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Stepford school friends

Disney's cheerful cash cow is honest in ways grittier youth films can't match

<strong>High Sc

Cynics tend to regard the High School Musical phenomenon as a pernicious force that has quietly permeated our society, not unlike chlamydia, or David Cameron's Conservatives. Long before the avalanche of merchandise - CDs, ice shows, dolls, duvet covers - came the TV specials on the Disney Channel, revolving around a group of chirpy Albuquerque-via-Stepford school friends who responded to whatever life threw at them by putting the show on right here. Whenever one of them flashed a gleaming smile, you could be sure another LA orthodontist was at that moment installing a spa in the east wing of his second home.

Anyone unfamiliar with the series may be worried about getting up to speed with the complexities of the plot before seeing High School Musical 3: Senior Year, the first of the series to be released in cinemas. But trust me - you'll manage. All you need to know is that the lights are bright, the kids are less so, and love means never having to say what can be expressed instead in the form of a power ballad.

Like its predecessors, HSM3 centres on Troy Bolton (Zac Efron), a basketball champ whose popularity at East High is undimmed by his resemblance to the evil doll Chucky from the Child's Play films. Mild hysteria broke out before the screening I attended when a rumour circulated that Efron had been glimpsed in the foyer, though I'm happy to report that order was restored after he fell flat on his face and was revealed to be a promotional standee.

The new film finds Troy trying to choose between a basketball scholarship and an invitation from the Juilliard performing arts school. The only thing of which we can be certain is that there will be much singing of MOR numbers as he makes up his mind, and that it will be impossible to hum any of them once the film is over. The songs may not be the picture's strong point, but the jazziest ones are reserved for two show-stealers who merit their own spin-off: Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale), who resembles Paris Hilton with a personality (difficult to imagine, yes, but not impossible), and her twin, Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), who choreographs the song-and-dance shows at the end of every HSM.

How to describe Ryan? Dressing down entails for him a lilac argyle tank top, white panama, black knee-high socks and gleaming brogues. His love life has never been explored, but in HSM3 he finally asks a girl to the prom, instantly sending implausibility levels shooting through the roof - not easy to do in a film about teenagers who, finding themselves in a bedroom without parental supervision, exchange chaste pecks and whisper platitudes that make the Hallmark back catalogue sound like the collected Rimbaud.

But it would be wrong to suggest that HSM3 is an artistically barren experience. Take its use of a doppelgänger motif to articulate the characters' confusion over who they will become after graduation. Troy is worshipped by a copycat who apes his every move, Sharpay employs a goody-two-shoes PA who has clearly seen All About Eve too many times, and Troy and his pal Chad (Corbin Bleu) are replaced in one dance routine by childhood incarnations of themselves. "Disparities and the Divided Self In High School Musical 3" is a doctorate that's just screaming to be written, ideally by someone who has a long-standing addiction to tranquillisers, or hopes to nurture one.

The worst charge you could level at the film is that it raises its audience's expectations to unmanageably high levels. Prepubescent viewers expecting to find a partner like Troy, who endangers his starring role in the end-of-term spectacular by driving a thousand miles wearing a tuxedo just to be with his girlfriend, will have to wake up and smell the J2O. But I'd choose the jolly carnival of the HSM films any day over the bogus hipness of Juno, or the manufactured grittiness of Kidulthood and Kids. At least HSM3 is honest in its manipulations. The spirited choreography, the unhurried editing and the snappy acting by Tisdale and Grabeel diminish the suspicion that the whole thing is a pretext to flog more duvet covers. Although I may not be feeling so temperate by the time we get to HSM7: Gap Year in Goa or HSM9: Crap Job and a Kid on the Way.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism