'What if it's, like, really dumb and I can't flip the channel?" worried my 11-year-old daughter's friend as we settled in for "High School Musical 3: Senior Year." Honey, I feel your pain. Like a massive gelatinous beast in a 1950s sci-fi movie, Disney's new franchise has extruded its latest brand extension onto the big screen. Troy, Gabriella, Sharpay and company have colonized the multiplex. Resistance is futile.
Since the brand in question is cheerily indestructible, though, fans of the Disney Channel's original "High School Musical" and its sequel will be relieved to learn that "Senior Year" works exactly as planned. The new movie is brainless, tuneful, wholesome, and calorie-free - Diet Coke in a bigger bottle. On the drive home, the girls even said they liked "HSM3" better than the first two. That may be because they haven't seen it 1,932 times. Yet.
The generically-named East High remains the setting (it's in New Mexico, but vaguely), and the gang is preparing for life after high school. College choices and parental expectations must be met; there's the chance of a Juilliard scholarship for one lucky kid. How does the student body respond? By putting on a show, of course - a singing, dancing version of senior year itself, right down to replicating the prom as an onstage production number. This is awfully meta for "High School Musical" - did Charlie Kaufman doctor the script?
The central romance is unchanged and unruffled. Vanessa Hudgens still twinkles and sings in that yearningly nasal mall-girl voice as Gabriella; Zac Efron still broods and croons as Troy, fulfilling his Faustian bargain to become the Troy Donahue of his generation (or Bobby Sherman or Rick Springfield or whoever's poster was on your sister's bedroom wall back in the day). There's a bit of cafeteria sturm und drang over their diverging life paths and Efron gets his required I-think-I'm-miserable dance number where he tries to look all mad 'n' stuff. Otherwise, snooze.
Corbin Bleu and Monique Coleman as Troy and Gabriella's best friends have little to do this time other than keep "HSM3" from seeming unbearably white. Ashley Tisdale's Sharpay - the mean girl/drama queen of the series - has a new nose and the same attitude; since the actress hasn't turned down the volume for the big screen, Sharpay's now an overbearing cartoon. The same goes for the drama teacher played by Alyson Reed; on TV, with her teacup and "British" accent, Ms. Darbus is just one more dippy Disney Channel grown-up. Here she seems actively feebleminded.
Where "HSM3" at least connects with the spirit of classic musicals is in the secondary characters of Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) and Kelsi (Olesya Rulin), respectively the choreographer and songwriter of East High's graduating class. Once upon a time they would have been played by Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and the movie would have been about them. Both actors are likable, though, and, unlike the leads, they're allowed to have personalities.
The songs? My daughter already has them memorized. I've already forgotten them. They're acceptable factory product. The dance scenes fare better, if only because choreographer Charles Klapow and choreographer-turned-director Kenny Ortega have slightly more room to swing a cast in. The group dance numbers fill the screen with stomping junior-Fosse verve; one in an auto salvage yard is particularly nice. The nod to "Royal Wedding" when Troy dances up the walls and across the ceiling is klutzy but appreciated.
Fred Astaire it ain't, of course; not by a long shot. Still, how hard should we be kicking about a G-rated live-action "Archie" comic that has introduced the pleasures of singing and dancing to a new generation? In the real world, Troy would probably be on steroids and Sharpay would be bulimic; Ryan would be in the closet and Kelsi would be in denial; Gabriella would be sending nude cellphone pictures to her boyfriend that would end up on the Internet. (Oh, wait . . .)
"High School Musical" isn't the real world, though, just as "Top Hat" and "Singin' in the Rain" and "Funny Face" were never the real world. They're refuges; safe harbors of music and movement. For all its unforgivable blandness, "High School Musical" opens young audiences to the charms of this most transporting of movie genres. Many of those kids will go back to watch the real classics. One or two of them may even grow up to make new ones.