Disney’s song-and-dance robots make the transition from small to big screen in High School Musical 3: Senior Year, just as chaste and sexless—save for strutting, shimmying Paris Hilton-esque celebutante Sharpay (rhinoplastied Ashley Tisdale)—as they were in the previous two installments. Once again directed and choreographed by Kenny Ortega, this latest chapter in the Albuquerque East High saga retains the bright, bubbly, trifling qualities of its predecessors. But despite a bigger budget that allows for more elaborate and distinctly stage-y musical numbers, there’s nonetheless something mildly regressive about the Mouse House’s latest tweener-targeted cash cow. The syrupy series has always been predicated on notions of tolerance, togetherness, and following one’s own heart and dreams. Yet whereas the first HSM fixated on cliques and the second expanded its purview to class tensions, the final part of this trilogy (unless, God forbid, the introduction of new, younger student characters presages a forthcoming High School Musical: The New Class) merely falls back on the original’s straightforward “be yourself” plotline, centering on the efforts of basketball star-turned-theater sensation Troy (bland heartthrob Zac Efron) to determine his own future—college athletics or Julliard theater?—while also holding on to Stanford-bound pixie love Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens).
Ortega adheres to formula like a shipwrecked man clings to a shard of driftwood, metronomically interspersing passable bouncy bubblegum pop and cheery dance routines throughout his insubstantial tale, which addresses the mixed feelings wrought by graduation with a simplistic sitcom-ish faux poignancy clearly aimed at those not yet in high school. I know, I know: Story is secondary to songs in High School Musical. Analyzed through that perspective, the film is a well-oiled machine, hitting its notes with such sharp, mechanical precision that it’s nigh impossible to imagine any fans feeling even the slightest disappointment, an opinion confirmed by the numerous pint-sized girls who, during a recent press screening, couldn’t restrain themselves from jumping out of seats to boogie about in the theater aisles. Wholesomely conservative, it functions as an engaging (if fluffy, unadventurous) distillation of narrative and musical conventions, as well as a sincere, festive celebration of multicultural open-mindedness and belief in one’s self, and its charitable heart is close enough to the right place that pangs of guilt (however minor and fleeting) accompany my instinctive, cynical impulse to altogether tear it down.
Still, it’s hard not to see the rabidly popular series’s deliberate insubstantiality, its desire to address teendom in juvenile ways, as a depressing commentary on the dwindling standards of young entertainment consumers. This longing for immaturity is even built into the film itself, with Troy and Gabriella’s romantic wistfulness for kindergarten, as well as a number called “The Boys Are Back” in which Troy and best friend Chad’s (Corbin Bleu) yearning for childhood actually transforms them into little kids, doing less to tackle natural fears of (and responses to) dawning adult responsibility than to legitimize nostalgia for viewers barely finished playing with Barbie and Dora the Explorer. When the cast sings during the finale that they’ll “step into the future, but hold onto High School Musical,” though, it’s less a thematic point about maturing than an unsubtle corporate plea aimed at fans about to outgrow the franchise. Which, of course, just highlights the fact that Senior Year is, fundamentally and above all else, a shrewd prepackaged commodity that, along with Miley Cyrus’s Hannah Montana, epitomizes the new Disney world order, in which scripted shows and movies are—like Hasbro’s ‘80s cartoons for Transformers and G.I. Joe—designed first and foremost as thinly veiled commercials for an avalanche of tie-in products.