The phenomenally successful High School Musical franchise makes the leap onto the big screen with the third installment, High School Musical 3: Senior Year. As the name implies, this time out the students at East High are dealing with impending changes in their lives as Graduation nears. Troy (Zac Efron) wins another basketball championship with his best friend and teammate Chad (Corbin Bleu), and finds himself conflicted about his college plans, unable to choose between basketball and theater. And as if this weren't enough, he's also struggling to figure out how to maintain his relationship with loving girlfriend, Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), when she opts for early admission to Stanford.
The movie's opening number, "Now or Never," is all about having one last chance to get something right. The song serves not only as a rallying cry for the Wildcat basketball team, but also as a statement of purpose for the movie's cast and crew; and it's a message that leading man Zac Efron appears to take quite seriously. HSM3 shows that the young actor has learned a thing or two since skyrocketing to the head of the teen heartthrob class with the first movie -- he's relaxed in a way he hasn't been before. During an early party scene, his natural ease with his classmates and girlfriend is tremendously endearing, showcasing a newfound confidence that replaces his once-awkward self-consciousness. That's not to say he's become lazy, he's simply learned how to modulate his charm and intensity. He's become a more seasoned performer, and this improves his dancing as well; his biggest moments here show almost no sign of the stiffness that wrecked his big solo number from HSM2 ("Bet on It"). He's come a long way as a performer since the first film.
Director and choreographer Kenny Ortega varies the look and feel of the production numbers, often serving up fleeting but fun allusions to some of the legendary scenes and performers from classic musicals. There are visual references to Singin' in the Rain and Grease, as well as tributes to the choreography of both Busby Berkeley and Bob Fosse. It's as if Ortega, who directed and choreographed all three of the HSM movies, wanted to fashion a graduation day for not only the cast, but for audience members as well -- Efron and company (including Ashley Tisdale and Lucas Grabeel) get multiple chances to showcase that they are all ready to move on to bigger and better projects, and teen audiences are left with the building blocks to enjoy the rich history of movie musicals.
Keep in mind, however, that as a whole the movie is certainly far from perfect. Toward the end, the storytelling gets rushed and sloppy, and it doesn't help that the last couple of numbers are much less enjoyable than most of the showstoppers in the film's first half. Those dud moments offer an unwelcome reminder that HSM3 is still, first and foremost, Disney product -- but it's a product with more quality than you might expect. It's a well-produced yearbook that will one day bring back sweet memories for the cast and fans, but probably won't be of interest to anyone who wasn't part of the scene.