‘High School' graduates with honors

Can a virgin enjoy “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”? That is, can it appeal to someone who has never seen the first two made-for-Disney-Channel movies – and in my case, who has 40 years too many and one X chromosome too few to fit into the target audience?

Yes, indeed. Though briefly deafened by the shrieks of preteen girls at the preview screening, I recovered my wits in time to appreciate “HSM3” for what it is: a sweet, innocent look at an impossibly idealized high school world.

Kids may smooch and sing about love, but what they really want to do is rock the house and wring the last bits of happiness out of their final year in the most untroubled high school on Earth, where jocks and theater geeks and snotty girls and gay boys and weirdos named “Rocket Man” can all find themselves once they climb onto a stage. This kind of uplift slides down easily in so charming a setting.

True, the plot goes beyond formulaic to archetypal. Hoops star Troy (Zac Efron) has to decide whether to follow the advice of his basketball-coaching dad or pursue music in college. His girlfriend, brainy Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), is headed to college far away and can't reconcile head and heart. Sneaky Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) wants to star in the huge spring musical and replace Gabriella in Troy's arms. And what they and everyone else really want is to remember senior year forever and be remembered forever by their friends.

True also, the pop ballads and the people who perform them are interchangeable, a long parade of belting tenors and soaring sopranos reaching for the clouds in song. That blandness is given extra spice by director/choreographer Kenny Ortega, who puts the young cast through moves that range from breakdancing to “Saturday Night Live” strutting.

Yet there's a lot here that merits praise:

Wall messages, placed almost subliminally behind the stars, say such healthy things as “Allow yourself to be great” and “Dream.”

An overweight cheerleader/dancer kicks up a storm. More power to any movie that says girls can be appealing in different sizes.

The villainess – who isn't bad enough to be kept out of the final ensemble, of course – is named for a breed of dog. (That's “shar pei.”)

Her sidekick brother (Lucas Grabeel) wears a Frank Sinatra hat, sweater vest and shorts to school. And nobody mocks him!

The movie takes place in Albuquerque, N.M., a place so blandly pleasant (yes, I've been there) that it's like Charlotte with less hipness. Viewers across the nation can watch these kids without feeling they live in a glamorous world; moviegoers might see them in their own towns.

People sing everywhere, from the rooftop garden of East High School (nice environmental message) to a salvage yard, where they hurl themselves over junked cars. I haven't seen this kind of unironic, unself-conscious musical craziness since Gene Kelly stopped working.

The audience at the spring musical cheers the basketball star who gets a college scholarship, but it leaps to its feet to salute a musician who gets into Juilliard, New York's renowned conservatory for the performing arts. Now that's a high school I'd want to attend.