Following the success of the first two High School Musical television movies, Disney commissioned a theatrically-released finale to the series. The subtitle this time is “Senior Year,” and sure enough the story covers all of the end-of-high school totems: prom, graduation, picking a college, passing the torch to the next generation, etc., though apparently it was initially pitched as a Halloween-themed entry. (I remain devastated we never got to see a spooky HSM.)
Despite the rising stars of several members of the cast, especially Zac Efron, and the personal controversies of a few cast members, especially Vanessa Hudgens, who was an early victim of a widely-publicized nude photo leaks scandal (before we collectively understood and agreed that those whose explicit photos are leaked by hackers are the victims of sexual assault, not complicit instigators), the trilogy capper keeps the whole gang together, both in front of and behind the camera. Efron and Hudgens reappear as stars, with Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu, and the rest co-starring. Kenny Ortega, the real mastermind of the series, also returns.
First, the bad news: The music is a letdown. After two films of unforgettably catchy tunes, the majority of these songs are the kind of impersonal, vaguely competent numbers that are good enough to carry a scene but forgettable enough to evacuate your long-term memory. A few of them (“All I Wanna Do Is Be With You,” “I Want It All,” “A Night to Remember”) rise above the pack, but in general, the bop ratio is a step down from the iconic HSM1 and the sweaty HSM2.
On the other hand, the production values are off the charts compared to the previous outings. Despite a budget of only $11 million dollars (less than 50% more than the TV budget of HSM2!!), Ortega raises the visual polish and energy to a brand new level. The costumes, the rich colors, the choreography, the clean cinematography, the lighting, the location shooting, the props… seriously, everything in this movie looks terrific. There’s a stretch near the start of the film that shows a basketball game which is a piece of technical bravura; it is presumably entirely (or almost entirely) physically shot, swooping through crowds and flying balls and players. It takes my breath away every time I watch.
Perhaps no scene captures the film’s professional polish than “I Want It All,” a multi-mise-en-scene production absolutely bursting with inventiveness and humor. I’ve streamed it 50 times on YouTube and find some new fresh thing to look at every time.
Really, every musical scene brings something special to compensate for the underwhelming, forgettable tunes.
I have focused on the sheer filmmaking entertainment value of the film, which is quite high, but there’s a thoughtful story carrying the film. It is, in some ways, a retread of previous films: tracing the ups and downs of the production of a musical. But the stakes feel higher in some ways: Scholarships are on the line, adult identities locking into place, and the future of Troy and Gabriella’s romance hanging in the balance.
All of that is pretty much what you’d expect out of a “Senior Year” film. What’s a surprise is the film’s aggressively meta elements: The students are putting on a show recapping the story of their own high school years. Diegesis breaks down in astonishing ways; the line grows blurry between the in-universe musical and the characters spontaneous bursting into song, and in fact explicitly breaks down during “A Night to Remember,” when a non-diegetic prom number turns into an on-stage rehearsal without transition. The film ends with a song titled “High School Musical” and the characters bowing on a stage as if part of a theatre encore. It’s almost trippy.
There is ultimately something flimsy about the narrative structure: Much of the content feels like filler, as if Ortega (correctly) assumes that fans would be satisfied to just enjoy some fun numbers with characters we’ve come to love. Very few of the story beats feel urgent or unmissable.
Perhaps if the soundtrack had stronger songs and the script had a bit more novelty and bite, its meta elements and remarkable visual energy would make it a classic. Instead, it ultimately falls into a similar tier as the previous two entries: the wackiest and best-looking of the trilogy, but slightly uneven otherwise.