A Long-Delayed Rumination On “High School Musical”

The other week, my sister Lizzy and I felt like watching a movie. We had no idea what movie we wanted to watch, so I looked over our family’s DVD library to see what we had. And that’s when I came across something in on the shelf that Lizzy–and the rest of the universe–had been trying to get me to watch for years, but that I’ve always managed to avoid. However, I was in a riffing mood, and had recently read a recap on it while going through random AgonyBooth articles, so I decided it was now or never.

“Lizzy, I’ve resisted for a long time, but I’m gonna give you one chance before I change my mind…”

Immediately, Lizzy jumped up excitedly, and injured herself. She ran to her computer to brag to Twitter that she was making me watch “High School Musical”.

I love a good musical as much as the next former high school thespian, but I had no real interest in ever seeing any part of the “High School Musical” franchise. But Lizzy had been pushing me to see it for a long time, because she felt it would bring back memories of the fun “rivalry” between our drama department and our basketball team. And it might have done just that, had it been a remotely realistic portrayal of any high school I’ve ever seen.

The problem is, this is the sort of high school that exists only in Disney Channel Original Movie Land. Most fictional high schools are bad enough, but Disney Channel Original Movie Land High Schools make Other Fictional High Schools look like a documentary. If I lived in Disney Channel Original Movie Land, I would be very concerned for any child I had in the Disney Channel Original Movie Land Public School System.

For starters, teachers in Disney Channel Original Movie Land fit into one of two categories: Good Guy Teachers, and Bad Guy Teachers. The latter tend to outnumber the former.

Bad Guy Teachers are not only grossly incompetent, they are (gasp) tragically unhip. To prove just how unhip they are, and how tragic it is, they go out of their way to use (horror!) outdated slang. No Bad Guy Teacher is allowed to be remotely in-touch with pop culture. They will share unconditional, irrational hatred for something ubiquitous in the modern era (ie, cell phones) and they will clearly demonstrate that they know SO little about a subject important to the protagonist (ie, sports), even ubiquitous terms like “team”, that they must have never been outside of their house until the week before the story begins.

Good Guy Teachers often start out like Bad Guy Teachers–unhip and incompetent–but they are well-meaning, and soon they share a bonding moment or two with the protagonist (you can tell it’s a bonding moment by the music and the forced-angst/love on the faces). Usually, a Good Guy Teacher is also a parent–like HSM’s own Coach Dad–but sometimes they’re just friendly. Adults are rarely ever allowed to be hip or competent, but Good Guy Teachers often transition into being more hip just because they’re supportive.

The exception to the incompetent/unhip rule is Good Guy Teacher Cameos, usually school principals, who only appear in one or two brief scenes. The Good Guy Teacher Cameo’s purpose is to simply aggravate a Bad Guy Teacher who comes to complain by taking the side of the protagonist. Essentially, their role is the same as that of Mr. Bennet in that scene in “Pride and Prejudice” when Mrs. Bennet wants Lizzie to marry Collins. (I’m becoming more and more convinced that writing this article will do wonders for your perception of my masculinity.) The Good Guy Teacher Cameo doesn’t have time to show incompetence, and usually their hipness (in a Disney Channel Original Movie Land Context) is exactly what enrages the Bad Guy Teacher, so they are set apart from other teachers this way. If there was any attempt to develop their character, it would probably be revealed that they used to be an ordinary Good Guy Teacher who became hip in an earlier story.

But, of course, Disney Channel Original Movie Land High School doesn’t have character development; it has cliches! And these cliches would be nothing if they didn’t plague Disney Channel Original Movie Land Students! The protagonist usually fits into one of two roles: a Popular Guy Hiding A Heart Of Gold, or an Unpopular Yet Attractive Girl. In High School Musical, we are blessed with one of each for our protagonists! The PGHAHOG takes the form of one Zac Efron as Troy Bolton, which sounds like the name of one of those hipster superhero parodies. This young stereotype is the basketball team’s greatest star, despite being approximately three feet tall, so either this is a Disney Channel Original Movie Land High School for Hobbits, or there’s a bit of nepotism at play from Coach Dad.

The UYAG is Vanessa Anne Hudgens as Gabriella, who just transferred to her new school and doesn’t want to be the “freaky genius girl” again–something she shouldn’t worry about, as she demonstrates little evidence of her supposed intelligence, other than correcting a simple math mistake that one of the Incompetent Teachers made. Naturally, after spending thirty seconds together, UYAG and PGHAHOG fall in Disney Channel Original Movie Land High School Love, which usually takes the form of an Immediately-Formed Shallow Infatuation Supported By One Or Two Common Interests. (Better than, say, Twilight Love, which takes the form of shallow infatuation supported by obsessive stalking and radical control issues.)

Now, I went to a small high school that didn’t really have a lot of cliques. Sure, there were separate groups of friends that hung out a lot, but they tended to be based on compatibility more than label. Plus, they all overlapped, and for the most part everybody knew each other, even across grade lines, so most of my experience from cliques comes from movies and TV. But true to movie and TV clique fashion, PGHAHOG and UYAG come from Different Worlds, making them Star-Crossed Immediately-Formed Shallow Infatuators Supported By One Or Two Common Interests.

For you see, Disney Channel Original Movie Land High Schools are nearly always a Police State. They may not be policed by faculty, or even by bullies. No, they are policed by The Way Things Are. Sure, there are the Obligatory Bully Characters, namely Ashley Tisdale (who is utterly unconvincing playing the part of an actress, so she’s guaranteed a huge overexposed career) as Sharpay, who do their best to KEEP The Way Things Are, but it’s not really in their control; they are really just pawns of The Way Things Are, the most ominous villain of all time. One of the better-known numbers in the film deals with he kids in the cafeteria singing about the Status Quo (because, as the South Park episode put it, “That’s the phrase we know!”) Kids are nice to friends within their cliques, unless the other friends are planning on making friends OUTSIDE their cliques. Friends are supportive of their friends doing the roles assigned to them, but once somebody makes an attempt to develop an additional interest and come close to being a full-grown person (with their own friends and credit cards and keys), they are quickly shut up, even if it means they have to be…taken care of. (“THE GREATER GOOD!”) While there are a lot of things stupid about this scene, it’s actually accurate in its portrayal of the fickleness of high school moods and relationships. Each clique has one member with a secret passion, and the rest of the clique is supportive and excited to hear what it is…but then once the specific nature of the secret passion is revealed, suddenly the clique turns on them. Actually, it’s not even always at the moment it’s revealed, sometimes it’s a little bit later, when musically convenient to enter the refrain. It’s a completely illogical change in tone and attitude toward one of their own…just like real high school students. This is the ONLY place I’ve noticed where Disney Channel Original Movie Land High School shows any resemblance to any real life high school I’ve seen.

So, in almost every story set at Disney Channel Original Movie Land High School, it is up to the protagonists to show everyone that the status…is NOT quo. Sadly, this never involves stealing Wonderflonium; it only involves Falling in Immediately-Formed-Shallow Infatuation Supported By One Or Two Common Interests, or at least a montage heavily implying that it happened. Naturally, it becomes the role of the character’s so-called best friends to stop them at every cost. Because this is a typical, cliche-ridden teen movie plot, this will involve a wacky scheme. And because this is a Disney Channel Original Movie Plot, it will be the LEAST PLAUSIBLE wacky scheme imaginable, which will achieve its ends despite the fact that there were not only a MILLION WAYS it could go wrong, but a MILLION EASIER WAYS to achieve the exact same end.

Anyone who has watched…movies…expects the Engineered Public Confession at a certain point in the flick, so that should come as no surprise. But the execution in this case is…oh, where do I begin.

For Phase I, each protagonist’s clique meets with them at the same time. Each clique goes into a speech trying to convince their protagonist that the other person is a waste of time. Now, UYAG is stubborn, but PGHAHOG will say anything to shut his nagging friends up. The cliques are all COUNTING on this being the exact reaction from each protagonist–if it happened the other way around, Phase II of the plan would be a bust.

Because Phase II is getting UYAG to hear PGHAHOG say he doesn’t care about her, despite the montages implying evidence to the contrary. This phase contains several steps:

1. A basketball player opens his laptop and turns the webcam to face PGHAHOG, without him noticing.
2. At exactly the right moment, PGHAHOG trash-talks UYAG.
3. At that exact same moment, UYAG’s friends turn on a live video feed of PGHAHOG saying this rant. This video feed, incidentally, is streamed on a computer with an operating system designed by somebody whose only image of what a computer looks like is the interface of an early Carmen Sandiego game.

This scene is easy enough to swallow because we’ve seen it in so many other movies, but there’s a lot in it that just baffles me. I don’t recall noticing any live communication or signal between the two cliques, so they had no way of knowing if they were turning on the feed at the right time for the speech. I’m also dubious that students would go through the trouble of setting up a live video feed into a locker room of the opposite gender for a plan this…innocent. And anyway, wouldn’t it be easier–and just as effective–to just RECORD the things PGHAHOG says and play them back to UYAG later? If UYAG is a freaky genius, doesn’t she get suspicious of the friends who constructed this huge elaborate trap to get her to hear PGHAHOG say the wrong thing at the wrong time and start putting two and two together?

But, of course, Love Conquers All, and everyone, even Ashley Tisdale, lives Happily Ever Until The Sequel.

The funny thing is, even though this movie is endlessly mockable, with zero originality, loads of cliches, and poorly-written unmemorable songs, watching it didn’t make me angry the way, say, the career of Michael Bay does. Ultimately, it was a harmless kid’s flick. I’m not defending lazy writing and talking down to children, but the movie is hardly the worst worth getting upset over. I wasn’t angry, I was just…perplexed at how this became THE BIGGEST CULTURAL PHENOMENON EVER. Disney Channel cranks one of these movies out every month, why did THIS one suddenly explode until it spawned theatrical sequels and touring productions? And is the writer ashamed, claiming that he would’ve written a better movie had he known anyone would ever see it? (If so, he probably dries his tears with piles of cash.) (Actually, that may not be true, since this is Disney and he’s a mere writer.)

In the end, it’s not the worst movie in the world, but it is by NO MEANS a good movie, and CERTAINLY not worthy of an entire franchise.


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