to see the kids getting enthusiastic about music considering how bored the rest of us have become, and this appears to have been near the center of that explosion. So, let’s take a look.

The heroes of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL are Troy (Zac Efron), star basketball player for the Albuquerque East High Wildcats (their motto: “Get Your Head In The Game”, which makes for a good song but is not the most inspiring slogan- rejected ones presumably included “Try Not To Fall Asleep Out There” and “Yo, Neil Armstrong, Wanna Come Back to Planet Earth?”), and bookworm transfer student Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens, about whose personal life I will say absolutely nothing, just watch me). The two share a karaoke duet at a New Year’s Eve party, and when they meet at the start of the next school year, it sparks memories and inspires them, after substantial hesitation, to sign up to audition for the school’s winter musical. This causes two problems (or three, depending on how you count it.) Firstly (and potentially secondly), both Troy and Gabriella’s respective cliques don’t approve of the star athlete and star pupil both becoming drama geeks. (The Wildcats in particular are worried that auditioning will distract Troy from the upcoming big game.) And it’s not like the drama stars- in this case, Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) and her brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), who have headlined every drama production the school’s put on since kindergarten- are keen on having competition. Of course, in the midst of all this, Troy and Gabriella start to like each other, which causes no end of problems.

“Cliques” are an odd trope. Every high school-related thing made in the past twenty-five years or so has dealt with them, usually as a major focus. While I definitely remember cliques existing in high school, I don’t recall them being terribly rigid- the prom queen was on both the drill team (sort of like cheerleaders but not quite for some reason) and the school paper, while her boyfriend, a soccer player, took the same creative writing class I did and acted more skaterly than jockish. There was some division, but most of the time it took a backseat to the sheer soul-crushing grind of getting through the school year. So it’s always a bit weird for me to see characters in high school act totally defined by strictly codified and exclusive groups, all easily distinguishable by their mode of dress. Of course, this movie isn’t aimed at high school students so much as kids who will be going to high school later, and generally speaking it’s nice to stress the importance of not getting hung up on cliques before they start to become a problem. Not that having a good message gets this a free pass or anything, but it does lead to some fun scenes, the musical highlight easily being an elaborate production number in the school cafeteria wherein various students start confessing hidden desires based on Troy and Gabriella’s audition.

Ah, yes, the music. I was kinda worried when I started watching that it would be the kind of generic American Idol fare that anyone can warble. The songs are actually written by a few different teams, but they mesh pretty well, and though they’re teen bubblegum by nature they’re pretty good for it. The lyrics have their clever snatches, and alongside the aforementioned cafeteria number the closing song is appropriately big. The cast are strong singers, though for some reason the lip-synching is sometimes off.

I do have to say that even for a Disney Channel movie this is a remarkably good natured little film- the film extends empathy and sympathy not just to our two young lovers, or even their immediate friends, but to virtually everyone in the cast. The playing is broad and enthusiastic, especially by Tisdale who gets a brilliant post-credits gag. There are a few slow patches, and I was really disappointed that Kelsi, the pint-sized songwriter (ably played by Olesya Rulin), doesn’t get a lot to do. And I was wanting to see more of the actual musical, even though it’s a MacGuffin. What can I say, I loves me some metafiction.

It’s easy to see how HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL appeals to its target age group, and it’s a job well done. For the rest of us, it’s not unpleasant either- it’s cute in its sincerity and surprisingly smart. I’m grateful that I liked it because a negative review would doubtless have unleashed a firestorm of tween rage the likes of which the world has never seen, and I’m not sure when I’ll try an experiment like this again, but it was worth it this time.

Written by Peter Barsocchini
Directed by Kenny Ortega

Grade: B

(As always, this film is available through the link in the image above.)

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