Jun 24, 2021
High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008)
In 2008, the massively successful High School Musical franchise went to a place no Disney Channel Original Movie had ever gone before: it made the jump to the big screen with High School Musical 3: Senior Year. The first film debuted to zero expectations and became a total surprise hit, and the second film was (for a very brief time) the highest rated cable broadcast ever. Soundtrack albums and DVDs and Troy Bolton dolls were selling like crazy, so a feature film was clearly the inevitable next phase in separating HSM’s tween fanbase from their parents’ hard-earned money.
All your favorite squeaky-clean East High students are back to reprise their roles one last time, now with a even bigger budget! But as High School Musical 2 already proved, you can’t throw money at the same people responsible for a mediocre TV movie and expect them to come up with anything discernibly better. The fact is, High School Musical 3 is essentially the same movie as the previous two entries, just with better lighting and higher quality film stock and a few extra dancers added to the musical numbers.
But unlike the previous two movies, this one doesn’t seem to have a plot. It takes us through random episodes of a stereotypical teenager’s senior year in high school, with various subplots vaguely alluded to here and there, but it’s not until the third act that the movie contains any actual conflict. And the songs here are probably the least notable of the series. Bubblegum pop mixed with show tunes is clearly not my thing (nor should it be the thing of anyone over the age of twelve), but even I have to acknowledge there’s not a catchy song in the bunch. And worse yet, significant time is spent setting up new characters for what seemed like the inevitable High School Musical 4, which ended up never happening.
(In an odd footnote, this film was originally announced with the title of Haunted High School Musical, which not even the cast members could make any sense out of. I’m guessing someone, somewhere looked at the late October release date and figured a Halloween-inspired tale was the best way to close out this trilogy. Common sense prevailed, but from a slow-motion train wreck perspective, the whole cast being terrorized by singing ghosts would’ve been way more interesting.)
The movie opens on Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) sweating, and breathing hard, and sweating some more. It’s the big championship basketball game, and Troy only has a few seconds to take a shot.
Except, it’s not the final shot of the game—it’s only the end of the first half. So congrats to the movie for defying that cliché, I guess. The team heads back to the locker room, where their coach (and Troy’s dad) gives them a pep talk where he says there are only 16 minutes left to the season, and it’s the last 16 minutes the seniors on the team will get to be Wildcats, and he repeats “16 minutes” a whole lot more, and Troy’s teammate/best friend Chad (Corbin Bleu) leads a final “What team? Wildcats!” chant heard about forty times in the previous two films (that’s no exaggeration—I counted).
They head back out on the court, and the remainder of the game becomes a musical number. It’s mostly a variation on “Get’cha Head in the Game”, and the only part worth mentioning is the hilarious moment where Troy’s girlfriend Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) stands up during an audience card stunt and yells out “Trooooooooyyyyy!!” and begins singing directly to him from the stands. Dammit, woman, he’s trying to get’chis head in the game!
After the song, Troy tells Coach Dad that he’s being “triple teamed” (well… there’s a mental image for you) and the only way they can win is if they put in “Rocketman”. And it turns out Rocketman is a lanky, hyperactive freshman (Matt Prokop) who ends up making the game-winning shot. Weirdly, Troy is still the one who gets to hold the trophy while being hoisted onto his teammates’ shoulders.
The afterparty is at Troy’s house, where songstress Kelsi is the DJ (naturally) and Rocketman admits to Troy that he was creepily taking pictures of his bedroom. Troy and Gaby get away from the party by hanging out in the treehouse Troy built when he was a kid. Yes, the guy has an honest-to-god treehouse in his backyard, made out of scrap lumber, like something you’d see on Tom Sawyer Island. It even has a big steering wheel from an old sailing ship. Where the hell did he get that?
It seems Troy is under massive pressure to go to his father’s alma mater, the fictional University of Albuquerque, while Gaby has been accepted to the nonfictional Stanford, meaning the two lovebirds will soon be separated by a thousand miles. This inspires them to perform a mediocre ballad called “Right Here, Right Now” that includes such memorable lyrics as “I’m looking at you, and my heart loves the view”.
The next day at school, Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale, now with a new and improved nose!) pulls up in her Malibu Barbie sportscar to the sounds of the “Fabulous” song from the previous movie. Over at her dual pink lockers, she’s approached by a new British exchange student (Jemma McKenzie-Brown) named “Tiara Gold”, and contrary to what you’re thinking, that’s not her porn name. Tiara offers to be Sharpay’s personal assistant for the rest of the school year, and Sharpay agrees because she likes her accent. And she’s an attractive girl, of course, but my, does she have a lot of teeth. I think her teeth are twice the size of a normal person’s.
You see what they’re doing here, right? With Rocketman and Tiara, they’re clearly trying to set up the new characters that will anchor the next High School Musical sequel that never happened. And believe me, they spend a lot more time on these two than what I feel like getting into here. Which means a huge chunk of this movie is spent establishing characters you’ll never see again, only adding to the general feeling of pointlessness.
In drama class homeroom, Ms. Darbus congratulates the team on their “top-to-bottom championships”. Because she doesn’t know the term “back-to-back”. Hilarious! She brings up the spring musicale, and it turns out Kelsi has forged everybody’s names on the audition signup sheet. They all complain they’re too busy to a do a musical, because in the world of this movie, the last couple of months of your senior year in high school are crazy hectic. But Kelsi convinces them to do it, because it’s the last time the Whole Gang will ever have a chance to be in a musical together.
Ms. Darbus then reveals the subject of the musical: It’s going to be all about them. The musical will be an original production called Senior Year, and it’s going to be an autobiographical musical about the lives of the students at East High, where they act out events from their senior year as they’re happening. And I just have to ask: what kind of sadistic fuck is Ms. Darbus, anyway? Can you imagine being in high school and having to stand up in front of the whole school and sing songs about things going on in your actual life? (Interesting note: High School Musical 3 opened on the same day as Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, and just try and tell me these two movies don’t have the exact same plot.)
Darbus then drops another bomb: The Juilliard School is offering a scholarship this year, that for some reason can only go to one student at East High. The people currently in the running are Sharpay (of course), her brother Ryan (of course), Kelsi (ditto), and Troy, who’s just as surprised as everyone else. The best part is how he freely admits he’s never even heard of Juilliard. So basically, it’s a big mystery as to who submitted an application for him.
Sharpay and Ryan have lunch in the cafeteria and visualize the life they’ll be leading as Juilliard students. Sure, there’s only one scholarship, but according to Sharpay’s airtight logic, “We’re twins! They’re gonna have to take us both!” They perform a number called “I Want It All” about living the high life in NYC, and becoming superstar celebs, and how this apparently means everybody else at their school will eventually find themselves in dead-end menial jobs.
There’s a nice bit where the cafeteria transforms into the set of a big Broadway musical, with the cheerleaders doing a huge kickline, while wearing pink wigs and cat ears for reasons that currently escape me.
Next, Troy is up in his “secret place”, better known as the garden on the roof of the school. Gaby finds him here, and he asks her to prom. It seems the theme of this year’s prom is “The Last Waltz”, so I assume the band playing at the prom will be… The Band? They proceed to sing a duet in 3/4 time (it’s a waltz, dammit!), and conveniently enough, it suddenly starts raining.
Then Gaby’s best friend Taylor (Monique Coleman) is giving the cold shoulder to Chad for the shitty way he asked her to prom. Yeah, what the hell, Chad, you couldn’t have her come up to the roof and spontaneously summon up a thunderstorm for the occasion? So he tries again, this time making a huge deal out of it, and making the entire cafeteria stop what they’re doing to watch him ask her to prom. And I’m just trying to eat my lasagna over here in peace, so fuck both of you.
This leads into a rehearsal of one of the big numbers in the Senior Year musical-within-the-musical, showing everybody getting ready for prom. According to the lyrics, the girls are really excited about prom, whereas the guys are dreading the experience. Way to buck the gender stereotypes, Disney. Oh, and we also find out Kelsi is Ryan’s date to the prom. Of course she is. Let’s just say if I were on this school’s yearbook staff and had to name somebody “Most Likely to Be a Beard”, it’d be Kelsi.
More rehearsals follow, including Troy and Gaby performing what I’m guessing was supposed to be the movie’s big hit single, a duet called “Just Wanna Be with You”. It’s a song about them wanting to be with each other. Also, Chad is dressed as a sad clown for reasons I can’t fully comprehend.
There’s a random interlude where Troy needs some parts for his truck, so he and Chad head down to a junkyard, and end up performing a musical number about how they used to pretend to be superheroes and spies when they were kids. I’m mostly fascinated by the line “It’s time to show how to be a superhero / Just like a showdown, Will Smith and Bobby De Niro”. Were they just stuck for a rhyme with “hero”, or did something terrible go down during the recording sessions for Shark Tale?
Meanwhile, not only has Gaby been accepted into Stanford, she’s also been placed into the “Stanford Honors Program”, which evidently means incoming freshmen can totally blow off their senior year for three weeks and go hang out on the Stanford campus. I’m pretty sure they made this up. Gaby was planning to quietly turn down the offer, but Sharpay villainously spills the beans, in a shameless recycling of callback to her blowing the lid off Gaby’s alleged “whiz kid” status in the first movie.
Troy now feels guilty for holding Gaby back, and tells her to take the opportunity. So she heads to Stanford, meaning she can’t do the musical, but will supposedly be back for prom.
Troy then has an argument with his dad about possibly not going to the U of A, and all the combined pressure prompts Troy to drive to the school at night. He’s wearing a hoodie, so you know he’s up to no good. But as it turns out, he’s not here to commit vandalism, but rather to hate-sing another super-dramatic boy band song in the vein of the previous movie’s “Bet on It”.
He ends up on stage, screaming his lungs out, and it turns out Ms. Darbus has been sitting in the auditorium the whole time. Well, this is embarrassing.
Darbus reveals that she’s the one who submitted Troy’s application to Juilliard. And thinking back to how much paperwork was involved in applying to colleges, the notion that a teacher would sit down and spend her free time putting together an application for one of her students out of the goodness of her own heart is the most ridiculous thing in this movie. Frankly, I buy an entire basketball team breaking into song during a game before I buy this.
Later, Gaby calls Troy to say she’s not coming back for prom, and in fact, she’s never coming back, because “I can’t be a little adult right now, Troy.” [??] Ah, there’s that borderline incoherent High School Musical dialogue we know and love!
So Troy drives up to Stanford in his pickup truck, wearing a tux, no less, just to tell Gaby that “My prom is wherever you are.” He then guilts her into coming back to school, saying that thanks to her arrival lo those many months ago, the whole school is now caught up in a musical theater vortex, and the least she can do is come back and do one last show.
Back at East High, they’re attempting to put on the musical without either one of their two leads, which is all the more bizarre considering everybody’s supposed to be playing themselves. It seems Rocketman will now be playing the part of Troy, the part of Gabriella will now be played by Sharpay, the part of Sharpay will now be played by Tiara Gold, and the part of Tiara Gold will now be played by a bear trap. It’s a joke about her teeth.
Ryan kicks things off by performing a solo version of “I Want it All” with the Rockette Kittens. I really like how East High has a surplus of students who are clearly professional dancers, and also adult women.
Sharpay and Rocketman perform “Just Wanna Be with You”, but it’s undone by the fact that Sharpay finds Rocketman horribly repulsive, and she spends the whole number trying to get away from him and turning the whole thing into a complete disaster. Very professional, Sharpay. Does she think actresses only have to do romantic scenes with guys they actually find physically attractive? Because there are a whole lot of Steven Seagal films that say otherwise.
Just then, the real Troy and Gaby show up to perform the same song everyone just heard, in the same clothes they walked in off the street wearing. But everyone’s loving it. Even the people from Juilliard are getting into it.
In a just world, this is where the movie would have ended. Instead, Tiara continues to try to play the part of Sharpay, leading to a number where we get dueling Sharpays who are literally trying to push each other out of the spotlight. Personally, if I were directing this play, I’d be feeling like this thing was a total clusterfuck at this point, but Darbus appears completely unfazed. (And I know it’s not completely fair to judge based on two songs, but from what I’ve heard so far, the two “new characters” they hired to carry on their musical franchise can’t even sing.)
The Senior Year musical then ends with a scene where everyone weirdly gets to act out the graduation ceremony they haven’t even had yet. And in another sadistic twist, Darbus uses the opportunity to announce where everyone is going in reality: Kelsi gets to go to Juilliard, Taylor is going to Yale, Juilliard is also going to take Ryan, Chad is going to the U of A, and Sharpay is also going to the U of A and “has agreed to return to East High next fall to assist me in running the drama department!” Yeah, clearly, they were setting up a Saved by the Bell: The New Class type of scenario with Sharpay as Screech to Darbus’ Mr. Belding, but obviously that didn’t happen.
Finally, we come to Troy’s decision, which I’m sure you’re all on the edge of your seats about. He’s decided to go to Berkeley, where he can both study theater and play basketball (and go on to annoy a whole new set of friends with his waffling and indecisiveness, I assume), and also be close to Gaby.
Chad briefly throws a tantrum, leaving the set of the “play” to go bitterly dribble a ball on the basketball court. Troy heads over to talk him down, pointing out that Berkeley’s basketball team plays against the U of A all the time, so they’ll definitely see each other again. So… crisis averted, I guess?
And then it’s over to the school’s football field for the actual graduation ceremony. Somehow, Troy gets to give a speech, even though the most insightful thing he has to offer is, “Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat!” And then the Whole Gang performs a song that is actually titled “High School Musical”. I don’t know, was this really necessary? The final ten minutes of the third movie in a trilogy seems to not be the ideal time to finally come up with a theme song.
The song ends, and a curtain is lowered, and the High School Musical logo descends behind our main cast, and they all jump in the air to imitate the cover of the DVD of the first movie.
Oh, but it’s not over yet. We get a completely insane finale as each of the six main cast members gets a long, lingering farewell shot, where they all look about ready to burst into tears, and… for fuck’s sake, guys, this franchise only started in 2006! The original cast of Star Trek didn’t get this kind of sendoff after playing those parts for twenty goddamn years!
Finally, it’s over. For one last comical footnote, the credits feature a music video from the guy who won that High School Musical reality show that nobody watched.
For a movie franchise transitioning from TV to the big screen, High School Musical 3 feels oddly claustrophobic. Instead of real locations, most of the numbers are performed on the indoor “sets” constructed for the musical within the musical, which makes sense, but still makes everything feel smaller, not bigger than the previous movies.
But for all the grief I give this movie, I have to say the musical numbers are all pretty well done, with lots of excitement and visual flair. I suppose if there’s one thing about the franchise I can’t criticize, it’s the choreography, which should only follow, given director Kenny Ortega is a choreographer whose career stretches all the way back to Xanadu (speaking of musical plotless wonders…).
And that’s about it. What have we learned, Charlie Brown? The first High School Musical was all about following your dreams, no matter what your friends think. High School Musical 2: High School Harder had the somewhat contradictory message that your friends are what’s important, perhaps more so than following your dreams. But I can’t even tell you what High School Musical 3 is about, other than prepping its tweener audience for the existential despair of their final months in high school.
And it sort of makes the previous film look even more pointless in retrospect. Why did Troy care so much about winning back the friendship of a group of people he’ll most likely never see again? Oh, I’m sure he’ll keep in touch with them. Troy’s good for at least four or five messages back and forth in Facebook where he makes vague plans to meet up with his old Wildcat bros, until he finally realizes he’s corresponding with the guy whose claim to fame in high school was knowing how to make crème brulee.
But the strangest aspect of this film is how much work was put into setting up a sequel, only for Disney to completely lose interest in the entire franchise.
Reportedly, a spinoff pilot called Madison High was produced for the Disney Channel, featuring Ms. Darbus and a whole new cast of kids. Disney turned down the pilot, and that was that. Obviously, High School Musical: The Next Generation would have sucked, but you still have to wonder why Disney left a huge pile of money on the table when they abandoned this franchise.
This is all pure conjecture on my part, but sometimes these decisions are nothing more than the result of new management coming onboard with little to no interest in continuing the projects of the previous regime. I’m sure they realized what we all know, which is that this franchise probably only had a few years of life left in it at most (which probably seemed even more apparent after the failure of the reality show). And with Disney acquiring both the Marvel properties and Star Wars in the last few years, I can easily see a situation arising where not a single fuck was given about future High School Musical feature films.
Well, that about wraps it up. I had a pretty good time writing these High School Musical reviews over the past five years, and putting to good use my ability to snark on high school shows (finely honed while recapping Degrassi Junior High episodes), but now it’s time to say goodbye to these characters and…
…Oh, shit. I just realized. This isn’t the end of the High School Musical franchise. There’s one more film in the saga, which I’m sort of obligated to review, because, well, it exists, and also because it was filmed in Toronto and features a few actors from Degrassi, including no less than Joey Jeremiah himself, Pat Mastroianni. I’m referring to the Ashley Tisdale spinoff movie Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure, and I’m pretty sure the only accurate word in that title is “Sharpay’s”. Join me next time as this series of reviews ends with a whimper!