Most likely to succeed in East High School’s class of 2008 is Zac Efron. Director Kenny Ortega clearly knows it, moving the 21-year-old heartthrob center stage in “High School Musical 3: Senior Year,” the infectiously upbeat bigscreen extension of Disney Channel’s runaway TV movie sensation. By this point in the franchise, Efron seems to have outgrown his on-again/off-again love interest, leaving screenwriter Peter Barsocchini hard-pressed to cook up a fresh conflict — not that tween fans need one. Pic’s bouncy playlist and bigger musical numbers will see theaters packed with the faithful, while conveniently introducing a freshman cast to carry the torch in the process.
Given the built-in fan base for “High School Musical” — a phenomenon so popular, it’s been performed by hundreds of junior drama departments around the country — the Disney team didn’t have to do much to ensure a massive turnout. And yet Ortega, who tackled “Newsies” for the studio back in the day, seems determined to get it right, making excellent use of the wider canvas to stage his most impressive setpieces yet. Sharpay’s “I Want It All,” in particular, unfurls as an extravagant homage to Broadway — a far cry from the first film, in which the tunes were buried as karaoke duets or theater rehearsals for fear that musical-averse auds wouldn’t go for break-out-in-song moments. Starting small, Ortega has taught an entirely new generation to love musical theater.
However, while Ortega and fellow choreographers Charles Klapow and Bonnie Story stretch their imaginations, there’s something almost lazy about the pic’s underachiever script. If the first film was like “West Side Story” (school basketball star falls for brainy transfer student) and the second was like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (the boy must now decide between the rich girl who offers him everything and the common one who captured his heart), “Senior Year” lacks a fresh central dilemma.
Pic begins with the Wildcats winning their second basketball championship. Gabriella (Hudgens) is headed for Stanford, while Troy (Efron) has a basketball scholarship to the local university, where his best friend, Chad (Corbin Bleu), and his father (Bart Johnson) expect him to go. So with graduation on the horizon, things are bittersweet between the couple, with Gabriella pulling away to avoid further heartbreak.
To complicate matters, drama teacher Ms. Darbus (Alyson Reed) has invited recruiters from Juilliard to observe the senior year musical and award one student a scholarship. Troy’s in the running but seems largely undecided about his future, which is one reason the movie’s “I want” song, traditionally reserved for the protagonist in musicals, goes to attention hog Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) instead. Wowing Juilliard figures prominently in her own plans, even if it means trampling twin brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel, still the most talented of the bunch) and her new transfer-student groupie, Tiara (Jemma McKenzie-Brown), in the process.
Of course, the most pressing anxiety for “High School Musical 3” fans concerns where the cast goes from here. While two new basketball players emerge in Efron’s shadow (played by goofy-to-the-point-of-annoying Matt Prokop and pint-sized sidekick Justin Martin), neither seems particularly well-suited to fill his shoes. By contrast, there’s plenty of gold in the Sharpay-Tiara dynamic, which yields a hilarious fight for the spotlight.
As in the earlier films, Ortega employs a wide variety of musical genres, ranging from teen-angst rock anthem “Scream” to the boy-band-styled “The Boys Are Back,” adapting the styles to the participating characters’ states of mind at that moment. Latter number yields the pic’s most original choreography, as Troy and Chad reconnect with their inner children in a salvage yard full of great dance props, a reminder of the team’s gift for organically creating playful dance moves from nearly any situation.
By releasing the songs in advance, Disney may have found an answer to their mostly forgettable quality: After listening to them enough on their MP3 players, young auds may think of them as standards. But it’s the staging, not the music (which has a disembodied studio sound and never quite synchs with the characters), that makes “High School Musical 3” worthy of the bigscreen — though the Efron factor doesn’t hurt.