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Sony Pictures // Unrated // March 31, 2009
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted March 31, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The struggle to find the next "High School Musical" has yielded some interesting results: both Disney's "Camp Rock" (an attempt to create a post-"HSM" franchise, this time built on the star power of the Jonas Brothers) and MTV's "American Mall" (a rare attempt from the network to go kid-friendly) turned out to be surprisingly entertaining, clumsy but enjoyable chunks of bubblegum pop. Now comes Nickelodeon, who hauled in the "High School Musical" songwriters to craft them the tunes for "Spectacular!", a musical so cheery it includes its own exclamation mark.

But cheeriness and punctuation alone can't save the movie, a lumpy mix of bad dialogue, hammy acting, empty plotting, and songs so generic that it's nearly impossible to tell them apart. (The tunes come in two flavors: songs about young love and songs about following your dreams while remaining true to yourself. You may not expect depth from a tween pop musical, but you certainly don't expect such mind-numbing redundancy, either.) The whole thing's watched over by director Robert Iscove, a filmmaker whose curious career path includes a handful of made-for-TV thrillers, a couple Freddie Prinze, Jr. comedies, and "From Justin to Kelly." What a movie like this is someone who knows how to keep cheese in check; Robert Iscove is not that someone.

Relative newcomer Nolan Gerard Funk lands the lead role in what appears to be Nick's attempt to position him as "the next Zac Efron." Never mind that Funk's in his twenties and isn't believable as a sixteen-year-old, which he plays here; Tammin Sursok (a current regular on "The Young and the Restless") is, at age 25, even older, and even less believable. After years of Disney and Nick casting actual teenagers into their teen products, it's a little surprising to see this movie reach back to that rusty old tradition of dumping twentysomethings into such roles.

The good news is that both Funk and Sursok have enough charm and talent to get them through this feature. Their voices are solid in that young pop style, and they have a likeability that helps them survive the iffy storytelling and flat character developments.

Funk plays Nikko, a selfish teen rocker booted from his rock band when he places his own showboating above group performance. Oddly, while the script claims to be about how Nikko learns the folly of his selfish ways, it also arranges things so the band, not Nikko, is in the wrong - the ice queen bass player is later a nasty schemer we're asked to loathe - and the few plot points that hope to show us Nikko becoming a better man are so underdeveloped and rushed that they feel included only by obligation.

Enter Courtney (Sursok), the spunky but uptight leader of Spectacular, the school's show choir. (For those of you unfamiliar with show choir: it's a song-and-dance group covering corny pop hits of yesteryear while dressed in gaudy, sequined outfits. Jazz hands are required.) She's lamenting the defection of the group's best singer to a rival show choir, depressingly named Ta-Da - it's never explained if Ta-Da represents the same school, or another; if it's the latter, just who out there is recruiting star show choir talent from other schools? - and hopes to talk Nikko into joining as a replacement.

The whole thing reeks of cheap premise, a chance to get the goody-goody choir girl and the bad-boy rocker together. The screenplay, by James Krieg, sleepwalks through the motions, never really convincing us why anybody would do anything; it merely says that they do, with all the by-the-numbers outcomes: Nikko will mock the group, then join reluctantly, then discover he loves it, then face a choice between the old band and the new group, and so on.

Nikko joins the group when he's promised half the prize money from an upcoming competition, which will help him pay to record a demo for a major record label. But Nikko also discovers very quickly he doesn't need the demo, or the money, and the whole idea is dropped, until, that is, the script gets desperate for some conflict. But at least the scene where the choir gets upset that Nikko was only in it for the money (and that Courtney offered him the cash when she shouldn't have) makes some sort of sense; there's another scene where Courtney discovers Nikko was teaching the group a new song, and she's devastated by the surprise, for reasons lacking all logic. Worse, throughout the film, Nikko lies to his brother (their parents are dead, and the brother has raised Nikko) about being in the choir, just so we can get the scene where the brother demands he quit the group, followed by the moment where the brother sneaks in to watch the final performance and discovers just how much Nikko loves what's he's been hiding.

It's a lazy script, capped off by ridiculous gimmicky turns (one adult character reveals a secret past that's used for cut-rate excuses to repeat the "follow your dreams" themes) and over-the-top ridiculousness (since when did show choirs start using glam rock pyrotechnics in their performances?). Granted, "High School Musical" stretched credibility often, but it also maintained a sweet charm and a lighthearted attitude that gave its more questionable moments a free pass. "Spectacular!" is too much of a soulless copy, an uninspired rip-off assembled by rote, without genuine flair. This movie might have the jazz hands, but it lacks the spirit.


Video & Audio

The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen offers up a crisp, slick image, showcasing better production values than one would expect from a made-for-basic-cable movie. Black levels are rich and colors are sharp.

The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is equally impressive, especially, as expected, in the musical sequences. There's a nice depth throughout. Optional Spanish subtitles are provided.


"Spectacular! Video Diary with Victoria Justice" (2:23; a mix of 1.33:1 full frame and 1.78.1 flat letterbox) is too short to be an effective on-set diary. Instead, it's just a few quick shots of co-star Justice rehearsing, or clowning around with the "Ta-Da" gang. At least everyone's charming enough. Like every feature on this disc, it looks like it was produces as promotional material to air during Nickelodeon commercial breaks.

The cast walks us through "The 5 Things You Need to Be a Show Choir Superstar" (1:14; 1.33:1), a tongue-in-cheek look at the power of jazz hands.

The music videos for "Everything Can Change" (2:26; 1.78:1 letterbox) and "For the First Time" (3:37; 1.78:1 letterbox) are presented in both regular and karaoke versions, the latter offering on-screen lyric subtitles. Both "videos" are simply scenes from the movie.

Justice hosts "The Making of Spectacular!" (2:26; 1.33.1), which finds cast and crew walking us through the basics of the story. It's not so much making-of than "hey, watch us soon."

"Learn the Moves from Spectacular!" (2:40; 1.33:1) has choreographer R.J. Durell walk us through a few key dance moves from the film.

A batch of previews for other Sony and Nickelodeon titles and instructions on how to download "Spectacular!" ringtones round out the disc.

Final Thoughts

"Spectacular!" is a middling effort to replicate the "High School Musical" phenomenon, but it lacks the bouncy fun of those films. Families with pop-fan tweens should simply Rent It.
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