The bright, likeable little TV movie High School Musical became a sensation when it debuted on The Disney Channel early this year, drawing hordes of teenager-obsessed pre-teens with its elemental story of caste-jumping and dream-following among sparkling-clean suburban adolescents. Soft-featured cutie Zac Efron plays a basketball phenomenon (sporting a modified caveman 'do not unlike that of Gonzaga hoops star Adam Morrison) who, alongside indistinctly ethnic math whiz Vanessa Anne Hudgens, discovers a latent love for song and dance. As they hide their decision to try out for the school play from judgmental peers, the scheming and hand-wringing validates the complicated inner lives of Disney Channel devotees.
All this is presided over by director/choreographer Kenny Ortega, who once helmed the Disney musical flop Newsies, and who has a rabid cult of supporters who've been waiting for him to get another crack at a musical feature. The Ortega fandom is a little hard to explain, since he's never really showed a deft hand at staging musical numbers. The songs in High School Musical range from forgettable teen-pop ballads to rousing show tunes, with two standouts: a big closing number where everyone dances together in the spirit of friendship and tolerance, and a mid-movie showstopper where kids jump up and reveal their secret passions.
Still, Ortega maintains a light touch with his generic Hollywood showbiz-kid cast, and he holds to a breezy pace that saves the movie from its predictable plot and flat dialogue. (Hudgens, to a fussy teacher: "Shouldn't that second equation read 16 over pi?" Fussy teacher: "Sixteen over pi? That's quite impossible.") Mostly, High School Musical makes an appealing case for an idealized vision of high school, where individuality is celebrated and even the mean kids know everyone's name. It's all so gleeful and encouraging, viewers may not notice that the story is really about the rich getting richer—or at least the popular getting more popular.
Key features: Behind-the-scenes featurettes and a sing-along version with the song lyrics at the bottom of the screen.