Albuquerque's East High is the best high school in the world because Zac Efron goes there. What's more, it's the setting for High School Musical 3. But East High's favorite basketball champ Troy Bolton (Efron) has a problem: It's senior year, and he's questioning his future. All of his friends know exactly what they want, but Troy, not so much. To add suckage to lameness, his beautiful, turning-the-world-on-with-her-smile girlfriend Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) is going to college a thousand miles away (literally) while he's expected to stay in town to be a college basketball star at his father's alma mater. Thing is, when Troy raises his arms to catch a pass, he doesn't know whether he's doing it to score the winning basket for the team, or if he's preparing to make perfectly posed jazz hands. What's his real passion? Could his coach/dad ever understand? God a'mighty, could Zac Efron be any prettier?
Helping Troy explain it all and try to figure it out are HSM3's musical numbers. The drama class has one last opportunity to put on a show before graduation, making HSM3 a musical about high school kids putting on a musical about high school. Sometimes the students break out into song in regular life, sometimes they break out into song and it turns out they're in rehearsal for their performance, and then the actual musical goes on, in which they reprise both. It's a frame that works well enough for a smooth transition from song to speech, and an effective device for moving the plot along. Not that HSM3 is all that worried about it. Song and dance are decidedly the focus, making the movie little more than a series of music videos with dramatic sketches in between. (It's a good thing Hudgens is a charming and accomplished giggler, because her laughter is often the only thing filling otherwise awkward dead spaces before or after a tune.)
True to the music video form, style is everything in HSM3. Or should be. A few sets, particularly the high school cafeteria, are the most satisfying parts of the movie—saturated primary colors in big, clean shapes invigorate, even sustain, more than one scene—but most are just background. Wardrobe is sharp in places (fedoras for days), lazy in others (strain as he might, Efron is incapable of looking tough, and that bandana neatly tied around his forehead is helping nothing). The indulgent bright spots remind the audience of how infrequently they surface.
Where the movie really falls short is in staunchly applying a Fisher Price aesthetic to the plot and script. HSM3 is a large television production that was sent to the big screen, and it feels like it. Disney declines to show HSM3 the same consideration it shows its animated efforts, like visuals that can be appreciated by an audience of any age (though the choreography includes nods to other musicals, mostly West Side Story) and writing aimed at adults (one Bob Fosse reference won't keep the audience awake forever). If not for the cast and Kenny Ortega's direction of it, HSM3 would be like watching a Kids Incorporated marathon without the nostalgia. While settling for that likely won't hurt the bottom line, it makes for a boring movie. Tension is nowhere to be found, the jokes are few and far between, and anything else that might involve fooling with too many words is off limits.
The characters are familiar to the franchise's built-in audience, and there's no effort to make them likeable or hate-worthy in any but the flattest of ways. Even the basic concept of a villain gets watered down when the supposedly ruthlessly ambitious Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale) fails to have any hand in upsetting anything at all. HSM3 isn't just squeaky clean; it's an anatomy-omitting mannequin in a Gap window. Somehow a musical for kids ended up too subdued. The run time, 100 minutes, should be perfect, but feel free to use the middle third to break out the paper footballs, because there's a lot of the same.
Make no mistake, HSM3 is competent at every turn. The acting is great, the dancing is serviceable, and the songs are bouncy, albeit forgettable, even if they occasionally have to share hooks with other similarly toned numbers. Even so, the melodies are too earnest, the characters are too flimsy, and as the movie's budget increased, so its economy went to H-E-double-hockey-sticks. But understand that you haven't bought a ticket to see a story about Troy and Gabriella. You've paid to watch Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens. Happily, you get your money's worth.