Monday, January 14, 2008

Defending the Wildcats

Yeah, it's a dirty job, but hell, somebody's got to do it.

But to my point . . .

Verdict by Internet consensus. It is one of the most troubling things about this wonderful information age we live in. Too often, a vocal, but largely minority opinion is repeated enough across the World Wide Web that it becomes a kind of dogma, despite an often questionable pedigree. Case in point--this comment by an anonymous individual in response to a recent blog post that bemoaned a perceived current creative stagnation of the Walt Disney Company:

"High School Musical, that is really pathetic. That if they even bother to look is loathed by almost everyone who is not a female within the ages of 3 to 14."

Search the Disney online community and you find similar comments and conjecture. Yes, the wildly successful High School Musical franchise has become the latest target for some of the cranky curmudgeonly of our society. It seems that when those of the mean spirited demographic run out of dogs to kick and babies to pinch, they peruse the current catalog of pop culture offerings to find a convenient "phenomenon" at which to spew their venom. It appears that in many circles, Wildcats are currently in season.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. God Bless America. If you so desire, climb up on your soapbox in the middle of Central Park and proclaim your contempt of High School Musical to the masses. But alas, for so many, having and expressing such an opinion is simply not enough.

Validation is required. The purveyor must somehow associate that very subjective supposition with as many other individuals as possible. Hence statements such as " . . . is loathed by almost everyone who is not a female between the ages of 3 to 14."

According to who? Sorry, but I don't remember seeing that particular Gallup Poll. And the billions of dollars in revenue that these films are generating would certainly indicate an audience that extends well beyond tweens of the female persuasion.

But sadly, in this oh so pervasive age of extended information, lemmings tend to be the rule rather than the exception. Snarky is cool; cynicism is chic. In the big social picture (online or otherwise), it's likely a lot safer to bash Zac and Vanessa and company, than to at the very least admit a casual indifference. And thanks to the wealth of blogs, forums, and other outlets of Internet communication, once that bandwagon is launched, and despite the innate subjectivity of its formation, there is rarely a U-turn in its trajectory. Just ask Jar Jar Binks.

There's been a fresh round of Wildcat bashing, primarily due to the fact that High School Musical was featured prominently on the Walt Disney Company's 2008 Annual Report, and also the announcement that the films' Albuquerque, New Mexico setting would serve as the location for the company's upcoming shareholder meeting. What is especially troubling is that so much of this poisoned punditry is coming from members of the Disney faithful, those who hold the current company stewards accountable to Disney's long heritage of family-centric entertainment.

I watched the first High School Musical a little over a year ago, and I will without shame admit that I found it well produced and quite entertaining. It successfully blended a classic Hollywood musical formula with contemporary pop music and talented teen stars. While certainly hip in many ways, it also reflected a wholesome spirit and presented a somewhat surprising, albeit gentle critique of teenage social dynamics. It was certainly not everyone's cup of tea, and doubtless many parents tuned out after the first wave of multiple viewings, but a widespread consensus of "loathing" is definitely a stretch of any imagination. Last summer's High School Musical 2, while a bit disjointed and uneven at times in its approach, was by no means a cinematic train wreck, and it clearly pleased its intended audience.

I am therefore amazed when I hear self-proclaimed keepers of the Disney flame railing without mercy on what has become one of the company's greatest successes in recent memory. Many have even fallen back on the always convenient but rarely with merit "Walt theoreticals." As in "Walt would have never approved of this," or "Walt would have never allowed crap like this," and so on. To make any kind of connection between Walt Disney personally and the High School Musical franchise is ludicrous on just about any level. But there is in fact a distinct correlation between the High School Musical films, and by extension the Disney Channel programming from which they emerged, with entertainment the Walt produced and championed during his lifetime.

In the 1950s, Walt Disney served up what became a similar pop culture phenomenon to a generation of children and young teens just as eager to consume mass media entertainment as their 21st century counterparts. The Mickey Mouse Club was at that time passionately embraced by its baby boom audience much in the way that today's young people have caught Wildcat Fever. While the times, styles and sensibilities have changed, the appeal of young, talented and energetic performers to their demographic peers remains by and large timeless. In that context, it is disingenuous to suggest that the High School Musical franchise in some way represents a low point, creatively or otherwise, for the Walt Disney Company.

Many Wildcats naysayers cite the franchise's over saturation in both mass media and consumer products venues as justification for their bitterness and often malicious diatribes. But that argument serves to shine a light on an interesting bit of hypocrisy that exists in many corners of Disney fandom. For Disney's exploitation of Pirates of the Caribbean seems immune to similar criticisms, despite the fact that its exposure has been as equally far reaching as that of High School Musical, and its exploitation for financial gain has been just as intense.

So why all the fuss? If you personally don't appreciate the talented students of East High and their high spirited musical antics, that's fine. But why needlessly rain on someone else's pep rally, with over exaggerated claims that carry more malice than merit? Such remarks only serve to diminish, not elevate Disney fandom.


Ken in Atlanta said...

Go Wildcats....

I have noticed that this happens alot in the community, and pretty much boils down to two things IMHO

1. Personal dislike for something not really aim at them. (ie Target Demographic)

2. Not liking something that doesn't fit into a person's precious bubble of what Disney means to them and their memories as a kid.

#2 is the one that I have remind people about all time. The Great Wand Debate is a perfect example. Now for the record I don't really care for the wand being there or not. But for me the wand was there for my first visit to the park, and those memories I have of it are equally as meaningful and precious as someone else's that have memories of an eariler time.

Everyone just needs to remember that Disney is also a company and they need to change and evolve, even though our memories do not.

So take lots of pictures.

Anonymous said...

Opps. a section got left out of that.

For kids today High School Musical is the magic of Disney for them, and who are we to rob them of that magic because we don't like a particular program.

Doc Terminus said...

I agree that people aren't happy with just having their opinion out there... They want it validated...

This post has got my validation AND a little bag of "Swedish Fish".

I am in total agreement. I've always felt that the "High School Musical" was just the latest incantation of "The Mickey Mouse Club", done with modern sensibilities and an efficient budget.

Great stuff, Jeff...

Ivonne R. said...

I just wanted to say that I'm one of those people who hates High School Musical and POTC (The Movies) equally. ;)

It's not really the movies themselves. I mean they're just harmless little pieces of fluff to entertain people. Whatever. I more annoyed by the fact that it seems when Disney is sucessful with a certain property they just tend to milk it, which really is understandable since they are a business, but the fact they push it EVERYWHERE they can is my problem. I think it's sad that when I go to Epcot I find more High School Musical and POTC merch than I find actual Epcot related logos and such.

Darren said...

Well said. I'm a guy slightly over 14 and I like HSM.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for defending High School Musical, Jeff. After all, franchises like that do not deserve to get snubbed.

And, Ivonne R., criticisms like yours are the kinds of criticisms that Jeff explicitly expressed hatred towards in his blog, so be careful.

Anonymous said...

Wildcats everywhere, raise your hands up in the air! :)

Daveland said...

My hand is up in the air; loved both HSM and HSM2...and I'll even admit it...loved Enchanted too. There’s enough depressing crap in everyday life; why have to watch it for entertainment too? HSM is a refreshing alternative to all the depressing, violent, cynical garbage we get hit with every day. GREAT POST!

Ivonne R. said...

Kingcrab said:

And, Ivonne R., criticisms like yours are the kinds of criticisms that Jeff explicitly expressed hatred towards in his blog, so be careful.

So you can express your opinion as long as it's line with everyone else's? That's a nice way to look at things.

Aside from the fact that that I said the first statement kiddingly (I don't have extreme hate for HSM, hence the ";)" at the end) I said that it's not really the movies themselves. If you like the movies more power to you. I'm not one of those people who look down on others who enjoy High School Musical. You're entitled to your opinion as am I. I was just saying that I'm more disappointed by the fact that HSM and POTC have been seen in places where they don't really fit, like in Epcot.

And like davelandweb said, I really loved Enchanted, so I'm not completely against movies like it.

Ivonne R. said...

That last line in my post should of been: And like davelandweb, I also enjoyed Enchanted, so I'm not completely against movies like it.

It's to early to be typing... :)

Anonymous said...

Jeff, your comparison to "The Mickey Mouse Club" is adept and accurate. Every project will not appeal to every fan, but "High School Musical" is a charming, good-quality film that has positive things to say.

In addition, I have noticed that for teens, the safety to express interest in the performing arts is contained in the films. An excellent message as attention to the arts in schools has dwindled over the past few decades.

The sales of and interest in "How Does the Show Go On?" Tom Schumacher's recently-published primer on the world of theatre, have certainly been helped by the interest and appeal, and even the fad created by "High School Musical."

Jeffrey Pepper said...

For the record, I took no offense at Ivonne R.'s comments, and in fact felt her points were well taken on the over saturation of these franchises, especially at the theme parks.

The was clearly a ;) in the initial statement and that was the spirit in which I took it.

Unknown said...

My name is Ray and I'm a High School Musical Fan

Anonymous said...

Two comments.

On the original post: Hallelujah! Within the Disney blogosphere there is a pernicious form of negativism that goes beyond criticism to a place of hostility: Anything the Company does today is a devaluation of the legacy, a betrayal of the past.

Everything in the House of Mouse is not perfect, and critical evaluation and commentary serves a valid and important function. The deep analysis of someone such as Foxxfur (Passport to Dreams Old & New) illuminates what works, and what doesn't, in a way that enhances our understanding and enjoyment.

Yet some within the community seem to live in a mythical state of purity where little more than Snow White, the original POTC, and EPCOT Center of 1986 express the true spirit of Disney. Today's House of Mouse can do little right, it's a bunch of marketing schlebs and bean counters who have sacrificed Walt's legacy in pursuit of stock options and a bigger house in Brentwood.

Well, no. Let us remember The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor, and The Parent Trap. The Company has always had to balance "art" and "commerce." Sometimes it creates projects that score on both (Beauty and the Beast). Sometimes it gets one, sometimes the other. And sometimes neither.

HSM is a project of moderate originality and creativity that nonetheless has struck a tremendous chord. It is positive, optimistic, and devoid of cynicism. Given a choice, would you prefer that or the adolescent nihilism of Thirteen? Is it "worthy" of Disney? Well, watch The Adventures of Spin and Marty and tell me how it differs.

I do not need to enjoy, or celebrate, every project. But neither need I disparage what does not rise to some artificial set of standards based on an an ahistorical perspective on the Company and its legacy. Keep some perspective people, it's, well, a high school musical.

Comment #2: despite all of the above, the concern I have is that a mega-franchise such as HSM (or POTC) tends to crowd out creativity in other areas. I think this is what ivonne r. is trying to say. For example, I was disappointed on my most recent trip to WDW at the quality and variety of merchandise. If it weren't high school kids or pirates, there wasn't much else on offer.

More importantly, the fixation on the big franchises leads to some, er, strange placement of attractions within the parks, such as Kim Possible inside World Showcase or Power Rangers on the Streets of America at the Studios.

As a sharedholder, I can't fault the milking of the economic value of the franchise, but creatively, it feels arid when there are so many other traditions to explore.

Or, to create anew. The billion or so dollars generated from the POTC films are derived from an original attraction created forty years ago. Where are the new attractions being developed today that will provide similar creative opportunity and economic value 40 years hence?

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to see Jeff write this after his defense of foxfurr's similar diatribe against unfinished Pop Century published on his blog a few months about being 'blinded' by what we don't want to see.....
I like this blog and very few others not because there's rarely a negative word printed about Disney, but because the words are measured and written from a positive, loving and respectful point of view.
If I want to read endless "I hate Disney" blather, I'll go to JHM or The Laughing Place and all its subsidiaries.
I still say everyone's welcome to their opinion, but if you don't like something, tell "the boss" and don't bore me with your prejudices. Stop visiting Disney parks, seeing Disney films, and posting endlessly to Disney blogs about how much you hate POTC or HSM or the Pixar merger. You're just a whiner, and you obviously have no life.

Anonymous said...

"More importantly, the fixation on the big franchises leads to some, er, strange placement of attractions within the parks, such as Kim Possible inside World Showcase or Power Rangers on the Streets of America at the Studios."

Daddy Brady, I disagree with that rather negative and cynical opinion.

I don't think such placements as those are strange at all. They're all in perfect places.

Mercurywaxing said...

There are some people who won't like anything in pop culture as a badge of "cool." It can be the same in Disney fans. There are some who will not like things that break out simply because they break out and become huge.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry if my comments on the placement of Kim Possible in World Showcase or Power Rangers in the Studios appeared cynical; that wasn't at all the intent. I serously don't understand their placement.

My point was broader: focusing on the franchises seems to starve the parks of original creations.

It so happens that right now I'm listening to a series of podcasts from last Summer about Tokyo Disney Resort, and one thing that comes across is the number of original stories the Imagineers created for attractions in the parks, especially DisneySEA. These stories enhance and extend the creative legacy of the Company.

I respect HSM, enjoyed POTC...but it doesn't mean I want to see them everywhere.

Jennifer said...

As an ardent Disney fan at 45, I am delighted that my 10-year-old son and his friends have HSM to love. I may not love it, but I understand it (yup, Mickey Mouse Club of 2008!) and I am very comfortable with its popularity at my son's school. I also understand that the responsibility of a Board of Directors of a publicly held company is to make money for its shareholders; the sacredness of the memory of Walt makes that responsibility a lot more complex, but the bottom line IS money. SO, I watch the movie with my son and we don't buy the HSM merchandise at the parks and hey, life is good -- we decided how to participate and where we wanted to draw the line....

Anonymous said...

In thinking about this article, I've come to realize that there's another group of folks that should seriously read this article: the members of the Muppet Central forum (

Many of the members there are quite anti-Disney to me and hold way too much hatred towards Disney Channel's current programs such as HSM.

I wish I could post the link to this wonderfully-written article right now with the hopes of getting those pundits to see the light and take some chill pills.