High School Musical 3: Senior Year gives you an honest jolt of feel-good fizz. It may be as friendly and square as one of those 1950s teen romps in which the actors wore letter sweaters, but that doesn't mean the movie is an uptight anachronism. It's shrewd enough to know that in an era ruled by drop-dead irony, gee-whiz sincerity can be its own rebellion a wholesome rebuke to consumerist cool. The star jocks and theater bugs of East High School in Albuquerque have already been through championship games, opening nights, and in the case of the googly-eyed princess Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) enough costume changes to empty Christina Aguilera's closet. But as they close in on the end of senior year, a question nags: Can they be themselves in a culture that's figured out how to market Individuality?
In 2006, the first High School Musical was a phenomenon, and it's not hard to see why. Directed by Kenny Ortega, the choreographer of Dirty Dancing, it was a delightful paradox, a squeaky-clean Disney Channel film that used the image of a multiracial yet homogenized all-American high school to make a case for the importance of not running with the pack. The film's let's-put-on-a-show enthusiasm harkened back to the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musicals, but that spirit was merged with an infectious pop-rock swagger and, most refreshingly, a can this be real? wink at its own kitschy earnestness. (It turned Disney's theme-park conformity on its mouse ear.) High School Musical was like Beach Blanket Bingo, Grease, Footloose, Rent, Hairspray (the John Waters and Broadway versions), and The Brady Bunch all mixed together; even the overbright studio-backlot look had a distinct charm it gave Albuquerque the sunbaked expansiveness of exurb America. The whole thing was carried aloft by the teenybop grin, sapphire eyes, and shimmying hips of Zac Efron, who played Troy Bolton, the hoops star who secretly longed to sing and dance, as a fusion of jock and showman, teen idol and Ordinary Dude. You could also say that Troy was both straight and...well, you know, joyous. Because let's face it: Any movie in which a high school's most revered athlete is ambivalent about how much he loves to perform in musicals is saying something about sex roles and tolerance in 21st-century youth culture.
If you were a fan of High School Musical, where Troy fell for the heart-faced Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) and revealed himself to be a ''Gotta dance!'' stage freak, or High School Musical 2 (2007), in which Troy and his buddies learned the perils of the class system by working for the summer at a country club, you may well ask: What's left for Troy and the gang to conquer? High School Musical 3 stands in relation to the first two films as the Sex and the City movie did to that series: It's longer, more lavish, and a bit less perky. Troy has to decide if he's going to chase a basketball scholarship at the home-state alma mater of his dad (Bart Johnson), or follow his own dream. And how will Gabriella, who lands in the Stanford honors program, figure in? Can their romance survive the end of high school? I haven't even mentioned the senior prom!
These are standard youth-movie dilemmas, but they're brought to life by the high-energy cast and the musical numbers, which Ortega shoots with electrifying pizzazz. When Troy and Gabriella waltz in the rain on the school’s garden rooftop, the movie taps that blend of shyness and exhibitionism that animates so many adolescents. Later, Troy and Chad (Corbin Bleu), his dreadlocked teammate and best bud, do a gymnastic dance in a junkyard, flipping and twirling to ''The Boys Are Back,'' and it's a thriller. Here, once again, the beauty of Efron's performance is that he's a vibrant athletic hoofer who leaps and clowns with the heartthrob vigor of a young Gene Kelly, yet he's also achingly sincere. His fast-break alertness makes him the most empathetic of teen idols; he's like a David Cassidy who knows how to act, and who can swoon without getting too moist about it. Apart from Efron, the breakout star is Ashley Tisdale, whose Sharpay makes narcissism a goofy, bedazzled pleasure. I don't want to overpraise the High School Musical films: In their happy way, they have a synthetic, connect-the-dots quality. But it's hard to resist the way they take American teen culture back to the future. B
High School Musical 3: Senior Year: Zac Efron talks about the movie at his EW photo shoot: