The Disney Channel produces dozens of original made-for-TV movies every year. Why is it that out of all of them, "High School Musical" was the one to make the leap from basic cable obscurity to pop culture phenomenon? The movie nabbed the network's largest ratings, with some 7.7 million viewers tuning in to its premiere (not to mention the highly successful rebroadcasts). The soundtrack hit the top of the Billboard charts - making it not only the first television soundtrack album to do so in some two decades, but the first ever all-original TV soundtrack to hit that mark. It became such a hit that Disney, never one to let an opportunity pass, recently began licensing a stage version of the film to high schools and local theater groups.
But again we ask: why this one? A bit of right place, right time plays into effect, as does that indescribable "it" factor that often produces unexpected smashes. Plus, it's an all-out live action musical, the first for the Disney Channel, allowing the movie to stand out from the network's other offerings. Other than that, it's not much different from any other Disney Channel production: low budget teen comedy with bubbly Disney-friendly stars and a fairly routine and predictable storyline, all baked inside a sitcom crust.
Ah, but there is one difference, and it's one that just might explain it all: "High School Musical" is fun. Lots of fun. Sure, other Disney Channel movies have been fun, too, but this one, well, it's downright electric. The songs are a bit on the generic side of the teen pop idol equation, and yet they sizzle, these catchy tunes that are tailor-made to get stuck in your head and keep you humming along; director/choreographer Kenny Ortega (who previously helmed "Newsies" and served as choreographer "Dirty Dancing") makes the music jump with big, bouncy dance numbers that are such a delight to watch; and the cast is filled with youngsters who can do the singing and the dancing, yes, but they're also charming as can be. It all adds up to something that simply sparks.
And yet the critic in me is crying out to mention the movie's problems, of which, let's be honest, are bountiful. I'm willing to forgive the film's lack of realism (instead of performing, say, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" or "Brigadoon" or other typical school play staples, the school in the movie puts on a big budget show written by a student), because hey, it's all in good fun, and the musical atmosphere puts us in a fantasy world anyway. (The tunes are not limited to the stage, with characters breaking out into song everywhere in grand musical fashion.) But it's more difficult to give a pass on Peter Barsocchini's clunky screenplay, which feels more like a rough draft than a finished product. Characters, even the leads, are undercooked, one-dimensional beings who ramble through a series of teen movie clichés and iffy plot developments on their way to the finale, which combines obligatory points of let's-put-on-a-show musicals, sports dramas, and romantic comedies. Looking back on the story, there's not much that makes enough sense - in fact, "High School Musical" is, when you look at it, not at all about a high school musical, but about an audition for a high school musical. Huh?
Here, for those who have not yet seen it, is the rundown: Basketball superstar Troy (Zac Efron) and super genius Gabriella (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) meet at a New Year's party while on vacation; they're forced to sing together in a bit of karaoke, and both discover that hey, they like music after all. They go their separate ways, but before anyone can say "Grease," the next week they discover that Gabriella has transferred to Troy's school. As their romance blossoms, they contemplate auditioning for the winter musical. Standing in their way are Troy's friends, who think singing isn't for jocks; the academic team, who wants to enlist Gabriella in time for the big tournament but can't get her if she's in the play; and Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) and Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), the drama royalty of the school who can't bear the idea of anyone else getting the starring roles.
By the time we're just passing the one hour mark and everyone is conspiring to break Troy and Gabriella up, we're left wishing the script could've been smarter, more daring, less willing to cop out with hackneyed plot points. But we're also won over by the charms of it all. Efron and Hudgens make for dazzling leads, and they even have some solid chemistry together, making their characters' relationship sweet enough to rise above the problematic material. We know where they're headed, but we enjoy watching anyway. Meanwhile, the entire supporting cast offers plenty of charisma as well, and the likeability factor, combined with some darn good vocal performances all around, makes this an instance where the cast makes the movie. (And above it all, Ortega also keeps everything moving so quickly that we don't have time to contemplate the clumsier aspects of the story until it's all over.)
So for all its ungainliness, its cheesiness, its silliness, "High School Musical" is undoubtedly a great big heap of fun. I smiled a lot more than I ever thought I would from watching a teenage showbiz dance-and-basketball pop music party, and apparently many more have been smiling, too.
Disney has released "High School Musical" with a disc dubbed the "Encore Edition," which include two not-at-all-different versions of the film. (More on that in the Extras section.)
Despite its low budget, the movie looks quite good, the full screen (original 1.33:1 broadcast aspect ratio) image making good use out of the bright, crisp colors. No problems at all arise during the fast moving dance and basketball scenes, the action allowed to burst to life.
(A note on that aspect ratio: the film was shot in a 1.85:1 format, as evident in footage seen in the disc's making-of, which features clips from the movie in hard-matted widescreen. However, it was broadcast in a pan-and-scanned 1.33:1 ratio, the same ratio seen here on the DVD. Not one single shot of this cropped image seems to be missing any information - in fact, it looks to be framed quite well in 1.33:1. So well, in fact, that I would assume the movie was intended for the standard broadcast ratio, but was filmed with some extra padding on the sides, a little bit of spare image that could be included in any future high definition broadcasts/video releases. Disney's choice to release this with only a full screen option should therefore not be viewed as a slight at all.)
The Dolby 5.1 Surround soundtrack is equally notable. The sound editors wisely felt little need to fiddle with the broadcast mix, merely using the capabilities of 5.1 to produce a lush, rich texture to the songs, without overdoing it. Optional English subtitles are provided.
The main extra here is the "sing-along version" of the film, which aired from time to time on the Disney Channel. It's nothing more than the original movie with on-screen lyrics that light up, karaoke-style, during each song. It's a nice addition, although in an odd move, Disney has made this version an entirely separate title, when merely adding an extra subtitle track to the feature presentation would have sufficed. (Perhaps they wanted to retain the exact look of the sing-along broadcast, for the sake of the purists. That's just a hunch, though.)
"Bringing It All Together: The Making of High School Musical" is an eight-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that's pretty light on information, delivering little more than your typical on-set interviews and random footage. It gets interesting when it takes a look at the choreography, but it doesn't provide enough to be satisfactory.
In "Learning the Moves," Ortega walks us through the "Bop To the Top" steps, with rehearsal footage of Tisdale and Grabeel. The final section in this four-minute bit allows you to access different views of the dance routine (plus the final number as it appears in the film) via your player's angle feature.
Rounding out the disc are music videos for "I Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" and "We're All In This Together," as well as Disney's usual lineup of previews, several of which also play when the disc starts up.
I'm surprised to see so few extras, considering the runaway success of the film. But then, this disc was most likely already in production before the movie even aired, and how was Disney to know what was to come? I wouldn't be surprised if a bigger, better edition finds its way onto store shelves sooner or later (after all, they released a two-disc collector's edition of the soundtrack following the album's record-breaking run). Still, that's nothing but cheap speculation, and cheap speculation shouldn't keep you away from giving this release a spin. Recommended - especially to fans of the movie, who will no doubt be happy to be able to watch it as often as possible.