Now for something really horrible: Disney’s vision of adolescence.
Meet star basketball player Troy (Zac Efron) and lonely bookworm Gabrielle (Vanessa Anne Hudgens), two teens as far apart as you can be without breaking the Stepford mold Disney’s live action movies use to create characters. Through pure happenstance, both are forced to sing Karaoke together at a gutless, New Year’s Eve “kids” Party. As they do so, both manifest the strange and fantastic powers possessed by all major characters in musicals, singing a song they’ve never heard before perfectly, complete with overproduced, generic “oooh”s and “yeah”s that inspire cheering accolades from all the dumbshits in their audience. Said dumbshits drop whatever it is they’re doing to form a pan-worthy tableau behind our two leads. Here I thought audiences typically gathered in front of performers. I didn’t count on this being Opposite Day is Disneyland. Or the fact that Disneyland is a such a demon-haunted world.
Are Gabrielle and Troy’s audience cheering Our (eventual) Lover’s instantaneous vocal prowess? Or the hip-to-eye-line view of our lead’s Ambercrombie and Fitch-clad butts? Hell, your average teenager has so much crap in their heads both of our stars would have to walk out in matching pairs of leather chaps (and nothing else) before they garnered this level of real-world attention.
Moving past that awful mental image, Troy and Gabby step outside into a “snowstorm” composed of either Styrofoam packing peanuts or ash from Papa Walt’s Sunny Fun Time Concentration Camp just upwind of our lead’s matte painting-backed ski lodge. The two awkward hot people (Contradiction in Terms Alert) exchange numbers and Gabby (in her first and last real display of intelligence) runs off before Troy can stammer out a conversational opener.
Two weeks and one jump-cut later, we switch to East High of Albuquerque, NM, home of the Wildcats. (In real life, it’s East High of Salt Lake City, home of the Leopards…and, as of 2007, attempted forcible sodomy. You just gotta love high school…because if you don’t, it’ll hold you down and make you love it.) At East High, we learn Troy is the star player of his school’s basketball team, an organization so large it apparently encompasses the entire student body. A Rich Bitch if ever I saw one saunters past the camera, parting Troy’s flying-V of jock accomplices like a blond mini-Moses…wait a tick…our Wildcats do forming a Red Sea all their own, thanks to the school’s choice of colors…hmmm….coincidence?
Never mind. There’s Gabrielle, and this is her first day at a new school. “I don’t wanna be the school’s freaky genius girl again.” Oh, dear…if only you were, hon. I see a great movie in that “I don’t wanna” (and a perfectly missed opportunity for a song). I see an army of reanimated frogs bursting out of the Science room, knocking students and teachers to the floor with the unbearable cloud of formaldehyde stink that proceeds them like an honor guard. I see bland, flawless, underwear-model faces twisted in futile struggles for last, desperate gasps. I see their eyes roll over white as Gabrielle, face obscured by a gas mask, strides over them, a remote control for her zombie frog legions in one hand. There’s a fat book in other, and I’m not surprised to see it’s the Necronomicon Ex Mortis. I am surprised by all the profanity Gabrielle’s putting into her triumphant Evil Monologue. I dare not reproduce it for you here, but let me just say, it’s blue as the Tick and twice as hefty.
Back in the real movie, Troy and Gabrielle re-meet in Drama, as both “enjoy” the histrionics of Miss Darbis (Alyson Reed), the Dra-aaah-mah teacher, who’s apparently conflated dra-aah-matic line reading with dra-aah-matic emm-fah-sissss…much like some first year drama students I could think of if I wanted to dredge up the silt of my memories. I never thought I’d say this but, as I watched Miss Darbis mutilating the English language’s pronunciation rules, I couldn’t help but fondly recall Bang Bang You’re Dead‘s Crusading Drama Teacher, Mr. Duncan. At least he acted like a human being. Here, our Crusading Drama Teacher acts like the Broadway cliche she is, heavily filtrated through Woody Allen’s nightmares and set loose upon an unsuspecting (fictional) high school’s worth of kids.
In any case, Miss Darbis hits Our (eventual) Lovers (along with a whole bunch of others) with detention for the heinous crime of cell phone possession. As soon as she does, the bell rings and class ends. Wait, what’s this? That great movie institution: the Five Minute Class. Still, I couldn’t help but blink and rewind the movie, making sure some random encoding error hadn’t forced the film to skip ahead to the next scene by mistake…but no. Plot Specific Bell Ringing strikes again! God, this is shaping up to be a classic example of “How Not To Make A High School-Centric Film.” All we need’s an “evil” team to oppose our feckless, flawless Heroes.
And, whadda ya know: outside, Our (eventual) Lovers meet the Rich Bitch we saw earlier, who’s real name (I shit you not) is Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale). If Troy were James Bond, Sharpay would be his Bad Girl, ever-scheming to win him away from Gabrielle, the impudent newcomer who dares cozy up to East High’s only available jock…or, at least, the only one good enough for Sharpay Evans. Yet she disses both Our Lovers twice within a minute of meeting them, cementing her Villain status even as she muddies up her own motivations. She and her brother have starred in “all the school’s productions,” and she’ll be damned if she lets Troy and his new fashion accessory take Miss Darbis’ winter “music-CAL” away from the Siblings Evans.
In classic Disney Villain fashion, Sharpay is the catalyst of her own undoing. Her paranoia forces her to set in motion a chain of events that culminate in the very outcome she spends the movie hoping to avoid (spoiler alert). Irony, thy name is High School Musical.
After Troy’s dad-slash-basketball coach, the 24-ishly-named Jack Bolton (Bart Johnson), rescues Troy from the terrors of detention we cut to basketball practice…and learn Troy’s having second thoughts about signing up for that “music-CAL”. If a certain bookworm were his co-star, all kinds of…interesting….possibilities might suddenly…”open up,” so to speak. We all know about those Drama nerds, don’t we? They may not match the Band Nerd’s levels of determined, adolescent nymphomania, but Lord knows they make up for it with fumbling, backstage make-out sessions.
What? Don’t tell me that kinda shit only happened at my school. Puh-leeze…
Troy’s “friend”Chad (Corbin Bleu) is nonplussed. Musicals, after all, are gay. He doesn’t say so in so many words, but I can hear his character strain against the hypocritical conventions of Disney-movie morality, itching to call a spade and spade. “It’s not even rock or hip hop,” he declares, “or anything that’s important to culture.” I don’t know who’s dumbass friend actually said that to screenwriter Peter Barsocchini at some point, but I know this: in that moment, whoever-it-was provided Barsocchini with his Defining Element of Tragedy. So, years after his Emmy award-winning stint producing the Merv Griffin Show, Barsocchini’s star has risen once again. If High School Musical is Skynet, then he is its Miles Dyson…and if the best revenge is living well, Barsocchini’s gone one better and now lives high on the Disney hog.
Speaking of rich bastards…like a blond xenomorph, Sharpay Evans bursts into the other character’s lives, hissing acidic spit and showing all of her teeth in a reaper’s rictus. Sharpay’s certainly grim enough. With the aide of her hat-wearing brother, Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), she concocts a plan to get Gabrielle involved in East High’s upcoming Scholastic Decathlon, and thus safely away from Troy.
She, of course, fails. And the plan, of course, backfires. Not through any essential failing of Sharpay’s (other than her failure to treat anyone else like a human beings), and certainly not through any heroic actions on the part of Our (eventual) Lovers. No, Sharpay fails because she must. It is her purpose, and much like the actual Matrix, nothing in a Disney film exists without a purpose.
For example: Sharpay and Ryan Evans are a carefully designed, nightmare-generating weapon, disguised as the antagonists in a predictable, made-for-TV movie. What’s with their instant antipathy to…well, everyone else in the film? How come no one in the school, or the community, has any problem with a pair of siblings prancing around on stage like ninnys, singing songs about “having” each other? And they’ve been in all the music-CALs? How many have there been? One? Why wasn’t Darbish fired after that atrocious thing opened? If it was anywhere near as creepy as Sharpay and Ryan’s duet I pray for the entire East High community.
And man, they need the help. Everyone seems possessed by the demon Sweet from Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s musical episode, “Once More With Feeling.” At one point, the entire lunchroom breaks into a rousing production number, revealing secret things about themselves to incredulous classmates who urge them to “stick to the status quo.” No one seems at all concerned until Gabrielle accidentally dumps some chili cheese fries down Sharkpay’s (no, damnit, Sharpay‘s) blouse.
In any case, through miraculous happenstance, Troy and Gabbrielle make it to the auditions. Miss Darbis is as impressed with their ability to instantly pick up songs they’ve only heard once (and sight-read notes over the shoulder of their pianist) as I am. Our (eventual) Lovers are called back, news that devastates everyone in school named Evans.
And already I can see this film’s formula, plain as the one’s Gabrielle writes on the blackboard to prove how smart she is: Troy and Gabby want something. Someone plots to ensure they can’t get it. In any other film, this would cause Conflict, but, shit, this is Disney. And according to the Disney Formula, all Conflict must be resolved as soon as its presented lest any Drama get off the ground. No need to worry (or give a shit) about anything on screen: it’ll all be resolved with as many inauthentic, out-of-character, come-to-Jesus moments as the last thirty minutes of the film can accommodate.
I’m left with questions. Like, what the fuck is up with Zac Efron’s creepy, Meg Foster eyes? Does Ryan Evans get some special, medical dispensation that allows him to waltz around the halls in that array of shape-shifting hats? Why didn’t Miss Darbis, oh, say, inform Coach Troy’s Dad that his prize jock won Detention? After all, Troy crossed the great god Zero Tolerance, which is at least a Purgatory-worthy offense. Principal Matsuda sides with the jock in this, as is only natural…but does he even bother throwing Miss Darbis a bone? No. Some administrator.
All of these are standard problems haunting any high school-centric production and flowing from the producer’s ignorance of actual high schools. Why bother with basic research, or even verisimilitude, when you know you’re churning out prepackaged pap for your evil, corporate masters? That’s all this is: a vehicle in the old sense, used to sell its stars to an unsuspecting audience…even as it sells the audience to Disney’s major advertisers.
Beyond that, basic illogicality keep pulling me out of the narrative. Example: what the hell is Coach Dad’s problem? I get that he’s a recovering athlete passing sports-psychosis on to his son, pinning all his fading hopes and dreams on Troy’s Peter Parker-shoulders in order to stave off the existential horror of middle age. If anything happened to Coach Bolton, he’d easily be a more interesting character than either of our leads…but since this is a school-centric Disney film, there’s fuck-all-else going on in his, or the town’s, exterior life.
Into the school then. Why are the Siblings Evans so concerned with Troy and Gabrielle’s clique-breaking? Are East High’s cliques so porous that one defection from their ranks will imperil everyone’s standing? What, you two don’t have parents prone to leaving the house for weekends? Or uncles cool enough to buy everyone beer? Why the hell are Troy’s teammates so inexplicably keen to prevent their Alpha Jock from getting together with a hot chick? Alright, maybe she’s a “brain,” but there are no ugly people in East High, and only one fat person to speak of. These guys are in Jock Heaven! They should be fighting dates off with sticks, competing to score with cheerleaders, and cheering each other on to greater and greater levels of teenage excess. Yet these fools dare to call themselves “jocks”? They’re a disgrace to the name. What would Ogre say? (Probably something like “NERRRRRDS!” And then he’d stuff Efron into the cafeteria trash can, headfirst.)
Were Ogre here, he’d have to bellow over some of the most innocuous, oatmeal-bland pop songs ever crafted by the hand of man. Previously, I’ve compared films to industrial assembly lines, and within Uncle Walt’s kingdom the machinery is old. Crusted with blood and rusty, it still runs well enough, but all its products come out…wrong, somehow. It’s the same kind of wrongness that pulls at your heart whenever you watch Romero zombies try to move faster than five miles an hour.
Take the mawkish overacting (please). It’s as if Disney straps all its “real” actors into a Clockwork Orange headbrace and forces them to study the crafted hyperkinesis that’s possessed all Disney’s animated characters since…well, forever…but at least since the 40s. Wide eyes and strained, “big” facial expressions are the order of the day, and they put more Brechtian distance between me and these prancing mall mannequins than blood splattered on the camera lens.
That’s why I’ve never liked musicals, with the exception of Buffy, aforesaid, and a little film from the mid-80s called Little Shop of Horrors. Spontaneous musical seizures (like the ones that seize the basketball team, the lunchroom, and [eventually] the entire school [because you’ve just got to end a thing like this with a big production number]) take my suspension of disbelief out into the street and shoot it. Especially when everyone’s singing voice is this overproduced, as processed as Easy Cheese.
That’s it. High School Musical is the Kraft Easy Cheese of its genre. For comparison, your favorite musical (whatever it’s title) would be the Alouette Brie. For most people, that’s still Grease, a film about lovers who meet on vacation only to find they’re inexplicably returning to the same high school. A social clique away from each other, the two form a bond that transcends the prejudicial thinking of their so-called “friends” and triumph over all through the power of their Love. Hmm…
So. It’s predictable, its boring, and it’s musical numbers rip-off most of director Kenny Ortega’s career. Working as a choreographer for Madonna, Cher, Gloria Estefan, and Michael Jackson has given the man a somewhat-warped view of what the human body should be doing with itself on stage. If you must watch one of his films, do yourself a favor and go rewatch Hocus Pocus. He hasn’t really improved (as a film director) since the early 90s.
So of course High School Musical became a smash hit, sure to embarrass its core fans once they look back upon their lives from the high perch of their early twenties. That yawning embarrassment, those thousand little flashes of, “Oh my God…I liked so much crap as a child!” and the eventual insight that’ll bring to a small minority of those who feel it, will be High School Musical‘s only worthwhile contribution to planet Earth.