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We’re Still Suffering From How Bad ‘High School Musical’ Was

high school musical

For many, High School Musical was the first real signal of a true shift in Disney Channel programming. By 2006, the once plucky, experimental network had found more success in streamlined sitcoms like That’s So Raven and Suite Life of Zack and Cody than they had ever found with previous shows. This, of course paved the way for a persistent, familiar formula seen in almost all subsequent Disney Channel features, even to this day.

You might find this formula to be a good thing. Perhaps you enjoy the shows currently broadcasted on that channel, or you might be neutral at best. I’m not going to try to change your mind, but suffice to say that the numerous people who have a distaste for what the channel has become are both wrong and right.

Disney Channel shows have always been great for their time. If you look back at some of their supposedly best projects, you’ll find that they haven’t aged well at all and are actually a lot worse than you remember. Time does that sort of thing. But what I’m arguing is that even in 2006, Disney’s first smash hit movie was a terribly harmful film, and for many reasons.

Put more simply, High School Musical was and probably still is the worst thing ever produced by the Disney Channel. Not in terms of quality and production value, but certainly when it comes to how the Disney Channel Original Movie impacted the countless people who’ve watched it over the last 10 years. How it shaped its fans, for example.

high school musical

This is hard to argue, for sure, because on its surface, High School Musical doesn’t seem all that bad, right? The names of the songs say it all: Start something new! Get your head in the game! We’re all in this together.

Yet the titles of each song send a different message in the subtext. And watching the movie as a whole, you’ll start to see that a specific, alarming set of beliefs are being pushed onto these characters. Let’s back up and recap the film.

The movie begins by introducing us to Troy Bolton (played by Zac Efron) and Gabriella Montez (played by Vanessa Hudgens) just as they’re getting introduced to each other during holiday break. They have a song number meet-cute before going their separate ways, only to meet again at the start of a new semester because it miraculously turns out that Gabriella is now attending the same high school as Troy…even though they met by coincidence somewhere else.

If this sounds at all familiar, that’s because High School Musical was originally meant to be a remake/sequel of Grease in the late 90s, featuring the children of the original movie’s characters. I’m not joking. They couldn’t get the rights figured out, so Disney Channel ultimately decided to turn the script into one of their original movies made for television, with “High School Musical” as the working title. Apparently, they couldn’t come up with something better to name the darn thing, and the rest is history.

high school musical

Anyway, Troy and Gabriella both realize that they belong to different cliques: Troy is the basketball jock and Gabriella is the math nerd. But their bond through music becomes a quasi-reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, where their respective social circles clash over the future of these star-crossed lovers. Well, not really. The romance between Troy and Gabriella is persistently muted, with them often changing the subject to music instead of their own “relationship.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing — in fact, it’s probably for the best — because it allows for more interesting drama between Troy and Gabriella, who have a decent amount of chemistry together to make the “we’re friends but want to be more” thing work fine. What really poisons this film is the introduction of the titular musical.

Troy and Gabriella decide to try out for the school musical. More specifically, the lead roles. The problem is that the school already has built-in performers who’ve starred in every production. And naturally, they’re the villains of this movie. Sharpay (played by Ashley Tisdale) and Ryan (played by Lucas Grabeel) are exceptionally talented, and for good reason. They’ve trained for years and actually want to turn their passion for theater into a career someday.

But it turns out that Troy and Gabriella, who barely even want to be in the musical and have no acting experience, are both selected for callbacks. Even though they were late to the audition in the first place, by the way. It’s a decision that rightfully upsets Sharpay and Ryan, who have no conceivable idea why outsiders have skipped them over for what is essentially their most critical time to stand out in the industry. All because they can sing about as well as Sharpay and Ryan. And even that is arguable.

high school musical

The real reason Troy and Gabriella are selected is because of their chemistry when no one is watching. They’re late for their audition, so the drama teacher exerts her one moment of clarity by telling them they don’t deserve a role when they can’t respect the rules. Later, she listens in on them practicing a song and decides that earns them a callback. You know, despite the fact that neither of them performed when the pressure was on, which is what they’ll actually have to prove they can handle when on stage for real.

Their casting has nothing to do with how technically proficient they are at singing and acting. The worst thing about this is that neither character purports to have any interest whatsoever in theater beyond the attention ascribed to it. Allegedly, it’s because they simply love to sing, but that’s nonsense within the context of the film. Instead of having to work for the roles and pay their dues, the barely proficient are rewarded with what they really want: popularity.

And that is why High School Musical is actually harmful. The movie positions Sharpay and Ryan as sore losers without any real sympathy. Sharpay in particular goes to cartoonishly evil lengths to prevent the protagonists from even getting to their callbacks, just to ensure that the audience doesn’t root for her by mistake. This is a character who is supposed to be good at acting, yet the only skill she seems to have is concocting evil plans to make the audience hate her.

high school musical

The movie tries to say something about how you can be more than your designated clique, which is a great message, but the execution misses the mark completely. Sharpay and Ryan claim to be more upset over the fact that someone has entered the “theater clique,” rather than the more obvious pandering that’s going on with the drama teacher. And the students obsess over kids hanging out with other kids who are different, which is hardly a problem in any school. Yes, there are cliques, but there’s no widespread panic when a jock tries out for a musical or dates a girl with good grades.

And when the film finally tries to resolve the conflict between Sharpay/Ryan and Troy/Gabrielle, it comes down to Sharpay having a rapid change of heart that is shoehorned into the final scene. Sharpay never apologizes. Gabriella never apologizes. The film never tries to lend credence to why she acted so harshly in the first place. It just ends. Is it no wonder Sharpay essentially “resets” her attitude toward them with each subsequent movie, even fawning over Troy during the first sequel?

The ending song says “we’re all in this together to make our dreams come true.” OK, but only Troy and Gabriella’s dreams, which have only been a thing for a few weeks. The movie tells its viewers that a select group of people can and should be the best at everything, even when they’re actually not. The protagonists win everything. A superior movie could explore actual consequences for when teenagers stretch themselves thin and create anxiety for themselves, but not High School Musical. You’re guaranteed a victory just for trying. Even though Troy and Gabriella barely deserved to be understudies, they get to be the stars, win their championships, and smugly dance it off in the very end.

high school musical

The actual dialogue between Troy and Gabriella in the ending scene:

Gabriella: “Congratulations, Wildcat!”

Troy: “What about your team?!”

Gabriella: “We won, too!” 

This is why High School Musical was successful. It wasn’t just the manufactured-to-be-catchy song numbers. It definitely wasn’t the real message of the movie. It was how the movie made its viewers feel, and wrongly at that. The movie convinced many young children who aren’t in high school that simply trying without working earns them the same rewards as the people who actually have legitimate dreams and work hard for them.

For Troy and Gabriella, singing is a hobby, maybe, but nothing they’re at all serious about. The movie positions their plight above the characters who actually have dreams to turn music into a lifestyle (the ones who truly need these roles to get into the right schools), and the script demands them to be manipulative and evil in order to trick viewers into rooting for the privileged brats. It also clamors that high school is a mystical place where a select group of kids are so good at everything, their only real problems are choosing which thing they’re going to be best at.

In this movie, they choose everything. And the whole school worships them for it.

high school musical

There is a way to turn these concepts into a good movie. There’s room for an honest exploration of how the quick ascent of the privileged few can create sharp enemies. And there’s even a good story behind the idea of popular kids getting more popular, paralleling nicely with the concept of the rich getting richer. Shame on us for ever expecting something so useful, I suppose.

I wish I could ignore High School Musical and simply let it be. People like it, and I never have. But there’s something truly exploitative and lasting about what it tries to tell its audience in a way that’s simply ugly and perverse. It’s also allowed Disney Channel to get away with similar storytelling in other shows over the years, resulting in a channel that is currently so embedded in watered-down celebrity-obsessed pop culture, the children who watch it stand little chance of getting by unscathed.


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Or just say hello on Twitter: @JonNegroni


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Snarcasm: Only Smart People Realize ‘Zootopia’ is a Bad Movie

zootopia bad

Snark + Sarcasm = what you’re about to read.

I think it’s important for people to remember that Rotten Tomatoes is just one of many useful metrics for evaluating a film you want to see. When we take it too seriously, we end up arguing over arbitrary numbers and percentages, rather than the details within a movie that actually matter.

Then someone writes a terrible review for Zootopia for the sole purpose of getting some attention.

“But Jon,” you say softly, “this reviewer in question might hate Zootopia for good reasons. What’s wrong with an opinion?”

“Nothing,” I respond to you with comforting glee. In fact, there are some great pieces out there already showcasing reasonable criticisms for Zootopia that other critics (even me) have glossed over. That said, there’s one other “bad” review for this movie that makes some decent points, though it’s written by a film critic who gave Annie (2014) 3.5 stars out of 4. So, yeah, I’d take that review with a speck of a grain of salt.

The review we’re going to Snarcasm today goes beyond some of the worst reviews I’ve ever attempted to share with you all. Everything, down to even the headline, is layered in nonsense, and we’re talking Gods of Egypt-level nonsense.

And it’s probably not a coincidence that this review came several days after all of the positive write-ups for Zootopia. But that’s none of my business.

Writing for The Globe and Mail, film critic Kate Taylor writes:

Zootopia: Fun for kids, but adults may think twice about movie’s message

That’s right! Instead of being blindly accepted without a second thought, adults are actually questioning important subject matter after watching a childrens’ film! The horror!

In Disney’s new animated feature Zootopia all the animals wear clothes and walk on their hind legs.

There’s nothing to complain about here, but I do want to point out how much I miss that comma after “Zootopia.”

zootopia bad

That makes the gazelle a particularly tall and lanky creature. A minor character, she’s a pop singer voiced by Shakira;

You’re going to kick things off with a barely tertiary character? Um, OK. That seems odd, but I guess it’s just a sentence. She’s probably about to move on to what the film’s actually about—

she sports gracefully tapering antlers with a tousled blond mane nesting fetchingly between them; she wears a miniskirt and a spangly red crop top.

Uh.

OK.

Are we done throwing adjectives at an unimportant character? It’s not like we can actually make a deranged conclusion about the film based on “tapering antlers.”

Yes, the elegant gazelle has been sexualized.

Wow. That’s…wow.

So Kate Taylor has a weird problem with animals looking like humans. Good thing she was chosen to review this movie.

Anthropomorphization is tricky territory although, God knows, Disney has lots of anodyne experience going all the way back to that cheery little mouse who first appeared in Steamboat Willie in 1928.

Kate, what are you even talking about right now? Anthropomorphization stopped being “tricky territory” at least 50 years ago. How is this your version of a hot button issue in a film about racism?!

Still, Zootopia takes the cultural practice of posing animals as human characters to queasy new heights.

So Kate is apparently uncomfortable seeing animals act like humans. I’m guessing she doesn’t have an Instagram account. Or neighbors. Or a sidewalk. Or Animal Planet. Or YouTube.

Perhaps I’m being ignorant, but it’s just bizarre to me that anyone would feel “queasy” watching something so established in our culture of entertainment. Sure, it may not be your favorite trope, but why on earth does such sanitized fiction make you uncomfortable at all?

Apparently, in the countryside, animals live in their original habitats surrounded by their own species and familiar neighbours:

That’s not “apparent.” It’s just what is.

Judy, a character cloyingly drawn with Kewpie doll eyes by the animators but firmly voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, aspires to be a police officer and moves to Zootopia, where she is hired onto a force staffed by elephants, wolves and bears under a “mammal inclusion initiative.” In other words, she’s a girl in a man’s world.

OK, gender dynamics are somewhat parallel to what’s going on in Zootopia, but it’s strange that Kate brings this issue up instead of the obvious elephant in the room (who was a girl).

zootopia bad

Judy is directly held back because she’s a bunny, not because she’s a woman. While it’s fair to bring up how gender discrimination is similar to what we see in Zootopia, it’s certainly not the intended focus.

The chief (a water buffalo impressively created by Idris Elba) promptly assigns her to parking duty, but she soon breaks out and teams up with a wily fox (an irrepressible performance from Jason Bateman)

Idris Elba voiced the character. He didn’t “create” it. And if you’re just saying he brought the character to life, then you should just say that. Also, I don’t think you understand what irrepressible means, because Jason Bateman’s performance here is anything but.

I don’t imagine environmentalists would approve of a movie that suggests wild animals are at their best when tamed,

This is nonsense. The animals aren’t being tamed. They tame themselves in the same way humans do in order to cultivate society. How moronic do you think environmentalists are that they wouldn’t get the difference?

The premise of Zootopia is that these creatures have evolved past the point where they need to kill each other for survival, which is a great metaphor for how human civilization has been developed. Of course animals are at their best when they’re not at each other’s throats!

but it’s the social anxieties behind Zootopia’s message of animal harmony that make me uneasy.

Good! The best movies challenge and convict us. Do you only care for movies that cater directly to your sentimentalities?

But as Zootopia busily tells the kids not to stereotype different groups and to love everybody, it creates a city in which some creatures fear that others are inherently savage.

Is this really happening? Kate, that’s the entire point of the movie. Zootopia is teaching these lessons within the context of a city where racism exists. If the city itself was perfect and free of conflict, then the message would ring completely hollow.

That’s a pretty close match for both America’s historic racism and its new Islamophobia.

Yeah, Kate. Again, that was kind of the point, but you’re phrasing it as if this is somehow a flaw, instead of just an obvious fact.

And, leaving aside amusing jokes about the wolves trying desperately to contain a group howl or sloths working as bureaucrats, animal behaviour is a troubling metaphor for cultural diversity.

So far, everything you’ve said to build up to this point runs contrary to the idea that animal behavior is a troubling metaphor for anything. You’ve specifically said not even a sentence ago that it matches American society closely. Does that mean the problem is that it’s too good of a metaphor? Because if so, your vague issue with this film doesn’t have much to do with the actual film.

Especially that weird thing about the gazelles. Are you just never going to get to that?

After all, preying on smaller or slower creatures is how many real animals eat; wolves are potentially savage and mice can’t really live happily with them.

And this is the part where everyone reading this review realizes that the critic has absolutely no interest in actually reviewing the movie. The crux of Taylor’s “uneasiness” boils down to minutiae: a barely explored aspect of the world building that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual story.

In fact, it makes more sense than not that Kate Taylor fell asleep in the first ten seconds and then woke up once in the middle and nodded off again. Because the entire first scene explains how animals evolved to the point where they didn’t need to make distinctions between prey and predator. They could just find alternate means of living in order to have harmony.

zootopia bad

But because Kate can’t use her imagination and think of what these creatures could do otherwise, there’s something wrong with the film. Let me try to imagine how Kate could have such a bizarre understanding of this movie….Nope, nothing.

And how much animal harmony does the sprawling Zootopia team of multiple directors and writers really envisage?

Really? You couldn’t just say “envision?”

Oh, and to answer your question, a lot. Like that’s the entire point of that 5 minute opening sequence where we watch how all of these animals live in disparate sectors of the city, along with pretty much everything else from that point forward.

In fact, it’s clear to everyone but those of you who were sleeping that the directors and writers spent countless hours making this world come to life in a way that represents a united city of animals that was made by animals.

It was only when the sexy gazelle appeared in a final image of the animal kingdom united in song that I noted the very few couples in the film – Judy’s bunny parents and an otter whose husband has gone missing – and began to wonder about the deepening friendship between Judy the female bunny and Nick the male fox. But let’s not go there.

Yeah, what a terrible movie! Instead of needlessly focusing on a forced romance, it gave us a story  that was good enough to stand on its own with characters who had enough believable chemistry to sidestep a boring love dynamic!

What a nightmare!

To be fair, I’m not entirely sure that’s what Kate is getting at, but at this point, I have no idea what she’s even rambling about.

Highly familiar with the pluralist message that Zootopia delivers, the children for whom the film is largely intended are unlikely to be troubled by anything they see here.

Those pedestrian children are so pedestrian, you see.

Thinking parents, however, may think twice.

In other words, “Only smart people like me understand how “bad” this movie is. And if you don’t agree, you’re a CHILD!”

Guys, this has to be the worst professional film review I’ve read since…perhaps ever. There’s no real analysis here, just a few lopsided assertions that don’t even strengthen her premise. She ignores the visuals, the characters, the writing, and pretty much anything about this movie that would inform her readers whether or not it’s worth their time.

zootopia bad

She talks more about the gazelle with two lines of dialogue than the main characters. And when she does bring up the main characters, she complains (I guess?) that they aren’t in a relationship.

Instead of actually reviewing Zootopia, she digs on one bizarre hangup she has that doesn’t even slight the movie, mostly because she barely explains why anything she mentions is a real flaw. She just cites another example that reads more like an adjective-filled soundbite and then moves on.

This is not a review. It’s barely even a rant. It’s just a lazy, incoherent opinion with a grade at the bottom.


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