The James Clayton column: High School Musical hell

Is High School Musical 3 the Return of the Jedi moment for a new breed of 8 year olds?

Woe is us. This week sees the big-screen arrival of the final instalment of Disney’s über-irksome High School Musical movie series. Right now the sound of over-excited children ricocheting off the walls as they dance and sing along to their new favourite tunes is reverberating around the globe and giving thousands of poor parents earache. If you’re not familiar with HSM (oh you lucky, lucky people), the release of High School Musical 3 marks the Return of the Jedi moment for the current generation of under-8s.

As far as things go, High School Musical is basically Grease garishly repackaged for the 21st century and stripped of any trace of grit. A perky bunch of personality-free, pretty teens flounce about playing jocks and totally-non-nerdy-nerds, warbling out wearying tweeny-bop songs such as “Breaking Free”, audibly informing viewers that they can “Start Something New” and “Bop to the Top” with toothy grins. “We’re All in this Together” eh? High School Musical happily applies itself as empowering, uplifting material whilst subconsciously re-enforcing all-American values and all that is mainstream and mundane. It’s sickening.

In the series so far, the squeaky-clean students of East High, Albuquerque have reconciled their clique issues, put on the school performance and dealt with the dramas of their summer vacation. High School Musical 3 will round things off with graduation at which point the characters will presumably pack off out of their New Mexican protective bubble to be eaten up by parasitic skin diseases, bad debts and failed careers in the porn industry. I get the impression that Albuquerque is actually nothing like the saccharine utopia presented in High School Musical but rather much more like the town depicted in deft US TV drama Breaking Bad – full of depressed chemistry teachers and crystal meth addicts.

But since when did reality matter? We’re living in marshmallow-light la-la-land here! The super-sugary series presents adolescence without the existential angst, sexual awakening, body horror and experimentation with intoxicants. No sex, drugs or rebellion of any kind at all – a pecking little kiss is the furthest that the leading lovers (played by two cardboard cut-outs called Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens) go when it comes to embracing and showing romantic affection.

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So we know that High School Musical 3 is designed specifically to sell karaoke DVDs, stationery and lunchboxes to little children and torment everyone with an IQ higher than 32. What I find really perplexing though is not that people can produce such braindead bilge or that Disney would come up with such a crass cash-cow, but that people actually buy into – and love – something as mundane and devoid of character and creativity. Is this really what captures the imagination of kids these days? Are the tiny masters of tomorrow wholly happy with soporific singy-songy splurge set in the day-to-day dull world of school?

In the average human’s academic career, high school often exists as a period of extended suffering and shame. Though the pre-pubescent audience whom Disney deceives are as yet unaware, teenagerdom is a tragic time of manic moodswings, outbreaks of acne, relationship issues and pressure from all angles. It’s bad, but yet mainstream films (and other cultural forms for that matter) keep on revisiting it and stuffing it down the throats of all-too-eager spectators. In my humble opinion, there are too many films and TV programmes set in high school, and most of them are wide off the mark in their representation of the educational institutions – as outlined above with regard to HSM. I understand that people, particularly children, like things that they are familiar with and can relate to, but the sheer volume of texts that take the school bus with teenagers can not be rationally justified.

It’s going to take more than an injection of insipid pop tracks and daft dance numbers into academia to lift High School Musical above boring cliché. We’ve already established that supply of school-centric films outstrips demand – the last thing we need is a musical about one. If only the bigshots at Disney had been a bit more inspired and outlandishly inventive at the board meeting when they decided to construct a new sinister scheme with which they could claim world domination. A musical about high school? Forget about it: musicals are much more fun when they’re about forbidden love (Moulin Rouge, West Side Story), murder (Chicago, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) or Nazis (The Sound of Music, The Producers). How about making a family-friendly mix of all three combined? Does that sound fun kids?

If children really require their entertainment to be easily accessible and directly relevant to their young lives, then for diversity it wouldn’t have been difficult for Disney to devote their musical masterplan to another segment of the education system. University Musical would most likely not be tolerated by panicky parents what with all the ugly hangovers, month-old washing piles and drunken midnight debates about Nietzsche that it would inevitably contain (cast of course to a soundtrack of shoegazing showstoppers). It’s at the other end of the educational spectrum that we find a satisfactory source for all-singing, all-dancing melodious entertainment…

People, I pitch to you Pre-School Musical – or alternatively Nursery School Musical or Kindergarten Musical if you prefer. Can you remember a happier time than those carefree days where you were allowed a midday nap, were encouraged to paint with your hands and were considered to be an absolute genius if you could piece together a jigsaw? Who needs horrible high school? A catchy musical composed of songs about Play-Doh monsters performed by cute little critters who, despite being toilet-trained, are not yet civilised enough to consider throwing their excrement at each other to be a social no-no. By secondary school children’s imaginations, exuberant innocence and boundless enthusiasm has already been beaten out of them by the system. It would have been so much more comforting had Disney set its musical cash-cow in those primal, paradisiacal stages of infancy.

James’ previous column can be found here.

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