Luke Owen charts the ‘High School Musical’ trilogy…
No wait! Come back!
Alright, so this may hardly be “one of the greatest trilogies of all time”, however I once again refer to my original post and my rules:
1. It has to be a trilogy
And like it or not, this is a trilogy of films.
Now, don’t think that I am reviewing this series of films to bad mouth them. Quite the contrary in fact, I actually like these films. And with this issue of Talkin’ Trilogies, I hope to show you why.
So, let us take a trip back to 2006 where the Disney Channel was getting ready to premiere a film that, unbeknownst to them, was going to take over the world.
High School Musical (Ortega, 2006)
When unknown writer Peter Barsocchini wrote the screenplay for High School Musical, I’m sure he had no idea what effect it would have on his career. The only thing he had written of note prior to High School Musical was the 1994 Wesley Snipes / Gary Busey movie Drop Zone. “It’s just one of those projects where the planets sort of lined up from day one” he told the L.A Times on August 26th 2007.
Rumour has it that High School Musical actually started life out in 1999 as the proposed sequel/reboot of Grease, tentatively titled Grease 3, which would feature the children of Danny, Sandy and other members of the original cast. The project was shelved after several re-writes in 2004 and according to the IMDB.com trivia page the basic plot remained the same when it was carried over to High School Musical. However, I can find no interviews or articles that confirm or deny these claims, so it’s all hearsay.
“I thought it would be really fun to write a Disney Channel movie that my daughter could watch” he told Written By in 2007. “Because two of the other things I was working on were going to be R rated” he continued, “and High School Musical was a totally different experience”.
The story focuses around two central characters, Captain of the basketball team Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez, the bookish nerd who have a chance meeting on the last night of a holiday break. The pair are thrown up on to a stage and are forced to sing, where they both discover that they can not only both sing very well, they both secretly love it. As luck would have it, Gabriella has now moved to the same school as Troy which would allow their romance to bloom. The pair audition for the duet role in the schools winter musical and get the parts – but now they have to lead double lives as neither of their respective clubs will allow them to do both.
Taking influences from musicals like Grease and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Barsocchini weaved together an entertaining if a little basic script. The characters are very clichéd, the dialogue is stilted and the plot is incredibly standard. It has one simple message, “do what you want to do, not what society deems you to do”, which can be found in many Disney productions. However, despite these negative criticisms, the film was accepted on first draft. “It was the first time in my career, and probably the last time, that a company greenlit the first draft… they said, ‘we really like it and we’re sending it to directors” he told Written By, “and I said, ‘the first draft?!’” The first director they sent the script to was a man named Kenny Ortega, who would go on to take the job.
Ortega had a few soirees in the world of directing, but his real calling card was his work as a choreographer in the 1980s for films such as Dirty Dancing, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. As well as bringing Barsocchini’s script to life, Ortega also took on the role of choreographing the dance sequences for the film along with Charles “Chuckie” Kaplow. “Kenny [was a] real stickler for choreographing for the camera” he said at a Q & A session for the Choreography Media Awards in 2009, “There was one day when we we’re working on the basketball number and I had done the choreography for the basketball team, Kenny was in another room with another group. He came in and he saw what we had done and the first thing he said was, ‘where is the camera’”. Ortega could have just shot these dance numbers as flashy music video style segments, however because he cared about the project and wanted to succeed, he really put in the effort so that the film would look like a proper movie rather than a cheap made for TV effort.
Now, you could read that and say that Ortega pushed High School Musical into a film that is all style and no substance – a beautiful shell with an empty core. And at the very base of the film, it is. Despite Ortega’s efforts, the main problems with the script could not be overcome. The dialogue is hokey and the story is clichéd and basic. However where Ortega succeeds in making the film a fun experience – which was the entire point of the film. High School Musical is a fun film. The songs are catchy, the choreography is great and it looks as good as a made for TV movie can look. Having said that, there is one thing that really brings the film to life – its cast.
Ortega made the decision to cast complete of mostly unknowns with the exception of Ashley Tisdale who had some success from the role of Maddie Fitzpatrick in Disney’s The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. Either the casting process was incredibly thorough or they got very lucky as they managed to cast an incredibly charismatic bunch of actors. Most notably the afore mentioned Ashley Tisdale who plays drama bitch Sharpay Evans, Corbin Bleu as basketball jock Chad Danforth and the ever charming Zac Efron who took on the lead role.
What is interesting about Efron is that this was the role that catapulted him into the megastar he is today. However, for a film that involves a lot of singing, Efron himself barely sang a note. Because Ortega deemed his voice too low for that of a tenor and his voice was over dubbed by actor and singer Andrew Seeley who also tested for the role of Troy. This leads me to believe that Efron was not cast for his voice but for his looks and his natural charisma. A smart move as Zac Efron was, in my mind, one of the leading contributors to the success of High School Musical. Noted director Gus Van Saant wrote in Interview Magazine in 2008, “Efron radiates a sort of well-scrubbed mannishness. He’s an entertainer in the most traditional sense of the word.”
The made for TV movie premiered on the Disney Channel on January 20th 2006 to a record breaking audience of 7.7 million viewers. Since then, it has been seen globally by 225 million people. A staggering amount for a TV movie that was made for $4.2 million, which is low in the world of Disney TV, to fill a time slot.
The success of High School Musical was instant and its popularity was huge. The DVD shifted 1.2 million copies in the first 6 days and was the second Disney Channel Original Movie to be certified platinum. By August, the soundtrack had sold more than 3 million copies and was number one on the Billboard 200 chart twice. The film spawned a series of books, dolls and a ton of other merchandise as well as a worldwide concert tour, an on stage musical and an ice show.
For me, High School Musical is a mixed bag of affairs. While the songs are incredibly catchy and the film the choreography is top notch, the plot lacks any credibility and a lot of the acting is very wooden. The young cast do have a very natural sense about them, but Vanessa Hudgens in particular falls flat on screen. But this was a made for TV movie and I’m not expecting The Shawshank Redemption here.
With all of this popularity, it would have been foolish for Disney not to commission a sequel. And commission one they did.
High School Musical 2 (Ortega, 2007)
“When [High School Musical] executive producer Bill Borden and I were talking [about the sequel], I said, ‘What’s the greatest day of the year for a kid? Let’s turn the page. Let’s not do what’s expected. Let’s start it on the last day of school.’” Barsocchini told Richard Stayton in the September 2007 issue of Written By. “I had summer jobs” he continued, “not that kids today get summer jobs, you know, because it’s harder for them. But I said that would be a fun thing, and Disney was like, ‘Okay.’”
So Barsocchini was going the Are You Being Served? route by taking characters out of the comfort zone we’ve grown to know them in and putting them into a foreign environment. This tends to happen with TV to movie adaptations (see the afore mentioned Are You Being Served?, Kevin and Perry Go Large, Sex and the City 2 etc.) and this tactic is usually because the comfort zone has outstayed its welcome. However, this was not the case with High School Musical 2, but as Barsocchini said, “let’s not do what’s expected”. It was a bold move as audiences had built up a perception of what High School Musical as an entity meant. They may have just wanted to see more of the same rather than taking a 180 degree turn. Zac Efron didn’t see it that way however stating in his August 2007 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, “In the first movie, you got to meet the characters of High School Musical. In the second movie you get to join the ride”.
High School Musical 2 takes place at the end of the Wildcats first year together as friends and they are preparing for their summer holiday. The only problem is Troy needs to get some money to be able to pay for his college tuition fees. Meanwhile, Sharpay has plans to steal Troy from Gabriella by giving him a job at the country club that her parents own. What she didn’t count on however was Troy bringing the rest of the Wildcats with him.
Bottom line, High School Musical 2 is a vast improvement on the original film. The production looks better, the acting is better and most importantly for the genre, the songs are better. The overall scale of the film feels less ‘made for TV’ like its predecessor even though this was still made for the television market. Much like with the first film, the basic plot and dialogue is carried by the excellent cast of charismatic youngsters. Corbin Bleu really steps up his game as does the rest of the cast, but its Lucas Brabeel that makes the biggest improvement from the two films by stepping out from the shadows and into the forefront. The true stars of the show once again however are Zac Efron (who actually sings this time) and Ashley Tisdale.
Whilst watching this film through again recently, I made the discovery that without Tisdale’s superb telling of Sharpay’s tale, I probably wouldn’t like this film or indeed the series as much as I do. She gives undoubtedly the best performance in the second movie and steals almost every scene she is in. Her annoying habits and tendencies are highlighted beautifully by Lucas Grabeel’s performance as her brother Ryan who is the perfect counterpart. Tisdale’s beauty and charisma really bring the character from being a clichéd bitch antagonist to easily the best character of the franchise. What makes this a bad thing however is that, as an audience member, I’m not supposed to like her. When she gets her comeuppance at the end of the film, I genuinely feel bad for her which I’m certain was the not the intended point.
Despite my overall praise for High School Musical 2, I do have one reservation against the film which is the case of inconstancy regarding the actual musical side of the film. Edgar Wright said in an interview with DVD Review regarding the fights in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, “When the emotion is too great to convey in mere words, characters in a musical will sing out.” This works in the case of movies like Grease or Little Shop of Horrors where they use the musical number to move the story forward. However in the world of High School Musical, they don’t just sing to move the plot or build characters, they also sing in shows as part of the story. This creates a bizarre world in which Chad Danforth dances around singing with his friends only to then have a conversation with Ryan about how he hates dancing and singing. Which is then followed by a song in the film sung by Chad called ‘I Don’t Dance’ during which he does an elaborate dance number. It doesn’t make sense and is horrendously inconsistent.
With that one complaint aside, High School Musical 2 is again a very fun film. Much like the first film, it was trying not to be a cinematic masterpiece. It set out to be a fun way to spend an hour and a half and it succeeds on every single level. This is encapsulated by the final number of the film, ‘All For One’ sung by the entire cast. There is such an overwhelming sense of fun and enjoyment and the cast (including a blink and you’ll miss it cameo from Miley Cyrus) look like they are having a blast. This delight is portrayed so well that you can’t help but smile.
Premiering on August 17th 2007, High School Musical 2 brought in a 17.2 million viewers which was not only a Disney Channel record, it was also the most watched basic-cable television show at the time beating out Monday Night Football’s display of the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys in 2006. Over the premier weekend, the show totalled at a staggering 33.04 million viewers. The success of the sequel, and the franchise, could not be denied.
As I said earlier, I think High School Musical 2 surpasses the first film in every respect however I appear to be in the minority. HSM2 has the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score as well as the lowest IMDB.com rating. Phil Null of filmcritic.com said upon the DVDs release in 2008, “[High School Musical 2] lacks the sizzle and originality that made the first film so popular… The songs in this instalment are nowhere near the quality of those in the original, but they work well enough.”
The writing was on the wall, High School Musical was not a one trick pony, it was not a happy accident and more importantly, it was not a fluke. High School Musical was quickly becoming a billion dollar franchise. Imagine what sort of money could be made if the series took to the silver screen…
High School Musical 3: Senior Year (Ortega, 2008)
In the history of cinema, the usual course of franchise movies that overstay their welcome on the big screen is for them to move to a straight to DVD release. High School Musical is the exception to the rule however by making the transition from made-for-TV-movie to big screen adaptation with a large scale production and budget.
High School Musical 3: Senior Year is, as the title would suggest, about the graduating year for the Wildcats. With such a huge part of their lives coming to an end, it’s now up to the kids to make the decisions that will take them into adulthood. The main issue of which is whether Troy wants to follow his dream of being a pro basketball player or following his heart and study the performing arts. On top of that, the Wildcats are preparing for their final ever production at East High School simply titled, ‘Senior Year’.
Returning again to pen the script for the third instalment was Peter Barsocchini who said in an interview with movieweb.com, “the first thing when approaching High School Musical 3, knowing it was going to be a theatrical [release] – you literally have a bigger screen to work with. So conceiving musical numbers and the scale of what we did and approaching to do was expanding.” So, the big question surrounding High School Musical 3: Senior Year is whether the transition from small to silver screen was a smooth one. While HSM3 is a good film, it does often feel like an over polished TV movie. However, you cannot fault them on upping the scale of the production.
Where High School Musical 3: Senior Year falls down in my book is the plot points that have just been carried over from the first two films. Troy has to decide whether he wants to act or play ball just like he did in the first film and Gabriella has to decide whether she wants to stay in East High with Troy or “go her own way” as she did in High School Musical 2. Even if this is some people’s first view into the world of High School Musical, Barsocchini should have tried to implement newer plot threads instead of re-hashing old ones. He talked about the scale of production in the afore mentioned interview and that seems to have taken precedent over the actual plot, story and character development. Whereas the first two movies where trying to be something a little bit different from other musicals, High School Musical 3: Senior Year just feels like any other teen musical. Even worse, it just feels like another entry into the franchise and nothing special.
Not to say that High School Musical 3: Senior Year is a bad movie because it’s actually really fun. The songs are still catchy, the mood is high and the choreography is excellent. While I don’t think it’s the best one of the series, it really holds itself up compared to its predecessors. I mentioned the ending of High School Musical 2 with the big end number that highlights the essence of fun the film exudes, well High School Musical 3 also has this big number to cap off the film. This one though is actually quite poignant when you look at the lyrics:
High School Musical
Who says we have to let it go?
It’s the best part we’ve ever known
Step into the future…but hold on to
High School Musical
Let’s celebrate where we come from
The friends who’ve been there all along
Just like… from High School Musical
This can be seen one of two ways. One of those ways being that this song is a wonderful way to celebrate the end of the series. It is a way for the cast members to show their appreciation for the filmmakers taking them from unknowns to major players. Or you could look at it as Disney saying, “We made you and don’t you forget it!” For me, I think this a great way to end the franchise, even if it is a little self-masturbatory. It’s nice to see this cast of characters I’ve grown to love go their own separate ways and out of my life.
This is truly one of the great things about the High School Musical trilogy, which is that the franchise was written and directed by the same people and it features the same cast. It means by the third film they have all gelled together which means they will put out a better product. However, there was one cast member that nearly missed this entry…
On September 6th 2007, nude photos of Vanessa Hudgens were leaked onto the internet and shared throughout the world. Not only was Hudgens’ squeaky clean image tarnished, Disney’s almost impeccable reputation was under threat. On October 17th 2007, OK! Magazine published a story that claimed Disney were done with Hudgens and that they didn’t want her to be in the movie. The article reads, “OK! can exclusively report that Disney has made up its mind about what to do next and that the 18-year-old actress will not be asked to board the boat for the third HSM film. ‘Disney finally decided that they don’t want her back,’ an insider reveals to OK!. ‘They feel that as long as Zac Efron is in the movie, all will be fine.’” However, on the same day, Access Hollywood posted a story which confirmed that Hudgens was still in negotiations with Disney for her role and that they were not going to drop her. Hudgens’ rep said, “totally untrue. It’s an old rumour. OK! Magazine was having a slow news day”. On the 24th October 2008, Hudgens did an interview with The Daily Mirror in which she said, “I think that everything happens for a reason and I wouldn’t take back anything I’ve done. I don’t like talking about it because it was something that was meant to be private and I’d still like to keep it as private as I can.”
Despite the negative press this put on the film, it was always bound to be a success. Premiering on October 24th 2008, High School Musical 3: Senior Year beat out Saw V in box office weekend takings by drawing in $42 million in the US alone and in total has brought in over $250 million dollars. Reviews were mixed with some critics downright hating the film while others enjoyed it. Tim Robey of the Daily Telegraph said that, “[when] refitted for the big screen, it becomes an eerily plastic business, like a blown-up dolls house”. David Jenkins of Time Out said “the bottom line is, if you’ve not already booked tickets for the entire family, think twice before being caught up in the hype. At best, you’ll be disappointed; at worst, you’ll want to blow up a high school.” Mark Kemode said in his review that he heard other critics “audibly tutting” in disapproval. However, Kermode was among many top critics who actually liked the film. He went on to say in his review that, “I’m going to leap to its defence, I really enjoyed it” and to claim that it would be in his top 5 of that year. Mark Olson of the L.A Times said, “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.”
So, with a now billion dollar franchise under the belt, it will come as a surprise to those not in the know is that this is where the High School Musical story ends.
High School Musical 4 and spin-offs
It seems very odd for a company like Disney to just pull the plug on a franchise, especially one that is this hot. In High School Musical 3: Senior Year we were introduced to a whole host of new characters that would in effect be “the next generation” of High School Musical. I’m not sure whether audiences reacted negatively to them or whether they couldn’t get a script right, but these characters were never seen or heard from again. Since the final films release, all talk of a fourth instalment as pretty much died of death and it’s looking more and more likely that we have seen the end of this franchise.
That was until this year when the straight to DVD release of Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure, a spin off movie featuring Ashley Tisdale as Sharpay pursuing a career on Broadway. Now, I’ve not seen this movie so I can’t pass judgment on it, however being that Sharpay was the best thing from all three movies, I would be more than happy to give this a go.
Recently I wrote some reviews for the Roger Corman produced monster movies Sharktopus and Dinoshark. In those reviews, I wrote that the films “could have been a good little tongue in cheek monster movie that would do quite well among B-Movie fans. However, these titles keep getting put in the hands of incompetent filmmakers who don’t know one end of a camera from another, let alone how to make an entertaining film.” This is a key point I bring up when I am jumping to the defence of High School Musical. Ortega and his team weren’t trying to change the world; they were looking to entertain it. Much like Sharktopus and Dinoshark, the High School Musical series was a straight to DVD affair that was just intended to make its money back. However, because the filmmakers cast a group of enthusiastic actors, they brought in a writer who wanted to write a fun script and they had a director with a clue they ended up with a not only an incredibly entertaining film, but a impressively successful one too.
“We need to save our show from people who don’t know the difference between a Tony Award and Tony Hawk.” – Sharpay Evans, High School Musical (Ortega, 2006)