Since the first High School Musical’s televised release in January of 2006, the Disney film franchise has spawned inevitable comparisons to the grandfather of high school musicals, Grease. 1978’s Grease was the first movie to have teenagers join their classmates in choreographed song-and-dance routines to express their collective feelings about homework and prom night and friendship. What Grease always had on the High School Musical thing was that no matter how wildly successful the first two HSMs ended up becoming (which was very), they still carried the stigma of being made-for-TV ventures. Not so anymore. High School Musical 3: Senior Year opened on the big screen last week and it logged the biggest opening weekend ever for a musical film, bringing in $42 million. Game on, Grease.
The High School Musical films always work when they stick to their Disney reality, which means bright clothes, big smiles, fun handshakes, and no attempts at answering the big questions. High School Musicals 1 & 2 did this easily. They took place during sophomore and junior years and were able stick inside the realm of high school, thus sticking to the safer, smaller questions, like ‘how does one balance sports and theater’ or ‘what will your friends think of you for dating some guy they don’t like?’ High School Musical 3: Senior Year, ends up confronting the bigger questions — the ones that lie outside the high school bubble, such as ‘what am I doing with my life?’ This is exactly why the third installation in the HSM franchise doesn’t work as well as its predecessors.
Just like the other two HSMs, the plot in HSM 3: Senior Year centers around Troy’s dilemma, which is should he follow his Dad and stick to what he knows (basketball), or should he follow his heart and girlfriend into the unknown (theater)? Just like the other two HSMs, the side plots deal with Gabriella’s insecurity about being smart and the havoc that Sharpay and her narcissism wreak on the people around her. These plots worked in the first two HSMs and they work again in the third one, at least for a while. For the first two-thirds, the movie soars along. There’s bubbly energy and flashy, harmless numbers about the characters at a Disney-fied version of high school and their familiar dilemmas. However, as graduation nears and the characters try to prepare for the future and life outside their Disney reality, the film leaves its comfort zone and everything loses momentum. Troy announces that he’s going to UC Berkeley, where he will play competitive basketball and study drama. Gabriella miraculously gets into Stanford’s honors program, even though she hasn’t uttered one remotely intelligent line in all three films. And scouts from Julliard are so blown away by the generic songwriting of the girl in the knit cap that they offer her a full scholarship. (They also offer a full scholarship to the rich kid, which doesn’t make any sense either.)
High School Musical 3 should have taken more plot cues from Grease. Not that Taylor should have been singing about being slutty and getting an abortion. Not that Sharpay should have stolen booze from her mom and forced Gabriella to drink it. Those details are a part of Grease’s reality, not High School Musical’s. Where Grease’s plot got it right and High School Musical 3’s plot got it wrong was the ending. Grease didn’t bother telling us what colleges Jan, Rizzo, Kenickie, or Frenchy had decided on, or if they even decided on college at all. Grease didn’t bother explaining how Danny and Sandy were planning to maintain their relationship after graduation, or if they would even stay together at all. What Grease understood was that a musical about high school is best left within the confines of its own absurd reality.
Instead of building a story around Troy and Gabriella’s future plans, Disney should have thrown them into a sparkly car and flown them off into the clouds like Sandy and Danny, who knew that reality didn’t exist after the end of their high school musical (…except for Grease 2, and who wants to live in that reality?).