Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens are out front once again as cooing lovebirds Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez. They sing. They dance. And they smooch a little. But not too much. After all, this is a G-rated Disney extravaganza.
It's senior year at East High in Albuquerque, NM, although this movie and the first two were shot at the real East High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. The familiar gang – including Diva Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale) and her choreographer twin brother Ryan (gifted Lucas Grabeel) – are thinking about graduation, the prom and putting on a musical to express their angst about going separate ways into the real world.
There's no need to worry that "High School Musical 3" will dissolve into one of those dreadful, forced-perky "It's a Small World" Disney Super Bowl left shows of a few years back.
Director-choreographer Kenny Ortega, who helmed the first two made-for-TV movies (ratings record setters), has been directing divas, dancers and singing talent around a stage since he choreographed Cher's TV special in the 1980s.
Ortega holds the tone of this lighthearted, joyful second sequel at a perfect pitch. There is no intention to present high school as reality. Teens get enough of that when the tardy bell rings.
This is a powerful shot of heightened reality. High school seniors drive all night and hop on a musical stage with no fatigue at all. In this slightly happy-enhanced world, Troy's backyard treehouse comes with a magically opening moon roof to reveal bright stars and make Gabriella (and girls in the audience channeling her) swoon in unison.
The acting is a strong element that could have been pushed to the back burner when singing and dancing are a priority. Efron, which I saw in a very different role in Richard Linklater's upcoming "Me and Orson Welles" recently at the Toronto Film Festival, is the real deal.
He handles the delicate balance of hanging with the not-so-macho drama club students and still manages to not look out of place with the jocks on the basketball team.
Hudgens is convincing as the ingénue just beginning with some of life's real drama as well.
In all its exuberance, "High School Musical 3" offers enlightened hope beyond the rousing song-and-dance routines, which explode from the screen at regular intervals.
Look closely among the energized cheerleaders and you'll find a young lady of size. It's a nice touch.
It's not quite cinematic perfection, though. Troy and best bud Chad's (Corbin Bleu's) dance number in an automobile wrecking yard where dilapidated autos steam and spring to life is over the top to the point of awkward excess. I would not have been surprised to see Herbie bustin 'a move in the background.
On the other hand, "Now or Never," the opening production number, sets a high musical standard that mostly contains throughout. Troy, Chad and the rest of the basketball Wildcats are down on the scoreboard in the state championship game.
Troy bursts into impressive team play and song in a dynamic surge for the title that also displays Ortega's superior vision. With only 16 minutes left (the chorus keeps remembering us) Troy finds inspiration in his peck-on-the-cheek soul mate Gabriella.
In one of the most heartfelt moments I've seen in a movie all year, Gabriella appears as Troy's solo focus from a sea of supporters amid the glow of a spotlight and true love.
It's moments like these that make "High School Musical" special.