By Christy Lemire
HOLLYWOOD — Someday, Troy and Gabriella will actually open their mouths when they kiss.
Someday, Sharpay won’t have backup dancers magically appear out of nowhere during her self-glorifying production numbers.
But for now, everything remains safely wholesome and intact in “High School Musical 3: Senior Year,” even as the series leaps from television to the big screen.
All those winsome East High Wildcats are back from parts one and two of the freakishly successful Disney Channel franchise — Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Corbin Bleu, et al. — as are mad-genius director Kenny Ortega and writer Peter Barsocchini. Only now, they have more expensive toys to play with, so the production values are glossier and the musical numbers are splashier.
But even as this third installment wallows in nostalgia, with the kids preparing for prom and clinging to the last moments of their senior year, it’s also clearly meant as a launching pad for the grown-up career of the dreamy Efron; one big dance sequence makes it obvious why he was chosen to star in the remake of “Footloose.” (Which is just plain wrong, says this child of the ’80s, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Efron is tremendously magnetic with those high cheekbones and clear blue eyes, and here you finally see his potential as more than just a teen heartthrob: You see him as a leading man.
Will the movie win any new fans? Doubtful. If you’re not the parent, aunt or uncle of a 9-year-old, you’ve probably managed to keep the whole “HSM” phenomenon at the periphery of your consciousness, and you’ll continue to do so. But for those kids in the target audience, this is movie nirvana. And the adults forced to schlep with them to the multiplex? They’ll find it surprisingly tolerable. The songs are so catchy and the “HSM” kids are so good-looking and high-energy, you may as well surrender to their manipulative ways.
Not that the plot matters all that much, but “Senior Year” follows young lovebirds Troy (Efron) and Gabriella (Hudgens) as they stress out over leaving each other after graduation. Troy is planning to attend the fictional University of Albuquerque, the city where the series is based, on a basketball scholarship (and, of course, the veteran choreographer Ortega has crammed in plenty of those singing-and-dancing-while-dribbling sequences that have become his trademark). Gabriella, meanwhile, with her impossible balance of beauty and brains, has earned early acceptance to Stanford University.
This is a dilemma they face by holding hands in Troy’s tree house and singing to each other, naturally; later on, they share a light, lovely waltz amid the garden club’s flowers on the East High roof deck. In reality, they would have done “it” by now, but that’s part of the “High School Musical” charm now, isn’t it? The all-encompassing quaintness.
The only real source of conflict comes from within Troy himself, when an unexpected chance to study theater at The Juilliard School comes his way. All of a sudden he wonders, “Am I a jock or an actor?” It’s the sort of identity crisis he and his best friend and teammate, Chad (Bleu), faced in part one along with the rest of the student body: Who am I and in which clique do I belong? This being a Disney movie, you know it won’t have to end with any ambiguity or compromise.
There’s the usual subplot in which superdiva Sharpay (Tisdale) tries to insinuate herself between Troy and Gabriella, on and off stage, with the help of her dapper brother and sidekick, Ryan (Lucas Grabeel). As bad girl and comic relief, Tisdale gets all the best lines, as usual, and she and Grabeel still share an amusingly knowing over-the-top chemistry.
Sure, some of the dialogue is painfully corny: “You might be ready to leave East High,” Troy says to Gabriella before they take the stage together one last time, “but East High isn’t ready to say goodbye to you.”
Apparently, the start of college doesn’t mean we have to say goodbye to “High School Musical,” either. A whole new class is introduced in part three including Sharpay’s scheming understudy in a plot line straight out of “All About Eve.” Surely, that means new merchandise will be available, too.
“High School Musical 3: Senior Year,” a Walt Disney Pictures production, is rated G. Running time: 108 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.