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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


To be totally honest, I probably have no business reviewing High School Musical 3: Senior Year. Because they were made-for-TV movies, I didn't see the first two installments, although I sure heard a lot about them from the various children in my life (and even a few parents). I have also found myself unable to escape images of the series' stars, who seem to beam out from T-shirts, CDs, DVDs, games, and anything else I might conceivably see whenever I set foot in Wal-Mart or Target. This is saying nothing of the coverage HSM has received in the entertainment magazines I read or even the news programming I view. The damn thing has gotten so enormously popular that I started to feel out of the loop, and that in turn made me feel prematurely old.

Not liking to feel older than I am (which is not that old), I decided to see HSM3 for myself, to find out once and for all what the fuss is about. I convinced two adult male friends to join me, one of whom wore a chimpanzee mask during the entire film. But that's a story for another column. Perhaps I'll write about that soon.

The action, for anyone else unfamiliar with the property, takes place in a New Mexico high school where the characters from the previous movies are now entering their senior year and realizing that the future will take them in different directions. Basketball star/burgeoning musical theater-lover Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) has to decide whether to pursue the hoops scholarship his father wants him to accept or the Julliard scholarship he secretly desires. Girlfriend Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens), meanwhile, has accepted that she needs to let Troy go in order to fulfill her own college dreams, thus putting their relationship in jeopardy.

This romantic shakiness is a benefit to Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale), a snooty rich girl who's like Paris Hilton without the sluttiness. Sharpay wants Troy all to herself and uses the senior class musical - which all the characters are obliged to participate in - to further drive a wedge between him and Gabriella.

Other key characters include Troy's best friend/fellow hoopster Chad Danforth (Corbin Bleu), and Ryan Evans (Lucas Grabeel), Sharpay's twin brother and aspiring choreographer. I have to say that I found Ryan to be one of the more disturbing movie characters I've seen in some time. He dresses like no high school student I've ever seen, in a mishmash of styles that suggests freakiness over swankiness. There's also something about the actor's facial expressions - especially in the eyes - that is off-putting. Even when he's supposed to be happily grooving to music, Ryan looks like he wants to pull a Hannibal Lecter and suddenly start eating his fellow students.

Watching High School Musical 3 is an odd experience, at least for a newcomer. It strikes me as being a middle schooler's fantasy version of what high school would be like. All the characters are chaste and have these oddly sexless crushes on each other. No one seems to have any real problems or lustful desires, and the worst possible thing that could happen to any of them is a little detention or perhaps not getting kissed by that dreamy guy or girl. Nobody ever gets angry, or rebels, or says anything out of line. Now, I don't mean to imply that every teen movie has to be Superbad, but the squeaky-clean virginity of HSM feels utterly false to me. It's entirely possible to make a family film that still has a bit of authentic edginess to it. Why doesn't this one? I honestly can't imagine that any real high school student could watch the movie without breaking into fits of hysterical laughter. It almost feels like "High School is GREAT" propaganda aimed at elementary and junior high kids. Just wait until they hit the real thing and realize they've been lied to.

What else is there to say? I found the humor to be flat and the songs to be unmemorable. The dancing is okay, but it's hard to escape the feeling that the production values of HSM3 have been pumped up for the big screen. From what I've heard others say, the original (at least) was more low-key - a John Hughes-ian high school story where people broke into song occasionally. This one has all kinds of expensive-looking musical numbers that, while impressive, seem a little over-the-top for the milieu.

This much must be said: the young actors are talented and give it their all. Whether any of them will have a notable career outside the HSM franchise remains to be seen, but they are certainly energetic and likeable.

Of course, High School Musical 3 wasn't made for newcomers. If you've seen and enjoyed the first two, whatever your demographic, there's little reason to believe you won't be similarly entertained this time. If you haven't seen them, are you really going to try to jump in now, when you (like me) have missed so much already? (I can assume from the audibly delighted giggles of two grown women and two small children seated directly behind me that Troy and Gabrielle did not kiss in the first two installments?)

Final word: I don't really plan to go back and see HSM 1&2 now. The whole thing is a little too peppy and antiseptic and Disney-fied for my taste. I actually grew a little annoyed at the incessant in-your-face cheerfulness of the picture. High School Musical 3 is like Grease meets Up With People in the United Colors of Benetton. Not a combination that fills me with joy.

Now it's time for me to get back to exploring that other ubiquitously buzzed-out phenomenon: Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight."

( out of four)

High School Musical 3: Senior Year is rated G but contains rampant profanity, graphic bloody violence, pervasive drug use, and explicit sexuality/nudity. (Okay, not really.) The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.

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