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Friday, April 25, 2008

High School Musical

OK, our family was a little late to the whole HSM phenom, but we decided it was better to watch the original before deciding if we wanted to see the show on ice.

As we’ve noted before, musicals are generally a big hit for Movie Night, especially with our five year old who has been working on (or at least talking about) his own musical version of Romeo and Juliet (one which features a dragon) for the last six months. And despite parental preference for Singing in the Rain era pictures, it’s good to know that some folks with money in their pockets (i.e., Disney) are still committed to the musical genre.

So the big question was whether High School Musical was more Disney than Disney Channel. The distinction is not a small one. Disney the film studio, especially in its relationship with companies such as Pixar, has generally been committed to pushing limits and creating feature films that would stand the test of time (if you don’t count The Boatniks).

Disney Channel, on the other hand, is committed to ephemera highly targeted to specific demographics, notably pre-teen girls (which are in short supply in our household). Whether it’s broadcasting teen-queen dramadies like Hanna Montana or straight sitcom formula pap like That’s So Raven, Disney Channel is a network that might as well be transmitting its business plan over cable 24 hours a day.

So where does High School Musical fall in this continuum? First off: credit where credit is due. The show features some very imaginative production numbers that take advantage of the high school setting (the school cafeteria, the gym) and Disney certainly found a charmer in Vanessa Anne Hudgens who plays Gabriella Montez, the cute-as-a-button, girl genius who also happens to sing wonderful duets with Troy Bolton (played by Zac Efron) the basketball-star romantic male lead. The drama of the film centers on whether or not these two crazy kids from different high school tribes will overcome their caste status as jock and brain to find love and beat out the villainous brother-and-sister song-and-dance team of Sharpay and Ryan Evans to take the lead in the high school play. If this fish-from-different-streams-finding-each-other storyline sounds familiar, keep in mind that the working title for the film until its release was Grease 3.

Beyond these few nuggets of enjoyment, however, there’s not much magic in the film (whatever its millions of fans might tell you). We knew this was Disney, and didn’t expect anything other than a “Yes – We can all get along” happy ending. But even Toy Story (a film starring Mr. Potatohead) had more character development and real dramatic tension than anything experienced by the cast of High School Musical.

One big problem with the world the film creates is that there doesn’t seem to be much teaching that goes on within the New Mexico school setting. In fact, beyond basketball practice, musical auditions and lunch, the school seems bereft of anything as mundane as teachers and staff (other than the b-ball coach – Troy’s father – and a homeroom teacher who also runs the drama club). Given that a major plot point hinges on the two lovers not having enough time to win the big game (Troy), win the big think-off (Gabriella) and audition for the show (Troy and Gabriella), one is left to wonder why something wasn’t scheduled during the school day when, apparently, the kids at American Idol High School have nothing but free time.

The show also posits a world where jocks, brains, stoner/skateboarders, thespian wannabees and other cliques are still separated into warring clans, a distinction I remember was on the way out even when we were in high school many, many moons ago. Given that every ambitious parent’s desire is now to create well-rounded candidates for Rhodes Scholarships, it’s a question whether the central conflict of the film still aligns with the reality of 21st century high school life.

Obviously, the sale of millions of DVDs attest to the fact that the film is resonating with someone. Just not so much with the demographic splinter group of parents of two boys and a Web site.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


We’ve been enjoying HBO’s John Adams mini-series, but share concerns from many scholar-reviewers about its lack of historic accuracy. In no episode so far, for example, do John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin break into song and dance as they debate the wording of the Declaration of Independence.

Our touchstone for this bit of historic detail comes from the Broadway musical 1776 which was turned into the 1972 film we tried out on the kids last weekend. Musicals have been a pretty safe Movie Night bet, especially with our younger son Ben, and 1776 seemed an entertaining way to introduce our eight-year-old to historical characters he’s beginning to learn about in third grade.

1776 came out at the end of a period that Ty Burr, Boston Globe film critic and author of The Best Old Movies for Families, refers to as the era of “white dwarf musicals.” These were shows like Oliver and Hello Dolly that became so loud and bloated on their way from stage to screen that they drowned out whatever drama the shows once possessed and helped to accelerate the end of big Hollywood musical extravaganzas.

Amidst all of this noise, 1776 is a much quieter work, almost made-for-TV in its production values. The show is set in Philadelphia and covers the machinations of Congress in the weeks before the successful July 4th vote for independence from Great Britain. The familiar cast is mostly made up of character actors who would later find a home on the small screen. Ken Howard, future star of The White Shadow, plays Jefferson, William Daniels (Dr. Craig from St. Elsewhere) is Adams and Benjamin Franklin is played (as usual) by the once-blacklisted Howard Da Silva. The faces of other actors will ring familiar bells to Northern Exposure and Mannix fans, and Gwyneth Paltrow makes a cameo appearance as an embryo in the womb of a pregnant Blythe Danner (who plays Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha).

The parents split on the quality of the songs, but agreed that there were not enough of them to make this a real musical experience. Long segments of Congressional political debate and exchanges of letters between John and Abigail Adams (depicted as long-distance conversations/dream sequences) were moving, but not entirely riveting, given the relatively low wattage of the stars.

All that said, it was certainly nice to introduce the kids to the country’s founding fathers through a dramatic work that highlights their humanity and foibles, including Adams the “obnoxious and disliked” pain in the arse, Jefferson the randy flake and Franklin the scheming but charismatic dirty old man. Until now, these names and faces have mostly been introduced to our brood as faces on currency, and before the school system talks about them all-wise sages or white European slaveholders, it’s good to get to know them as plain old human beings, especially ones whose patriotism and commitment are matched only by their ability to cut a rug in front of the Liberty Bell.

Who’s Pick: Eli

Ben: 5/5
Mom: 2/5
Eli: 3/5
Dad: 3/5

Total: 13/20