Coiffed with what must have been a budget-busting supply of styling gel, the cast of High School Musical 3: Senior Year looks not just freshly scrubbed, but manicured, exfoliated, and dipped in a vat of hot wax. Before deodorants, colognes, and perfumes are added, their natural odor is probably "new car smell." And that's the Disney Channel look: post-ethnic, post-racial, upper-middle-class suburban kids from some blissful Utah utopia, the sort of place where every household has a plate of freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies sitting on the kitchen counter. That artifice is transparent and impersonal—at all times, reminding viewers that they're watching "product"—but it actually serves the High School Musical series well, because musicals accommodate slick unreality. If nothing else, HSM 3 has the bubbly brio to carry its hermetic emotions across.


It's senior year at East High in Albuquerque, and the HSM gang face the expected uncertainty about their futures while planning to put on one last big show. Lovebirds Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens are committed to each other, if their adult-contemporary-style duets are any indication, but they're headed for radically different college tracks. Hudgens gets an offer from Stanford; Efron is torn between playing basketball for a local college with his best friend (Corbin Bleu) or pursuing theater at Julliard, with both options putting him many miles away from his beloved. (Spoiler alert: There may be an unheralded Option C.) Meanwhile, other gifted seniors vie for roles in a year-ending, show-stopping musical, so that they, too, may earn a slot at the Fame school of their choice.

HSM 3 works much better in the uptempo numbers than the ballads, which have the generic "This Is My Now" quality of inspirational American Idol singles. Numbers like "The Boys Are Back," an 'N Sync sound-alike performed by Efron and Bleu in the world's spiffiest scrap yard, are energetic and fun, and they play to Kenny Ortega's flair for aggressive yet playful choreography. Efron is the epitome of sexless Disney heartthrobs, but he's an electrifying song-and-dance man, so much so that his castmates (Bleu excepted) look like they have concrete shoes by comparison. The franchise will likely go on without him, but judging by how badly the film flounders when he isn't onscreen, it won't be the same.