Though the previous two installments were made specifically for television, "High School Musical 3: Senior Year" finds the mega-hit franchise moving to movie theaters. The director and co-choreographer of all three pictures, Kenny Ortega, does have a background in theatrical features, as choreographer of such (ahem) classics as "Xanadu" and "Dirty Dancing," while among his previous feature directing efforts is "Newsies," a knockabout musical about an 1899 child labor dispute.
Yet what does the average squealing "HSM" fan care about such details? The central performers (Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale) have become megastars to the tween set, complete with real-world scandals and gossip. The film's story -- it's senior year, there's a show to put on and colleges to apply to, decisions to be made -- puts them cleanly on display in all their fresh-scrubbed, impeccably lighted and styled glory.
As expected, any romance in the film comes from a distinctly pre-adolescent point of view, in which cuddling in a backyard hammock and a closed-mouth kiss is as heavy as it gets between a boy and girl. As shown in the very first shot of the film -- Efron's face in tight close-up, sweaty and panting -- as well as the astonishing precision of keeping the hemlines of Hudgens' and Tisdale's skirts just so, the film trades in the sort of innocently teasing sex appeal that the Disney brand has specialized in at least since Annette Funicello was fitted for her first Mouseketeer sweater.
The songs in the previous installments playfully jumped from genre to genre, but this time they stay pretty much in a straightforward pop-rock idiom. Ortega and screenwriter Peter Barsocchini obviously enjoy the move to the big screen and try to go bigger and more expansive on some of the musical numbers. Along the way they explicitly name-check choreographer Bob Fosse and give loving nods to such antecedents as the ceiling dance from Fred Astaire's "Royal Wedding," Busby Berkeley's full-scale extravaganzas and the back-stabbing protege from "All About Eve." Ortega even has the good sense to keep the winking kitsch to a minimum, playing it straight throughout.
As the film ends, some of the kids are heading off to Juilliard, Berkeley, Yale, Stanford and the University of Arizona, but never fear, as there are some new, younger characters introduced in the story to keep the next film (should there be one) with some grounding at good old East High. For those scoring at home, the third entry in the "High School Musical" series is better than the second but doesn't quite sustain the unvarnished, giddy highs of the first.
The "HSM" series has always been playful and high-spirited, with a refreshing emphasis on collective action and the importance of group effort over the individual, and there's nothing in "High School Musical 3: Senior Year" to upset the formula.
'High School Musical 3: Senior Year'
MPAA rating: G
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: In wide release