| Considering that the broadcast nets have pretty much given up on scripted family programming, one has to appreciate the consistency with which Disney delivers the goods to its target demos. "Summerland's" Zac Efron stars as Troy Bolton, East High's basketball star. Over winter vacation, he meets Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) during a karaoke contest, and the two discover harmony in more ways than one. The bookish Gabriella, however, is shy around the confident Troy and runs off before he can learn that she just transferred to -- yes -- East High.
Once back at school, romance takes a back seat to the social pecking order. Troy's dad and coach demands unwavering commitment from his players in the face of an impending championship game. Gabriella, eager to make a fresh start, is happy to shed her math genius reprep in favor of blending in. Still, she doesn't quite have the nerve to try out for the school musical alone. When Troy decides to lend a hand and audition for the musical with her, the consequences reverberate throughout the school.
Although the plot's not particularly novel, writer Peter Barsocchini's script maintains the fantasy elements while incorporating topical and relevant themes into the story. Many viewers will surely relate to the notion of parents latching onto their child's every interest and passing fancy as if it's the ticket to college admission.
High school is a time when kids are just beginning to discover their true selves in an environment where individuality is as welcome as leprosy.
To express this notion with fresh dialogue is one thing, but to convey it through song is a marvel. Ortega, a master of the group dance, hits his stride in particular with "Status Quo," a catchy number that takes place in the most vicious social gauntlet of all -- the high school cafeteria.
Inspired by Troy's actions, a fellow basketball player admits he likes to bake and dreams of making the perfect creme brulee, while a skater dude owns up to playing the cello. Horrified by these revelations, their fellow classmates encircle them, warning them, "If you want to be cool, follow one simple rule, just stick with the status quo."
The movie features several other radio-ready tunes, most notably the duets "Start of Something New," by Matthew Gerrard and Robbie Nevil, and "When There Was Me & You," by Jamie Houston. As usual with Disney, the net has promised numerous cross-promotions and tie-ins via TV and the Web.
As Zac, Efron is boy-band material with a touch more cool, while Hudgens couldn't be cuter. Kudos should be given to the casting agents who so evenly rounded out the cast with appealing characters, particularly Corbin Bleu as Troy's friend and teammate Chad, and Monique Coleman as academic overachiever Taylor. Ashley Tisdale ("The Suite Life of Zack and Cody") does a nice turn as drama queen Sharpay, who, along with her twin brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), recall Donnie and Marie, complete with resplendent '70s headwear.
As always, Disney manages to incorporate diversity without making it an issue, perhaps knowing that in high school, popularity is the only demographic that really matters.
camera, Gordon Lonsdale; editor, Seth Flaum; music, David Lawrence; songs, Matthew Gerrard, Robbie Nevil, David Lawrence, Faye Greenberg, Ray Cham, Greg Cham, Andrew Seeley, Randy Petersen, Kevin Quinn, Andy Dodd, Adam Watts, Jamie Houston; choreography, Ortega, Charles Klapow, Bonnie Story; casting, Jason LaPadura, Natalie Hart, Jeff Johnson. Running time: 120 MIN.