Next to me on the couch, a test group of four children sat chanting and singing in perfect - though sometimes unintelligible - unison. Their eyes were large and glassy, while their mouths rested somewhere between goofy smiles and slack wonder.
No, it wasn't a scene from Torchwood: Children of Earth. Instead, it was an extended family viewing of High School Musical 3: Senior Year. For most people, this review will be irrelevant. If you want this movie, you will get this movie. If you don't want to see this movie, it doesn't matter, because it has wormed its way into the brains of your children already.
We're not living in the Village of the Damned - we're in the Village of the Wildcats. And once a Wildcat, always able to break out into infectious pop musical numbers.
So perhaps surprisingly, HSM3 actually deals with some (some) weighty issues facing high school students, in particular the difficulty of having to make decisions for your future when you really don't want to say goodbye and want to say "Hello, everybody! My name's June, what's yours?"
Sorry. Wrong show.
Yet it's hard not to notice that Director/Choreographer Kenny Ortega has actually created a throwback to the movie musicals of the forties and fifties. In a way that the earlier TV installments didn't, this version has a little more sense of space, and huge soundstage numbers might have done Gene Kelly proud. Though the music style has changed, it wouldn't be terribly hard to replace Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, if you put Mickey on stilts to pass as a basketball player.
In short, onscreen the cast and story of this franchise has been one of innocence struggling not to lose itself. Here the biggest conflict of young love is whether or not Hudgens' Gabriella will return from a special Stanford early admission program to be in the final high school musical. Will Efrons' Troy be able to choose between pursuing his love of basketball and his love of theater? Will good twin Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) overcome his sister Sharpay's (Ashley Tisdale) machinations to win that dance scholarship to Juilliard and find conservative safe love along the way?
Of course you know the answer, and your kids do, too. And in case they were wondering, the film sets up the next generation, already scheduled for High School Musical 4 in the Fall of 2009. Its audience might not stick around for "Ten Year Reunion." For the cast, though, that seems like a welcome option.
Extras on the disc really hammer home how much of the cast's formative years have been devoted to this franchise. Ortega allows them a theatrical curtain call, and the awkward emotion as they really say goodbye to this group rings true. Deleted scenes and Bloopers don't add too much, but again, those young Disneyphiles on my right ate it up and wanted to watch it again. And again and again.
So as cheesy as the "Let's put on a show" attitude is, and as unbelievable as it may be to see a Drama program with apparently limitless resources in a professional level theater (which allegedly is a real high school theater - and in the words of Tina Fey, I want to go there), High School Musical 3 works better than it had to. That's praise, really. In the end, if you don't like it, you're right. But if you do like musicals, you're right, too, and you should give in and see this thing. Especially with a child to explain it all for you before they join the Disney Overmind.