It may very well be the nostalgia speaking. Perhaps I’m high on my own lost adolescence. But I actually believe High School Musical, for all it cheesiness and aggressive mid-2000’s flavor – is a legitimately charming and effective film.
The two biggest strengths of this Disney Channel Original Movie are its cast and its pop-infused soundtrack, well-choreographed by director Kenny Ortega.
It’s tough to imagine the Disney Channel casting team hitting a bigger home run then they did here. For starters, Zac Efron is far and away the most charismatic actor to ever star in a Disney Channel movie (at least of the two dozen or so I’ve seen). It’s no surprise to me that he’s a rare Disney kid who crossed over to the mainstream successfully as a B-list star: He not only makes you believe the fundamental jock-versus-drama kid struggle but — against all reasonable expectations — he actually makes you care about it. He’s not all that much of a singer. In fact, he semi-famously doesn’t even provide vocals for the soundtrack of this outing (apparently his voice dropped between casting and recording time so it was written out of his range). But he’s good enough to carry the movie even if he’s a non-singer leading a musical.
It’s not only Efron, though: Pretty much every cast member is great. Vanessa Hudgens turns in a delightful performance with the right amount of horny subtext in it. Ashley Tisdale and Lucas Grabeel lean into the villainous camp of their parts, stealing nearly every scene they are in.
There are a lot of possible descriptors for this soundtrack, but I’d start with: iconic. (“Annoyingly earwormy” is not far behind.) It is, to some extent, impossible for me to separate the film’s zeitgeist and its music’s subsequent inescapability from the actual quality of the songs. But I’d say they hit a pretty high batting average. Certainly, every song is highly functional in teasing out themes and/or laying out plot points. The contrasting styles of Troy and Gabriella versus Ryan and Sharpay bring some fun tension to the soundtrack, although it always makes me wonder if Miss Darbus made the right choice in who to cast. Ryan and Sharpay‘s numbers have a theatrical giddiness to them that seems perfect were one actually casting a high school musical.
For me, the film’s peak is its last 15 minutes, with the one-two punch of “Breaking Free” — a somewhat generic pop ballad enthusiastically performed by “Efron” and Hudgens — followed by “We’re All in This Together” — a rousing finale that’s the best song on the soundtrack by miles. By putting its best moments at the end of the film, High School Musical leaves a pleasant lingering taste, making it easy to forget the lowlights and always tempting me to watch the first few minutes of High School Musical 2 before I turn the TV off.
Unfortunately, High School Musical has some lifeless portions: there’s a long stretch after “Stick to the Status Quo” that just drags on and on until the climax. The character drama in this middle act is both rushed and uninteresting; a potent boredom elixir.
The film also has an over-engineered quality to it, as if designed in a lab to unoffensively appeal to the right demographics. Its messaging is one level beyond “on the nose,” and (other than the weird bit about Sharpay and Ryan being twins auditioning for romantic leads in the play) the movie lacks any edge whatsoever. That it still manages to have so much flavor in spite of the obvious Disney Channel machinery is a true testament to the cast and creative team.
Particularly, Ortega gives the musical numbers such energy and spirit that I suspect they will always hold up. As much as any of the cast, Ortega is the MVP, and he thankfully stayed on for both sequels, both of which build on the strengths of the original while not quite capturing the same lightning in a bottle spark.
As I’ve gotten older, my “guilty pleasure” at enjoying this movie has gradually shifted to outright appreciation. It’s a fun one; peak 2006 vibes, a thrilling and loving execution of the musical format that is all too rare these days.