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By Film critic
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/21/2008 3:15:16 PM ET 2008-10-21T19:15:16
REVIEW

You’re probably going to read a lot of negative reviews of “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” that were written by old fuddy-duddies who disliked or perhaps never even saw the first two installments of the series, both of which premiered on the Disney Channel. So let me say right up front that this mostly-negative review is written by an old fuddy-duddy who found the first two “HSM” movies to be charming and engaging.

Would that “HSM 3” contained a single new idea. This latest and last of the series is a stitched-together Frankenstein monster of an entertainment, featuring major components that were already trotted out the first two times.

It’s the same plot you’ve already seen, with just a few end-of-high-school elements sprinkled on top. Troy (Zac Efron) is once again torn between his love of basketball and his talents as a song-and-dance man; this time, he has to choose between shooting hoops at his father’s alma mater and getting a scholarship at Julliard.

His girlfriend Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) faces anew the twin sirens of academia and performance — will she head off to Stanford early for a freshman honors program or stay at East High for the big senior show? Comic relief villainess Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) once again wants to elbow Gabriella out of the way both onstage and in her relationship with Troy. And so it goes.

Not that the tweens to whom “HSM 3” is squarely aimed will mind this crushing familiarity, but given the franchise’s leap from small screen to big, one would hope that director Kenny Ortega and screenwriter Peter Barsocchini would have exercised a little creativity in broadening the scope of this admittedly flimsy premise. For the most part, isn't even much more visually striking than its cable TV antecedents; some of the musical numbers feature more ambitious camera movements, but 95 percent of “HSM 3” has a television-scaled flatness to it.

Speaking of the musical numbers, the new songs in “HSM 3” are as familiar as the plot, with each tune coming off like an exact retread of what’s come before: The new “I Want It All” is to “Fabulous” (“HSM 2”) as “Can I Have This Dance” is to “Start of Something New” (“HSM 1”) as “Scream” is to “Bet On It” (“HSM 2”). Worse still, there’s no standout barn-burner like “We’re All in This Together” (“HSM 1”) or “What Time Is It” (“HSM 2”). Let’s just say that I walked out of “HSM 3” humming the tunes from the other movies.

The dancing is fun to watch — director Ortega is a veteran screen choreographer, going back to “Dirty Dancing” and “Xanadu” — but the acting pales by comparison. Efron and Hudgens are sweet but vapid, and the movie fails to take full advantage of Tisdale’s bravura bitchiness or the over-the-top flamboyance of Lucas Grabeel as Sharpay’s brother Ryan, a hyper-fashionable wielder of jazz hands.

None of this is bound to keep “HSM 3” from being a blockbuster juggernaut at the box office, and I’m certainly grateful that the series popularity among kids means that future generations of Hollywood decision-makers won’t be afraid to keep the musical genre alive. It’s just disappointing that this rare opportunity — how many TV movies get a sequel that opens in theaters? — was frittered away with a stultifying safeness.

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