Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Walt’s grandchildren

The things I would never have experienced if I hadn’t, at a late date in my life, sired a child.

Missing some of these things (dolls and associated products revolving around Barbie and those Bratz things come to mind) would certainly have been no great loss. On the other hand, I would have also missed the bulk of the current generation of Disney-generated content. It’s a tough call as to what extent my life would be richer or poorer without that experience, but it’s been at the very least interesting.

Other ancillary benefits of parentdom at this age has been to revisit some of my own favorite literature from my youth or to visit literature that came along too late for my youth. For example, not only did the Munchkin and I read together J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit but the enthusiasm was high enough that we followed through with all three volumes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Experiencing that work through the eyes of my child all by itself justified the hours of birth labor the Missus went through. Now we have started on the Harry Potter books. There is almost no chance that I would have undertaken that project at this point in my life without the pretext of a younger reader to entertain. But there are certainly worse ways to pass my time, and I can already tell that I will finally “get” what fans of the series mean when they say that the books are so much richer than the movies. And, of course, just as Tolkien’s books provided an excuse for me to see Peter Jackson’s movies again (in the company of my own halfling), so will Ms. Rowling’s novels provide for seeing the Harry Potter movies again—this time with new eyes.

But back to Disney. The more I observe that corporation in action, the more I am impressed by the way it has carried out Uncle Walt’s vision of business genius—something I touched upon after a visit to Disneyland Paris four months ago. But the theme parks, for most of us, are merely once-in-a-great-while-perhaps-years experience. Disney permeates the lives of kids and their parents on a much more frequent basis, thanks to feature films, DVDs and that satellite/cable staple, The Disney Channel. Years ago, when I heard that Disney was launching its own premium channel, I thought to myself, cool, they will probably be able to fill 24 hours a day seven days a week just rerunning their libraries of old TV shows and movies and cartoons. And they certainly do draw from their vaults for a certain amount of their content. But I have been struck by how much original new content is generated for what is now several Disney channels—including new made-for-television movies. Although I frequently see these flicks, I haven’t been reviewing them on the web site, for the purely technical reason that, early on, I made it a policy not to review made-for-TV movies unless I saw them in a cinema (e.g. as an international release or at a film festival). But at least one such movie has become so ubiquitous in my life that it seems perverse not to write about it, so that’s what I’m doing.

If you yourself have a child in your life in the right age group (and perhaps of the right gender; my non-scientific observation is that it is more of a girl thing), you will feel the glimmer of recognition upon reading the title: High School Musical. For me, it is something very hard to get out of my mind. You see, not only is it a movie, but it is also a soundtrack CD, a touring concert, a concert soundtrack CD, a sequel, a sequel soundtrack CD, a series of music videos hyping all the preceding and, as I have just recently become aware, a stage musical available for licensing to local theater groups. As it happens, I attended one such production this past week by a group from Loughrea, County Galway. (And, I must say, a great time was had by all.) Along with all this creative/business synergy, one would have to include the various ostensibly non-related videos and appearances by members of the TV movie cast. You see, just like in the old days when young performers like Tommy Kirk and Annette (Funicello) were identifiable as members of the Disney repertory of actors, Disney again has a stable of bright, young, attractive talent that keeps showing up in its TV shows, made-for-TV movies and live productions. If you have one of those aforementioned children in your life, these performers’ names will probably ring a bell with you: Ashley Tisdale, Corbin Bleu, Vanessa Hudgens, Lucas Grabeel. If you don’t have such a child in your life (or you yourself are not such a child), then you are almost certainly drawing a blank.

Critically, I suppose High School Musical’s biggest problem is precisely what I have just outlined. If you know about it at all, then it is ubiquitous to the point of not being able to escape it and you come away feeling over-exposed to it. And it does have the feel of something creative that has been taken by business people and by bean counters and exploited to wring every last penny, euro-cent and shilling out of the pockets of young people and their financial supporters. But, having said that, I also find myself enjoying it, despite all my best efforts, in the way that so much Disney product provides enjoyment in spite of itself and ourselves. As a movie, the flick is as completely generic as its title. It perilously straddles the line between homage and derivative-ness. But, in the end, it delivers the feel-good energy of such past teen musicals (of which it consciously invokes major echoes) as Bye Bye Birdie, Fame and Grease. The music is mostly ballad-y but, like so much Disney entertainment, has the trappings of edgier pop culture riffs, but in a completely safe way. Similarly, the story (which is basically a perfunctory but serviceable framework on which to hang the dance numbers) posits the controversial notion that teenagers should not have to be bound to high school cliques and should be able to participate in more than one kind of extracurricular activity. Subversives are free to read this as code for other kinds of lifestyle tolerance but, aside from one sly wink near the end, the film doesn’t help you in this.

Clearly, the strength of the movie is the energetic dance numbers, choreographed by the director, Kenny Ortega, who previously helmed Newsies and Hocus Pocus for Disney. A protégé of Gene Kelly, he went on to work as a choreographer and/or video director for the likes of Cher, Madonna and Olivia Newton-John and to choreograph such live events as the Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards. Notably, his movie choreography work includes the popular 1987 flick Dirty Dancing.

The other strength is the bright, fresh, extremely talented young professionals that Disney has always seemed to be able to find and attract. A favorite in our house, Ms. Tisdale makes the most of what amounts to the villainess role and yet keeps the character strangely likeable. Mr. Bleu, who has since starred in his own movie about competitive jump roping, sings and dances with complete confidence and is so darn cute that I nearly have a crush on him myself. They tend to outshine the leads, although Ms. Hudgins is no slouch in the vocal department. Leading man Zac Efron, on the other hand, is saddled with being a generically hunky teen in the good guy role, with all the interesting stuff going on around him. This perception is not helped by the fact that it emerged that his vocals were sweetened by one Andrew Seeley, who took Efron’s logical spot in the live concert tour. Never fear, however, Efron (with the rest) are all back for the sequel and, if the teaser video is any indication, his dance moves are certainly up to snuff.

Is watching (and re-watching) all this Disney stuff rotting my mind, as I sometimes fear it does? Well, if it didn’t rot it when I was a kid, it probably is doing no great harm now. Sure, it takes up time that I could be spending at the cinema watching potential Oscar contenders. On the other hand, I have to take into account whom I get to spend precious time with while watching the new generation of output from good ol’ Uncle Walt.

-S.L., 23 August 2007

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