The "High School Musical" Trilogy Isn't Nearly As Terrible As I Remembered | "High School Musical" 1, 2 & 3 Retro Movie Reviews in Brief

With theaters closed and major releases delayed until who knows when, what we were planning to cover here at InReview got thrown right out the window. So expect a lot of streaming and retro reviews on this site.

My girlfriend is staying with me for spring break. In fact, her college gave her an extended spring break, so we’ve spent a lot of time in the house, with nothing in particular to do. So one day, we binged the entire “High School Musical” trilogy on Disney Plus.

We came to this “classic” trilogy after feeling like we needed a palette cleaner from Disney’s terrible “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” curious if the originals held up whatsoever and if indeed, Disney had any right to hold the trilogy in high regard. They’re something, all right.

“High School Musical” (2006)

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“High School Musical” is a Disney Channel Original television movie, and it feels like one.

The film follows star basketball player Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) who meets transfer student Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) at a New Year’s Party in which they sing karaoke together. They later find themselves in the same homeroom where all the main characters are, including Troy’s best friend Chad Danforth (Corbin Bleau), Gabriella’s best friend, Taylor (Monique Coleman), and the rich thespian twins Sharpay (Ashely Tisdale) and Ryan Evans (Lucas Grabeel). Their homeroom teacher is Ms. Darbus (Alyson Reed), head of the drama department, who encourages them all to audition for the school’s musical, which ends up being the driving force of the plot, as Troy and Gabriella supplant the favorites for the musical’s leads, Sharpay and Ryan, who try to sabotage them at every step.

The original “High School Musical” is cheaply made, and it shows. Its cinematography is closer to a Disney Channel TV show than a proper film, lip synching is way off, and it’s very clear that director Kenny Ortega doesn’t have much understanding of the game of basketball despite basing his film partially on it.

It’s not unwatchable, though. Ortega is a gifted choreographer, and his work in that area shines through. But he’s working with an incredibly inexperienced young cast, and Ortega does not have what it takes to get great performances out of a cast like this.

It’s a fun bad movie. You can tell what Ortega wants to do, and where he is laying out the groundworks for further films to come, but yeah, this movie didn’t have its head in the game.

“High School Musical” gets a 4/10

“High School Musical 2” (2007)

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This is another Disney Channel Original movie, and it’s the best of the trilogy, not from a production value standpoint, but from a narrative and character one.

This film follows the entire cast on summer break, in which they all get jobs at a country club/resort Sharpay’s parents own. Sharpay has her own agenda, as she hopes to use her parents’ money to lure Troy away from Gabriella, going so far as offering to pay for his college. There’s also a talent show competition that effectively replaces the musical element found in the first film (these films are musicals about musicals, after all).

This is a film about working during the summer, hanging out with friends, and growing as a person. And for the most part, it works. In “High School Musical” 2006, Troy finds himself at a crossroads between basketball and theater, as does Gabriella (she has to choose between academics and theater), but their friends concoct schemes that will allow them to do both, which essentially prevents them from facing any real adversity by letting them have their cake and eat it too.

“High School Musical 2” has surprising undertones of income inequality between people like Sharpay, who have everything in life handed to them, and everyone else, and how it’s really up to people like Sharpay to choose to do the right thing to make life better for working people. It’s surface-level and isn’t explored deeper than that, but it was nice to have the second film explore the working aspect of being a teenager in America.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the film is that Ryan gets fed up with following his sister and starts to become his own person. In fact, most of the characters make some sort of steps into coming into their own, which in my opinion, puts this film above the other two in the trilogy.

It also helps that is has the most memorable numbers in the trilogy. Ortega gets more ambitious and creative in this film, and it pays off.

“High School Musical 2” gets a 6.5/10

“High School Musical 3: Senior Year” (2008)

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This film is not only the only film in the series with a subtitle, but it’s also the only one made for and released in theaters. And it has the production values of a film you’d see there.

“High School Musical 3” sets the bar higher than the other two films with an excellent first act full of imaginative, informed, energetic and ambitious musical sequences, especially its opening basketball “Now or Never” sequence in which Troy wins his last championship game (though this really should have been included in the climax of the film). But unfortunately, it falls flat on its face soon afterward.

The rest of the film focuses on the school’s spring musical, which is titled “Senior Year,” and as such, focuses on the seniors. It allows Ortega to clumsily focus on the fact that the cast is graduating in the film because, as they all were moving into their early to mid-twenties, they were approaching the age where they could no longer pass as high schoolers (that’s my own personal theory). As such, this film is a last hurrah for the cast.

This film absolutely falls apart after the first act. There is a profound lack of focus, as Ortega tries to realize abstract concepts of moving on from high school, growing apart from friends, and heading into the messy, uncertain world of college through abstract musical sequences not grounded by any concrete plot element. It feels almost like a clip show you’d see at the conclusion of a long-running series, rather than a film that could stand on its own in the theater.

It’s a shame, because this has some of the best choreography and musical numbers from a technical standpoint than any other film in the series. In this film, Ortega finally starts to grasp the unique advantages a film musical has over a live one, as his previous efforts come off more as recordings of live performances rather than something unique that can only be accomplished through the medium of film. The music also leans into conventions of pop at the time, which unfortunately makes it, and this movie, forgettable.

“High School Musical 3: Senior Year” gets a 5/10

So there you have it. The “High School Musical” trilogy is one of the most inconsistent trilogies of all time, directly stemming from the fact that its first two films are cheap direct-to-TV movies, with the third one being a proper theatrical one. Still, they’re not borderline unwatchable, like I thought they were when I was in high school.

Overall, the first two are memorable, and I get why Disney thinks the franchise is still a valuable property. The second “High School Musical” film is perhaps the best a Disney Channel movie can possibly get, and I’m glad the films served as a jumping off point for Zac Efron to do bigger and better things.

If you need a choreographer, Kenny Ortega is your man. Just don’t let him direct.

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