Few companies throughout the history of the world have been so shameless in their pursuit of the almighty dollar as the Walt Disney Company. After breaking the mold in 1934, Disney has never shied away from creative marketing and release strategies to wring every last dollar out of its most beloved pieces of intellectual property. Each week, we’ll look at the House of Mouse’s various sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and various misadventures, relegated from the silver screen to the small screen. Is there any artistic merit to be found? Or was each film mostly conceived as an excuse to print more money? Join me as we search for the answers from the wonderful world of Di$ney.
Why does this exist?
I had phased out of the Disney Channel’s target demographic by the time the High School Musical franchise exploded into pop culture in the mid-2000s. But there’s absolutely no denying its impact on pop culture, not to mention Disney’s revitalized branding. The series made stars out of Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Tisdale, who still find starring and supporting roles today. Tisdale’s career has felt a bit like an outlier among her Disney Channel contemporaries like Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato or Selena Gomez; mostly free from scandal or salacious roles, Tisdale has simply put her head down and continued to work.
Regardless, she’s great in the role of Sharpay Evans throughout the HSM franchise. A self-obsessed dummy, written with sledgehammer-on-the-head subtlety that Disney’s known for, should be a thankless role, but Tisdale’s unflappable commitment saves it. Efron and Hudgens quickly moved out of the Mouse House after HSM wrapped up but Tisdale stuck around. And if you thought that Disney wouldn’t wring as many dollars out of the franchise as possible while its stars could still pass for high school or high school-adjacent, you’re clearly new to this column. (Welcome!)
This is why Disney’s release strategy for Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure is fascinating to me. The film has those inescapable vibes of a generic Disney Channel film — because it is. But Disney curiously released the film first via physical media a little over a month before it was dumped on TV. This combined approach netted a cool $7 million in DVD sales and almost five million viewers when it premiered on the Disney Channel.
What’s going on here?
You should always go into a musical with the expectation that reality will be a little heightened in one way or another. You should go into a Disney Channel musical with the expectation that very few, if any, real human behaviors will be displayed. Both of those attributes are on full display in Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure.
Having recently graduated from high school, Sharpay (Tisdale) sets her sights on New York and Broadway, where she believes she’s a shoe-in for the lead role in a new musical. She convinces her father to bankroll her new life across the country on the shaky condition that she land a starring role within a month of arriving — a very normal thing to ask of a 19-year old. After running into Peyton (Austin Butler), a young family friend / NYU film student, Sharpay tries out for the production only to realize they wanted her dog, a Yorkie named Boi, instead of her. Through a series of patented Disney contrivances, Boi has to compete with Countess, who is owned by Roger (Bradley Steven Perry), a 12-year old whose parents are never seen or heard.
The second half of the film sees Sharpay and Roger embark on a series of pranks and sabotages that rankles Amber Lee Adams (Cameron Goodman), the star of the show despite being confused at one point about which lines are stage directions and who only further devolves into a monster as the film goes on. Maybe the film’s objective is to humanize Sharpay, a vain shell of a person who only aspires to stardom because she loves the attention. If that’s the case, it only sort of succeeds. There’s also an obligatory kiss between Sharpay and Peyton at the end that somehow feels inevitable yet comes out of nowhere. Finally, after more shenanigans that see Amber receive her due comeuppance, Sharpay wins the lead role.
How much of the original is preserved?
Tisdale excels not only because she can do what Disney asks of her but because she has a fantastic set of pipes. She only sings a handful of times and they’re far and away the best musical moments of the film, which inexplicably also includes a cover of Justin Bieber’s “Baby”.
The script, written by Robert Horn, is devoid of any recognizable human characters or actions but still zips along at an agreeable pace. Should it have cut out some of the conflict scenes with Sharpay and Roger and focused more on either developing Sharpay as a character or her friendship / romantic feelings for Peyton? Probably, but a Disney Channel movie wouldn’t be a Disney Channel movie without wacky hijinks.
Does this ruin the original film?
You may be asking yourself why we’re covering this film in this column at all. Indeed, the first two entries in the HSM series were Disney Channel releases, never seeing the light of day in a theater. But High School Musical 3 bucked the trend in 2008, ultimately raking in over $200 million at the box office.
It was a relative gamble to center a film on the franchise’s “villain,” but the stakes were low enough for Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure that they likely weren’t too worried. The biggest question would be how many fans would still be loyal to the franchise five years after the release of the original film. I get the impression that the film’s intended audience would skewer closer to the younger side given the above-mentioned conflict between an adult woman and a 12-year old kid.
Tisdale was 21 when HSM first premiered and 26 when Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure was released. If the average fan was 13 when the original film was released, they could identify closely with Sharpay and her struggles to make her place in the world. The bones exist for a coming-of-age film wherein Sharpay goes through the trials and tribulations of achieving her dream in a new city and against the demands of her father. A different movie studio could have made that film. Alas, this film was made by Di$ney.
- Next Time: Another double-dip of puppy cuteness, with Spooky Buddies and Treasure Buddies.