By Albert Gutierrez
Before we get into this review, there is one thing that you, dear reader, must know about me: I don't like High School Musical. When I saw previews, I was a little excited at the prospect of the Disney Channel doing a musical. What I later saw was a 98-minute disappointment that seemed great on paper, but bad on film. However, this movie has two things going for it that keep me from totally hating all of its saccharine sweetness: Ryan and Sharpay Evans (Lucas Grabeel and Ashley Tisdale). Yep, the "villains" of this film are the only two characters I enjoy and find remotely tolerable. As a reviewer, though, I have to cast away my personal feelings and present an unbiased and objective assessment of the movie and DVD.
I took this DVD as a challenge: how can someone who very much dislikes a product, write a review that determines if the consumer should buy it? Therefore, my summary and analysis of the film will not be filled with evil little remarks of hatred, but they won't be glowing gushes of love either. So those who come here expecting several paragraphs of either snark that totally rips the movie apart or eternal praise for the greatness of love story between Troy and Gabriella, I'm sorry to disappoint you. However, humor is there. Now...on to the review.
High viewership, bestselling soundtracks, lavish red carpet premieres and performances with high-profile hosts... these kinds of things usually happen for big mainstream movies. Oddly enough, they're also happening for a little movie that could, which is still taking the world by storm eleven months after its debut. The Disney Channel's High School Musical is indeed a remarkable success. In the channel's history, no other original movie has spawned such a successful franchise or ignited young actors' careers like this. It's possibly been on the air at least twice a month since its premiere last January. The re-airings have grown and changed, adding sing-along tracks, dance-along instructions, and, most recently, pop-up trivia about the film. But when is this much exposure going to become too much exposure? When will this popularity start to wane? Likely not for a while, as two planned sequels that turn this hit into a trilogy should grant the original movie at least a couple more years of staying power.
The story is basic, and even charming, if at some times unrealistic. Two teenagers, Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vannessa Anne Hudgens) meet at a New Year's Party, and immediately hit it off thanks to a karaoke pair-up. Their brief encounter leads to swapping cell phone numbers, and the two part ways, under the impression that they'll never see each other again once their vacations have ended. Rather conveniently, of course, Gabriella's mother is transferred to Troy's hometown, and he finds Gabriella at school on the first day back from winter break. The two hit it off once again, and... well, if you're reading this you already know what will happen. Filled with sabotage, arguments among friends, and even secret alliances, Musical plays out as a lesson in tolerance and a splash of song and dance.
The movie portrays an idealized-yet-still-imperfect teenager's world. It takes all that children want to believe about high school, and makes it look more attractive than it really is. Right down to the crystal-clear boundaries of who goes where, students are molded from your typical cliques: dumb jocks, snobby smart people, clueless skaters, and overacting drama lovers. Rather than embrace these stereotypes, High School Musical dares its viewers to realize and accept that even a jock or a brain can have problems. It's a simple story with a complex message that people can be themselves and that it's important that they believe in themselves.
Despite a positive moral about being yourself, there's also an underlying theme of conformity. The entire song "Stick to the Status Quo" conveys that a person should only believe, only accept, and only be one thing. It tells youngsters that the concept of being "different", or even in a broader extent, the concept of being "open-minded" is not acceptable. While the song is meant to show what's wrong with conformity, its messages are still supported throughout the rest of the film. Indeed, we see jocks and brains banding together first selfishly to benefit themselves, then together to help make the audition possible, but aside from those two instances and the ensuing romantic entanglements between them, there's no acknowledgement or acceptance of others beyond their two groups.
Another problem I've always had with the story is the first audition. Mrs. Darbus (Alyson Reed) insists that auditions are over and that Troy and Gabriella will have to try out next time. She leaves the auditorium, and after Kelsi (Olesya Rulin) drops her papers all over the place, the two help her.
In discussing the song, Troy and Gabriella attempt to sing it the way Kelsi had written it, and don't realize Mrs. Darbus has been listening to them. She tells them to get prepared for their callbacks, and promptly leaves. If that isn't a double-standard, I don't know what is. Then again, such turns works out conveniently, as it would otherwise be a rather awkward ending to a really short movie.
The talent on-screen is comprised of overacting, underacting, and scene-stealing. I'll get to my praise for Ryan and Sharpay later, as it'd be best to start with the leads. Zac Efron and Vanessa Anne Hudgens have two things going for them. One of them is not singing, and the other is not acting. Rather, they've got nice make-the-fans-swoon looks, and are fairly good at dancing. My main problem with the two is just how... fake they appear when they sing, which makes for an uncomfortable appearance. It's especially unsettling after seeing in bonus features how much fun they have recording and practicing. As the central couple's two main supporters Chad and Taylor, Corbin Bleu and Monique Coleman fit the bill as second fiddle, as they are given less songs and only a couple of dance numbers. I really wish I could have seen more of them in action, Monique especially, as she went on to impress millions this fall on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."
Then there are the Evans siblings, who get their fair share of songs, but not their fair share of screentime. While "Grabeel & Tisdale" may never become as well-known as "Astaire & Rogers", the two are most impressive as Lord and Lady of the Dance among the students of East High. "Bop to the Top" and "What I've Been Looking For" showcase their wealth of talent in cutting rugs, and are the highlights of the film, at least for this reviewer. Tisdale, who has had much practice playing a sarcastic teenager on "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody", shines as the melodramatic Sharpay. Grabeel steals any scene he appears in, thanks to his wide variety of facial expressions, which are his only acting opportunities here since the poor guy has fewer lines than anyone else. He should have been given more lines, though I'm sure fans of the film will remember his character best for his hat collection. And his jazz squares. Everyone loves a good jazz square.
As a member of the musical genre, High School Musical shines, especially in the choreography. That, of course, is expected thanks to the director, Kenny Ortega.
Best known within Disney circles for his 1992 film Newsies, Ortega brings a true sense of life to High School. Those involved appear to enjoy the dance sequences and the energy in the finale "We're All In This Together" can be somewhat addictive. Presenting a variety of styles, the dances are a highlight and "Bop to the Top" in particular is the apex of just how impressive dancing can be.
I was at a birthday party for a second cousin (or second aunt, it's hard to tell with my complex family tree), and as usual, the adults had the first floor to themselves, while the younger ones congregated in the basement. This was a mere week or so after the original premiere of this movie, and little kids had already been watching (and rewatching, I'm sure) their DVR'd copy of High School Musical on the television, singing along, dancing along as best they could. A cute sight to see, and a testament as to how quickly an impact this film has made on its young audience. Perhaps Monique Coleman said it best, in the Hollywood Premiere featurette: "I think it was just our time... I think that every generation has had their big musical that defined their generation...." I can agree with that sentiment to a certain extent. After all, the way that Rebel Without a Cause, The Graduate, American Graffiti, The Breakfast Club, and Reality Bites defined their generation of young adult viewers, perhaps the same feat could be said of High School Musical. I'd like to think that in the wide array of movies out there, a better film could better fill that role for today's adolescents.
Since its premiere in January of 2006, we've seen three additional versions of High School Musical air on the Disney Channel: the Sing Along version with highlighted lyrics on the bottom of the screen, the Dance Along version sprinkled with interstitials that teach viewers certain dance movies, and the Pop Up version which features pop-up boxes of trivia and production notes à la VH1's once-popular "Pop-Up Video." I am now eagerly waiting for Disney to provide a Groan Along version, in which any viewers forced to watch this film get a blinking icon every five minutes that instructs them to groan loudly, as a sign to those around them that they are not enjoying what they see. Offering nearly as many banner titles as there are variations to the movie, the first DVD release of the film on DVD was called the "Encore Edition." This second DVD release is a "Remix Edition." Considering the fact that High School Musical is expected to be a trilogy, and sequels often yield re-releases of the previous films, I expect a couple more releases down the road. So BVHE, if you're reading this, consider these titles: "Radio Edit Edition", "Unplugged Edition", and "Expensive Coasters Edition."
VIDEO and AUDIO
The video is presented in its broadcast ratio of 1.33:1 fullscreen. This could have been a perfect chance for Disney to release a widescreen version of the film, which is known to exist (as seen in the making-of featurette and a couple music videos). A 16x9-enhanced widescreen image would have greatly benefited the dance sequences in this film and be reason enough to double-dip for the few who actually will be buying this movie twice. Instead, the same transfer used on the first release is seen here, with the same high quality as the previous DVD. I did notice that some of the widescreen shots used in the music video merely matte the fullscreen version instead of revealing the full 16x9 widescreen frame that was filmed; see the comparison in Aaron Wallace's Encore Edition review for more.
Audio, like the video, is the same Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Also included in this release is a Dolby Surround Spanish language track, but with all songs still performed in English. English subtitles are offered only for the regular version of the film, and though it's not an option on the Set Up page, using the "Subtitle" button on a DVD remote can yield alternate Spanish subtitles during the songs; these should be selected automatically so long as you choose the Spanish audio from the menu.
BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING
For those of you excited at a DCOM actually getting a two-disc edition, you'll be sorely disappointed here. While there is indeed a second disc of bonus material, it only amounts to 35 minutes of additional featurettes and music videos that could have easily fit on the first disc. However, the lure of a two-disc set makes any re-release more appealing to the consumer, which is likely what the marketing folks had in mind. Instead of having the first disc entirely identical to the original release, a couple bonus features have been moved over to the second disc, though no new ones appear on the first. Does that make sense? Yes? Good, let's continue.
Like the first release, Disc One for High School Musical provides both the regular and "Sing Along" versions.
However, instead of having the sing-along subtitle track as one of the options, the movie instead is encoded twice on the disc, with the sing-along subtitles burned onto the picture (with no option for regular subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing).
The multi-angle featurette "Learning the Moves" (4:18) starts with a text screen explaining how to use the "Angle" button, then goes to a quick introduction by director/choreographer Kenny Ortega. Three angle options are available and give a look at how Lucas Grabeel and Ashley Tisdale perform their dance number for "Bop to the Top." Given the fact that it focuses mainly on Grabeel and Tisdale, I found myself enjoying this nice little bonus. It would have been interesting if all the dance sequences were covered in such a fashion.
"I Can't Take My Eyes Off You" (3:00) wasn't even a song in the film, yet as a music video was created for it, it features the vocal stylings of Efron, Hudgens, Tisdale and Grabeel (sounds like a law firm, doesn't it?). While there's a generous amount of footage of the foursome singing in a recording booth, this video is pretty much a quick cut and paste job of various pieces of footage from the movie. The song itself is not quite up to par, even for High School Musical standards, reminding me more of a bad 1980s pop love song than something from 2006.
Disc Two contains two sections, "Backstage Disney" and "Music & More". In "Backstage Disney", you'll find a trio of new featurettes and one retained from the earlier release. "Bringing It All Together: The Making of High School Musical" (8:45) is the one carried over from the first release, offering cast interviews and a generous amount of movie footage. Despite is length, it is quite good, as the actors and director share their thoughts on the movie, recording sessions, and working on the dance sequences. There's a bit of Kenny Ortega praise from the cast, though that's to be expected as the guy really is a powerful force behind this film.
"Hollywood Premiere" (2:23) doesn't cover the movie's Disney Channel premiere, but last May's red carpet celebration of the Encore Edition DVD release at the Disney's El Capitan Theatre. (As faithful, long-time readers of this site already know, UltimateDisney.com was there and Pluto Region 1 provided a photo report from the festive ceremonies.) This brief piece depicts the typical movie premiere atmosphere as a bevy of fans yell towards the stars. Aside from the cast gushing about the movie, a number of fellow Disney Channel stars make an appearance, such as Miley Cyrus and Jason Earles (both of "Hannah Montana") and Sabrina Bryan (The Cheetah Girls), as do adult fans like Marilu Henner ("Taxi"), Kim Rhodes ("The Suite Life of Zack & Cody"), Lori Laughlin ("Full House" and Efron's "Summerland" co-star), and even "American Idol" contestant Ace Young. Short, light and fluffy, this is the type of bonus which contains the phrases "I love this movie!" and "I'm so excited to be here!" in several variations.
"A High School Musical Reunion" (5:56) features the main six young cast members sitting around a sofa and discussing how the film changed their lives. It starts off with "Life Before...", in which they remember what their careers were like before the film, talking about TV show guest spots (with accompanying clips) and the other jobs they held down before making it big. It then moves on to "Phenomenon", a montage of various praise for the film, quick looks at guest spots, even a multi-language reel for a scene. The piece concludes with the actors' thoughts on the movie's sudden popularity and what's next. Their comments show just how down to earth these kids really are.
"Dance Along" (16:38) takes the movie-interrupting segments from the Dance Along airings and turns them into a dance lesson featurette. It's very instructional in nature and I'm sure is quite entertaining for younger viewers. The two dances covered are "Get Your Head in the Game" and "We're All In This Together."
Hosts Efron, Hudgens, Tisdale and Grabeel (there's that law firm again!) address the young audience and offer scripted jokes and instructions. They first show the moves at a regular speed, then repeat them in half-speed, which really requires talking slower when instructing, and repeating the moves once again at "full speed." Moves are described as "wipe", "claw", "seeing stars", etc. There's even a "Disco Disco" move.
The Music & More section features nothing but music videos, and true to the snazzy edition title, two music videos are now "remixed", though not necessarily improving the songs. "Breaking Free" (3:10) and "We're All In This Together" (4:00) are now more dance-club in nature and, unlike previous music videos for the film, offer more behind-the-scenes and rehearsal footage than movie clips. "Breaking Free" is limited to Efron and Hudgens footage, while "We're All In This Together" has our favorite law firm and several interesting split-screen comparisons of rehearsal and movie shots. While I don't like the songs, I actually like the glimpses at the rehearsal process, which aren't limited to a recording booth, showing stages and dance studios too.
"What I've Been Looking For" is a bubble-gum pop tune, so full of saccharine sweetness that any rendition that's not as energetic as Ryan and Sharpay's should never be considered be a proper version. The lilting-love-song rendition by Troy and Gabriella is nowhere near as good, and if you want to hear that same banality in another language, you can find it in the music video "Eres Tu" (2:00), the Spanish version of the song, as dreadfully sung by Belanova. Parents, punish your HSM-loving children by forcing them to listen to a bad cover of a song in a language they most likely won't understand. Mixing dubbed scenes from the film with the Spanish band playing, this makes for one of the most boring music videos I've ever seen.
"We're All in This Together" (1:32) shows up again in same short music video from the first release. It serves as a highlights reel of the entire movie, and has a softer and more faded quality than everything else on the disc.
One final bonus feature note for the tree-killing fanatics in our audience: yes, the DVD comes with a cardboard slipcover. It's an historic moment -- a DCOM gets released with a slipcover. Let the celebrations commence; husbands kiss your wives, mothers kiss your babies! As usual, the slipcover repeats the design and art of the actual cover, but the unique hook to draw wandering eyes to the product is a blue metallic background that shimmers in the light.
Menus here have gotten a makeover as well, shifting from the high school motif to a stage with spotlights. Both discs' menus are animated, Disc One with two moving spotlights that contain various shots of the cast, and Disc Two with two hanging stars on stage with again, montages of cast shots. All menus are accompanied by a looped 20 seconds of a song.
Disc 1 opens up with previews for Peter Pan: Platinum Edition, Meet the Robinsons (the widely-seen teaser), The Cheetah Girls 2: Cheetah-Licious Edition and Air Buddies. On the Sneak Peeks Page, you'll also find promos for Ratatouille, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe: Extended Edition, High School Musical 2, and Jump In.
The translucent discs are packaged in a standard-width black keepcase, inside of which you'll find a two-sided insert holding chapter listings, overviews of both disc's bonus features, and an array of nice cast photos. There's also a smaller tri-fold insert that offers, among other things, a chance to win a role as an extra in High School Musical 2, a Disney Movie Rewards code, and ads for DCOM DVDs.
At this point, I've been trapped in the world of High School Musical for two days straight, and needless to say, I'm thrilled to finally reach this section of the review. While I have gained appreciation and respect for the work behind the musical, in the end... I still don't like it. Except for Ryan and Sharpay, of course. The movie is wonderful for families and youngsters, but it's a hard sell to anyone else. Fans of the movie should love that it's getting a two-disc treatment, despite only delivering an additional 35 minutes of bonuses. Still, this two-disc Remix is everything a single-disc special edition could be and is the better version of the two releases. It's recommended, but not wholeheartedly, and only to fans who haven't already bought the movie and fans willing to unload their old Encore Edition to a young cousin and get a shiny slipcover