| Emmy Award-winning Kenny Ortega makes the most of the opportunity to put on a show for the big screen. This kid-friendly franchise became a runaway sensation in 2006 when the first entry in the series became the Disney Channel’s most successful movie at that time with 7.7 million viewers. The soundtrack became the best selling album in America for 2006. It has become a cultural phenomenon that deals with growing up, peer group acceptance, the value of teamwork and the celebration of individual uniqueness. By combining music, sports and a melting pot of ethnicities, it has revived interest in musical theater to a whole new generation.
The Disney label continues its stranglehold on shaping children’s imaginative minds, behavioral manners, choice of role models and influencing products bought in the marketplace. This movie opens with the East High Wildcats trying to repeat as state basketball champions. They are down by 21 points at halftime. Coach Jack Bolton (Bart Johnson) gives a rousing pep talk that inspires his superstar son Troy (Zac Efron from “Hairspray”) and the rest of the team to make a comeback. You immediately notice an improved picture quality that has a brighter and bolder look. The beautiful and brainy Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) reunites with boyfriend Troy later that night. She is still wearing the necklace with the letter “T” that Troy gave her. They spend some quiet time alone in his tree house and sing a duet.
Efron and Hudgens, who are romantically linked in real life, still have a sizzling onscreen chemistry. There is a heightened sense of anticipation for them to hold hands, embrace or share passionate kisses. They will remind the Baby Boomer generation of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon from the 1960s beach party movies. Efron has a charismatic personality and makes a sterling impression as a nice, clean-cut guy with baby blue eyes. His character has admirable traits of honesty, loyalty and working hard to excel in whatever he pursues.
Hudgens has long dark hair and an adorable figure. She wears cute outfits that accentuate her shapely dancer’s legs. Her character has matured from shy and bookish to strong and independent. Troy admits that Gabriella was responsible for changing the dynamics of East High School. While basking in the innocence of first love, Troy and Gabriella are torn in two directions. They want to create lasting memories and make every moment count in their final year of high school, but they also have to ponder their futures. Will their teen romance end on graduation? Gabriella has been accepted in an honors program and will attend Stanford. The central conflict presented revolves around courageous and confused Troy who must decide between a basketball scholarship at the local university in Albuquerque or pursuing his late-blooming interest in the theater. Scheming rich girl Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale) and her more talented twin brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) are back. They will remind parents in the audience of Donny and Marie Osmond.
Sharpay is still making a play for Troy to be her leading man both on and offstage. The big events in “Senior Year” are prom, the spring musical and graduation. It is fun to see how everybody gets paired up for a formal night to remember. The big dance has the theme of “The Last Waltz.” The cast puts on a fashion show selecting their tuxedos and ballroom gowns. There is a choreographed number that will remind you of “Saturday Night Fever.” The big spring musical directed by Ms. Darbus (Alyson Reed) has the same title as the movie. There is a lot riding on it because recruiters from Julliard are attending and will award a scholarship to one deserving talented student involved in the production. Those being considered are Troy, Sharpay, Ryan and composer/pianist Kelsi (Oleysa Rubin). Other familiar returning characters are Troy’s best friend Chad Danforth (Corbin Bleu) and Gabriella’s confidante Taylor McKessie (Monique Coleman).
A few new sophomore cast members have been added to the mix to propel this joyous and infectiously upbeat package into the announced future fourth chapter. Tiara Gold (Jemma McKenzie-Brown) is a transfer student from London who becomes Sharpay’s personal assistant and understudy. Jimmie Zara (Matt Prokop) is a tall and lanky goofball who wants to follow in Troy’s shadow. He has his own pint-sized sidekick named Donny Dion (Justin Martin). Ortega serving as executive producer, director and co-choreographer (with Charles Klapow and Bonnie Story) puts his energetic young charges through their paces with one bouncy dance number after another. The varied styles of choreography will remind you of Bob Fosse’s “A Chorus Line”, the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall and the Harlem Globetrotters. You feel like standing and applauding after every dance number that innovatively utilizes basketballs and used auto parts as props. Every color in the crayon box is brought out in the designer costumes and impressive set designs.
The nearly two dozen songs represent a wide variety of musical genres ranging from pop and rock to old-fashioned ballads. You can understand every word in the lyrics as the singers do a good job of clearly enunciating every syllable. Tisdale gets to sing the biggest production number “I Want it All” and belts it out of the park like a home run slugger.
This movie, like the preceding two, was shot in Salt Lake City which provides breathtaking natural backgrounds. This movie is exhilarating fun and very entertaining. It zips by with a straightforward, uncomplicated narrative in just under two hours. It has some exciting surprises and unexpected comedic moments for its devoted teen and tweener fanbase. Its wholesome and light-hearted approach to romance and good-natured camaraderie make it ideal family fare. This should be a launching pad for future stars of the silver screen and the musical recording industry, especially Efron and Hudgens. The sure sign of a colossal hit at the box office was the audience’s hearty applause at the advance preview screening that came at the beginning and end of the movie.
Keith Cohen, "The Movie Guy"