This film is, in the big scheme of things, little more than a pleasant mediocrity, but it doesn’t deserve the vitriol that many have aimed at it. Remember that it wasn’t initially a product of Disney’s hype machine…just a low-budget TV movie that managed to become a pop-culture sensation simply because people liked it. And the truth is, for the actual audience it was aimed at, there was a lot to like about it.
Granted, compared to almost any real musical it comes across as paltry and juvenile, but compared to rest of Disney’s TV and musical fare at the time, it might as well have been My Fair Lady. It really was a huge cut above any of its actual peers in both script and score, so it isn’t surprising that an audience used to The Cheetah Girls or Hannah Montana would greet this kind of material like it was some kind of masterpiece.
The script has a fluffy, predictable plot that makes little sense under close scrutiny, but it also has genuine charm, and it’s ultimately little different than the scripts to such old-fashioned musical comedies as Good News! and Best Foot Forward. The songs are much catchier and better crafted than the average Radio Disney fare of the time, even if the lyrics are largely clichés. They even feature some clever and creative ideas at times, such as the Basketball-game-as-musical-number “Getcha Head In the Game”, or the upbeat peer-pressure ensemble number “Stick to the Status Quo”.
“Start of Something New”, “What I’ve Been Looking For”, “When There Was Me and You”, and “Breaking Free” are just generic Teenybopper ballads, but they’re much prettier and more melodic than most of the Teenybopper fare of the time. And the big finale, “We’re All In This Together”, is tuneful and rousing enough to make a more than satisfying grand finale.
Kenny Ortega’s direction is surprisingly capable given the film’s obvious shoestring budget, and his choreography is actually quite excellent, loaded with energy and with an extremely distinctive style that has become the show’s primary calling card (Ortega has a pretty legit set of credentials, having done the choreography for Xanadu, the original Newsies film, and most impressively of all, one of the greatest dance films of the modern era, Dirty Dancing).
The cast features some genuinely promising singing and acting talent, particularly future big names Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens as the central couple and the amusingly campy Ashley Tisdale as the villain, and if the young cast are all clearly untried and uncertain, that actually fits in well with the film’s naïve charm. It’s also refreshing that the piece doesn’t pretend to be more than it is—it knows it’s fluff, and makes absolutely no attempts as heaviness or melodrama, and there’s something disarming about its total lack of pretention.
I will admit that this film doesn’t hold up all that well if you’re familiar with real, adult musical theater, and it’s worth noting that it hasn’t exactly stood the test of time—as much of a sensation as it was at the time, it’s now half-forgotten and remembered largely as a joke—but I think it deserves a certain measure of credit for trying a little harder than it contemporaries and for winning its acclaim honestly rather than being handed it on the platter by Disney’s Corporate hype machine. In any case, the film still makes for a rather pleasant viewing experience, and having seen more than I would have liked of its competition, that alone should win it some sliver of respect.