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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.


Thanks for reading this. Seriously. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. 

Or just say hello on Twitter: @JonNegroni


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Review: ‘Dirty Grandpa’ Is a Meaningless Excursion

dirty grandpa review

It’s clear that director Dan Mazer has essentially given up on breaking new ground with his comedies, of which he’s normally been a cowriter. I Give it a Year and Borat were the two relevates that, despite their flaws, gave mass audiences a reason to laugh at its seasoned actors.

I had hoped that Dirty Grandpa would do the same trick with Robert De Niro and Zac Efron, two genuinely funny actors that seem perfect for each other. But aside from a pair of somewhat amusing gags, Dirty Grandpa is sadly a raunchy disaster on par with Bruno and The Dictator.

Dick (played by De Niro) pressures his uptight grandson, Jason (Efron) into driving him to Florida after his wife’s funeral. Feeling free from the burdens of his marriage, Dick acts out in every sick way possible to make up for lost time, hoping that Jason loosens up as his wedding approaches.

As you can imagine, everyone in Jason’s life  back home (including his cartoonishly evil and neurotic fiancé played by Julianne Hough) is a bizarre caricature of modern white culture. Dick serves to be his foil, featuring a loud and obnoxious De Niro who says whatever he wants, which is supposed to be funny for some reason.

While this type of brainless comedy is watchable for some potty-humor audiences, it’s painful for attentive eyes looking for a coherent meaning. Throughout, the movie scolds white people, black people, gay people, and everyone else, in order to send the message that all people are repellant in one way or another. We just have to thoroughly insult and demean each other to feel enlightened (it doesn’t help that two different characters make the same Terminator joke in two separate scenes, assuring us that Mazer had little control over this script).

It makes little sense what’s deemed “permissible” or philosophically “good” in the world of Dirty Grandpa. So it’s impossible to understand or connect with any of the characters, including Dick. A key scene involves Dick taking Jason aside to tell him something disgusting, then he leaves it at that, saying “That’s it.”

Right. That’s this movie. Someone taking you aside and telling you something wildly inappropriate for the sake of shocking you into a laugh. If that’s not your thing, then stay as far away from Dirty Grandpa as possible.

I’m going to give Dirty Grandpa a D. 

To be fair, it would take a lot of terrible movies to ruin De Niro’s legacy, but it’s hard for me to accept that for scores of new audiences, this could be their first time seeing the actor on the big screen. And that’s such a shame.

 

I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

Retronalysis: ‘Meet the Parents’ Features De Niro at His Most Humorous

meet the parents retronalysis

The success and talent of Robert De Niro will never be understated, thanks to his legendary performances in Raging BullThe Godfather: Part 2, and many more (notice these are curiously dramatic roles).

But we’ve seen a curious trend arising in De Niro’s latest movie choices (aside from his David O. Russell projects), such as Grudge MatchLast Vegas, and now, Dirty Grandpa. In some of these movies, De Niro is paired with a younger, but talented actor, such as Anne Hathaway in Nancy Meyers’ The Intern.

And now, for better or (probably) worse, Dirty Grandpa sees him acting alongside Zac Efron.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, Efron can be compared just as easily to Ben Stiller, who starred with De Niro in one of his best comedies, Meet the Parents, which is actually a remake of a 1992 film of the same name. Like Stiller, Efron has proven his comedic chops with films like Neighbors and…oh.

Unlike the dark comedies of De Niro’s early career (BrazilThe King of Comedy, etc.), Meet the Parents gave us a more lighthearted and absurd performance from the actor, in no small part thanks to his co-star credit, Ben Stiller.

When the film came out in 2000, it was an instant hit with both critics and audiences. But does it stand the test of time and two atrocious sequels?

meet the parents retronalysis

Directed by Jay Roach (Austin Powers and recently Sisters and Trumbo), Meet the Parents is about an unlucky guy named Greg (Stiller) who meets his girlfriend’s extended family during her sister’s wedding. He gets caught up in a web of small, social lies that put him in the crosshairs of his girlfriend’s disquieting father, Jack (De Niro), who puts the pressure on him as an increasing amount of unfortunate events get blamed on Greg’s hapless antics.

Aside from De Niro, Stiller is one of the best things about Meet the Parents, as it should be. For whatever reason, Stiller is able to make slapstick comedy seem genuine and earned, which is a trait he also pulled off in the equally funny movie, There’s Something About Mary.

Stiller’s character straddles the line of “everyman” and “deviant,” which is no easy task. His subtle, occasional slip into deviancy is mostly relatable, as you can understand why he’s so prone to telling Pam’s family a bunch of nonsense to make himself seem better in their eyes. He’s a nurse, but with no real prospects, especially compared to De Niro’s sordid, later-revealed past in the CIA (which serves as another great intimidation tactic that elevates the comedy).

As you can expect, De Niro also nails his performance, a trick not many other actors could match. He’s obviously the antagonist, but he has to be somewhat likable for us to root for Greg getting his approval. We end up loving Jack for all of his tender moments with Jinx and the family, the clear sign that retirement has made him feel less relevant in his kids’ lives, and all matter of other characterization that makes Jack sympathetic and believable.

meet the parents retronalysis

And the strangest thing about Meet the Parents is how much scope it lends to some extremely uncomfortable subject material, notably with the mixing of religions and class during the iconic dinner scene. Sitting at their table, Greg (a non-devout Jew) is socially compelled into praying for the food, a moment that adds unspeakable tension to an already unsettling scene. Of course, this only escalates further with some cat-milking anecdotes and the destruction of Jack’s mother, but the laughs don’t diminish the harsh realities gleaned from moments like that prayer.

This could have easily been a terrible movie, trying too hard to channel what made the Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something About Mary work so well. But Meet the Parents never lets up with its unique brand of social and familial humor, even if it somewhat loses its creative stride by the ending.

Speaking of which, the only notable flaws in Meet the Parents are mostly forgettable. After a while, it’s easy to grow tired of the constant structure of Greg and Jack’s back and forth, which loses its variation by the third act. Audiences did get to the point where they just wanted Greg to dump Pam and just cut his losses.

Some of the jokes don’t work as well as the others, and some of the gags are too obvious for people not to see coming well in advance, including the vase scene mentioned earlier. But what does work in Meet the Parents works tremendously, and it has a fair share of memorable quotes and lines that people still love to quote 16 years later.

meet the parents retronalysis

For that reason, Meet the Parents will be remembered as one of De Niro’s best comedies, and I consider it his best modern comedy by far.

I’m going to give Meet the Parents a B+

Next week, I’ll be exploring the Kung Fu Panda movies as they lead up to the new installment, Kung Fu Panda 3. Until then, be sure to subscribe for other editorial content, podcast episodes, and more.

Thanks for reading this! You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter: @JonNegroni

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