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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.

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