High School Musical came out eight years ago.
Isn’t that just depressing?
It’s been eight years since the sickly sweet Disney Channel movie exploded onto TV screens and dominated our lives. It’s been eight years since “Breaking Free” inexplicably topped iTunes, exposing most of us (who weren’t tweens) to the franchise. It was also our first exposure to the teen idol behemoth that would become Zac Efron.
Being older than 14 during that time made hating everything associated with High School Musical very easy, even expected. It was everywhere after all and in no way reflected the true high school experience. I’m sure it was a sport for some to break the hearts of middle schoolers by telling them that high school wasn’t filled with musical numbers in between classes. Then there were the stars, tailor-made by the same machine that birthed Hannah Montana to be Teen Choice Awards mainstays. Could we really be blamed for writing off the overnight teen idols as flash-in-the pan future burnouts?
Well, nearly a decade later, the HSM cast are… pretty much flash-in-the-pan burnouts. All of them except for Zac Efron (the jury is still out on Corbin Bleu, who just finished a potentially star-making turn on Dancing with the Stars). Despite relative wisdom, Efron has maintained a steady presence in theaters and on magazine covers these last eight years. Granted, a number of his films have either been commercial flops (The Paperboy), critical duds (The Lucky One) or both (the tragic That Awkward Moment, which is its own blog post; I’ll get to it). But there is renewed hope for reformed Disney prince, in the form of the Seth Rogen frat comedy Neighbors out this weekend. The reviews have been surprisingly positive, and it might offer Zac the movie star credibility he’s been chasing since “breaking free” of Disney.
The truth is, Zac Efron should be commended for what he’s done with his career. Compared to a number of his peers (read, all of them), he has carried himself and his career with a level of thought and grace that is generally unexpected of us millennials. He could’ve easily went completely off the rails, becoming a festering boil of drugged insanity and stumbling embarrassment. He could’ve also cashed out on his impossible good looks and become the oldest living teen idol ever. Instead, he tried to craft a movie career that wasn’t built off his teen fame. The results may have been middling, but his efforts are worthy of applause. At least he is trying for something more than tabloid glory, right? In a society where fame is easily achieved through leaked nudes via Instagram, it is very old school, and charming, to attempt it the old-fashioned way, by way of talent. Even his most sketchy tabloid foibles, his rehab stint and that dodgy altercation on L.A.’s Skid Row, were handled with a level of maturity worthy of a Hollywood Reporter cover. He deserves props for really being about his work, without being obnoxious either. That is an impressive feat itself.
So, with his spotty film record, where should Zac slot himself in Hollywood and truly make that mark? Of the movies I’ve seen, he has some great romantic comedy potential. He was enjoyable in 17 Again, the movie that helped him transition into Hollywood, and when the writing wasn’t absolute crap (which wasn’t very often), he was good in That Awkward Moment. It’s the dramatic roles where he has been led the most astray. At best, he’s cheesy. At worst, you just open the Netflix app on your phone while you’re in the theater. There may be an allure to proving one’s self with meaty, emotionally complex roles, but drama is not his strong suit, at this stage in his career at least. I think he should pad his IMDB profile with successful films (both critical and commercial, if possible) in the comedy genre, and then transition after gaining some more experience and audience goodwill. Matthew McConaughey did it and landed an Oscar, after all.
I could see Zac Efron being a true-blue movie star, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in the 90s. I would at least like to see him try. Neighbors could be the start of the true birthing of Zac’s star, which he may have actually earned. I think it’s time we all, Hollywood and the general public, help that process along.