| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES Breezy, bouncy and bursting with enthusiasm, "High School Musical" makes its big-screen debut around the world this week in what could be the year's biggest family movie.
"High School Musical 3: Senior Year" is the third film in a record-breaking Disney series that has created a $1 billion-plus global franchise and a frenzied young fan base that has bought into its squeaky-clean vision of teenage school life.
Featuring clean-cut Zac Efron, 21, his on- and off-screen sweetheart Vanessa Hudgens, 19, and a diverse cast of Latino, African-American and white young actors, "High School Musical 3" portrays a sweetly romantic, drug- and violence-free teen scene that kids from Cairo to Canberra appear to yearn for.
Advance ticket sales in the United Kingdom -- where the film opens Wednesday (October 22), two days before its stateside bow -- have broken records set by "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" in 2005, and online ticket sales reports in the United States signal a bumper opening weekend box office.
But as the mostly preteen fans have grown up since the first-made-for-TV movie was shown on the Disney Channel in early 2006, so too have the singing, dancing kids who populate the hallways of fictional East High.
"They're high school seniors, so (I wanted to) give them the pressures that high school seniors have about proms, finals, graduation and going away," said director Kenny Ortega.
"There's a balance -- we're making musical comedy, but we really want to try and base it in some emotional reality," he said.
More complex dance numbers, 10 new songs, a handful of new characters and some flashy fantasy sequences mark the transition from TV to film as the main six characters wrestle with young love, family expectations and the world beyond school.
"It was an opportunity to create something bigger -- more musical numbers, crazier costumes -- and really have fun with it. It's almost like a thank you to our fans for being so supportive," Hudgens told Reuters.
PASSING THE TORCH
"High School Musical 3" also marks the farewell from the series of several of the main characters -- causing teary eyes and emotional scenes among the cast on the last day of shooting.
Although Disney says a fourth film is already being planned, Efron says he won't be going back to East High.
Efron plays Troy Bolton, the floppy-haired, blue-eyed, basketball-playing, heartthrob whose kissing-only romance with brainy but beautiful math whiz Gabriella Montez (Hudgens) has been the centerpiece of the three films.
"Our characters graduate," Efron told Reuters. "It is time we passed the torch. It is important that 'High School Musical' moves on with that youthful energy we had in the first two movies. I don't know if we could keep doing that. It needs fresh faces."
Efron, who described himself as "kind of a goofball" when he was in school, acknowledged that the movie's version of school life was "slightly idealized."
"'High School Musical' is a fairy tale within high school. There's a lot we skipped over," he said. "We portrayed an optimistic look into the future for our fans who have yet to go to high school themselves.
"Troy and Gabriella are what high school romance should be like. It's not too lustful. It's tasteful. It's very young."
The Salt Lake City school where the three films were filmed has become the second most popular tourist attraction in the city after the Mormon Temple.
The first "High School Musical" movie was seen by 255 million viewers worldwide, and grew into a global phenomenon that includes sold-out stage and ice shows, record-setting DVD and CD sales, video games, theme-park attractions and $500 million in sales of backpacks, T-shirts and other products.
(Editing by Bill Trott)