Everyone needs a musical they can claim. In elementary school, mine was The Phantom of the Opera. I would close my bedroom door, blast the soundtrack and wail along with every word. I listened to it constantly. That soundtrack was my comfort zone, where I felt safest and happiest and most convinced I could carry a tune. As an adult my musical tastes have matured, because there are so many brilliant, meaningful musicals intended for adults, golden age classics that someone in her 20s or 30s might appreciate more than a 9-year-old. Little kids also have Disney movies and other child-friendly musical fare, but what of the pre-teens who feel they have outgrown The Little Mermaid or Annie?
In 2006, Kenny Ortega's High School Musical hit a sweet, previously neglected spot between Disney and Sondheim: tweens. And it was richly rewarded for that endeavor, becoming the Disney Channel's highest-watched program and siring two increasingly successful sequels, a trilogy that culminated with a big screen release. This was clearly something kids wanted, and it still is; Disney's still working the formula with the crazy popular Teen Beach Movie franchise.
And here's the thing: High School Musical is perfect for what it is. Specifically, Grease for 12-year-olds. There's no sex, no drugs, very little rebellion. But that's not to say that High School Musical is free of any message, and it's a pretty great message for tweens: you don't have to be only one thing. Troy (Zac Efron) is a basketball player, and his dad's the coach. He's a great athlete and very popular for it, but on a family vacation, he meets Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), and they share a karaoke number and fall in love - with each other, and with singing.
Gabriella's a math nerd, and that's all she's ever been. When she moves with her single mom to East High School in Albuquerque, she's delighted to learn that her vacation crush is a student there. (See: Grease! East High even looks like Rydell). But Troy's teammates, and Gabriella's Scholastic Decathlon pals, want their friends focused. Troy and Gabriella's interest in the school musical is confusing to their classmates, because it doesn't fit in the tidy categories in which they've already been sorted.
"Stick to the Status Quo" offers a terrific lesson to pre-teens, who are desperate to fit in with a group and willing to hide or even change the parts of themselves that don't comply with the rules of their tiny, cloistered society. High School Musical deals with a few more slightly weighty topics: parental pressure, school support of the arts versus athletics, overcoming shyness. And not for nothing, but it boasts an impressively diverse cast: the students of East High aren't all white and thin. The blinding good looks of its stars aside, the campus of High School Musical looks like it could be a real campus.
But mostly, this is just a charming, innocuous romp featuring simple but catchy songs and choreography. The direction, by Footloose choreographer and Gilmore Girls director Kenny Ortega, has about as much depth as you'd expect from a Disney Channel original movie, but the film's energetic and lively. It's fun, and it's anchored by two solid performances by Efron and Hudgens, both of whom have gone on to achieve legitimate careers outside of the Disney machine. These kids look great on camera, they can sing a little and dance a little, and even here, in their first starring roles, they can carry a movie.
All of this said: this is a movie for pre-teens. There's a good chance it isn't for you. But hey, there are plenty of movies out there for you. Your twelve-year-old sister deserves this one.