Directed by Shawn Ku
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 100 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0 stereo English
Subtitles: CC, Spanish
MSRP: $ 19.99
Release Date: August 12, 2008
Review Date: July 30, 2008
After the Walt Disney Company stumbled on the gold mine that is High School Musical (two hugely rated TV movies, millions of CDs and DVDs sold, a sold-out concert tour, a touring stage production, an ice show, an upcoming theatrical film plus an endless stream of merchandise), it was common sense that others involved in the music business would want a piece of that action. MTV’s answer is Shawn Ku’s The American Mall. Take older high school students on their summer after graduation, focus on them at their summer jobs working at a large mall but dreaming of making it in the music business, mix in a simple love story and some scheming female rivalry for the hot guy, and that’s The American Mall. There’s not much original to be seen here (there is an original song score), but tweens may very well love it. Give me Troy and Gabriella any day of the week.
Talented singer and pianist Ally (Nina Dobrev) wants to attend New England Conservatory of Music, but her mother (Yassmin Alers) thinks pursuing a business degree at Ohio State is much more practical. While working in her mother’s music store in a suburban mall, she meets and begins to make beautiful music with young night janitor Joey (Rob Mayes). Joey and his chums have their own rock band and had hopes of reaching the top, but thieves stole their instruments and now they’re working as night custodians until they can save enough money to get new gear and wow the world with their music. Coming to the rescue is spoiled but well-connected Madison Huxley (Autumn Reeser), daughter of the mall’s owner (Al Sapienza), who offers to buy the band new equipment and bring them to the attention of several record labels if Joey will begin to make beautiful music with her (literally and figuratively). Will Joey’s desire for fame and fortune override his blossoming feelings for Ally?
Didn’t we just see this same plot in High School Musical 2 where Sharpay lured Troy from his friends with promises of a certain basketball scholarship if he’d sing with her and pay her some personal attention? Or maybe we have seen it in dozens of other movies where the leading male is lured away from his true love by a scheming girl with either money, power, or both. Shame on Margaret Oberman (with a story provided by Tomás Romero and P.J. Hogan) for not fashioning a screenplay with more originality. Yes, it sets up the seven or eight song numbers well enough (anachronistic as some of them are such as the penniless Ally doing a number called “Survivor” in designer clothes and boots), but stretched over 100 minutes, its predictability is a hard pill to swallow.
Director Shawn Ku has deftly staged one romantic moment, the lovely ballad “Dreaming Wide Awake,” on the rooftop of the mall and has used the widescreen frame with some real imagination. The rock number between the four janitors “Every 10 Seconds” is also made the most of with its driving beat and the four performers showing energy to spare. Ku also occasionally uses split screens and screen inserts to appealing effect. Where the movie lets down its audience musically, however, is in the staging of the big production numbers. Where High School Musical’s Kenny Ortega kept pockets of dancers doing interesting and difficult steps in constant, progressive motion, Ku and co-choreographer Bonnie Story stage their production numbers “At the Mall” and the climactic “Don’t Hold Back” with mundane steps, a static camera, and little of interest for the principals to do other than what everyone else is doing. Other songs like “Get Your Rock On,” “Hey, Sugar,” and “Made the Right Choice” are also promising tunes sadly burdened with lumbering staging.
No one is being asked to emote Hamlet here, and all of the principal cast members do their jobs with uninspired efficiency even if some of them do seem to be a few years past high school age. There is also no mention given to the singers in the song credits leading one to believe that voice doubles were used for some of the principals. Some of the characters who get less attention, Pete the good-natured security guard (Josh Rouah) and Al Sapienza’s Max, show a good deal of on-camera charisma and might have been developed more fully to make for a less hackneyed and more original story than the one that‘s offered. We’ll never know.
The 1.78:1 aspect ratio has been delivered in a pleasing anamorphic transfer. Sharpness is the most erratic aspect of this release with occasional bouts of soft focus for no apparent reason. Color saturation is quite rich with pleasing flesh tones, and blacks are admirably deep. I saw no distracting video artifacts or edge enhancement present. The film has been divided into 18 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is very strong with the musical elements of the film keeping vocals rooted in the center channel and placing the accompaniment in all the surrounds. The rears don’t get as much of a workout as they might have in the story parts of the movie; one would think a busy mall would generate lots of noise that could be used in the surrounds. Here, they’re used for applause at the final fashion/performance show, and that’s about all. The LFE channel does its thing well during the song sequences.
Two commentary tracks are available for listening. Unfortunately, they’re both raucous affairs with too many participants: most of the principal cast in the first commentary and the director with the three other janitor characters/actors in the second. In both commentaries, the actors have not seen the film and spend the commentaries squealing with glee over what they’re seeing for the first time. This is not the place to find out much concerning the making of this movie.
4 music videos featuring four songs from the film are available for viewing separately or in one 10 ¾-minute chunk. Three are nonanamorphic widescreen (“Get Your Rock On,” “Survivor,” “Clear"), but “You Got That Light” is given the real music video treatment (stylized black and white photography, a plot of its own) and is in anamorphic widescreen.
There are 6 deleted scenes (including a different ending) which can be viewed separately or all together in a 10-minute grouping. All are in nonanamorphic widescreen.
“Learn to Dance with Bonnie” is a dance class to teach willing students the rudimentary moves used in two of the numbers: “At the Mall” and “Don’t Hold Back.” She’s a good teacher, and there are four cast members present you can follow as you put the sequences together at home. It runs a total of 20 minutes in anamorphic video.
A gag reel (called “Eraser Moments” on the disc) runs 5 ¾ minutes in nonanamorphic letterbox.
Two numbers get extended performances which contain more dialog before and during the singing: “At the Mall” and “Every 10 Seconds.” Together they run 7 ¾ minutes but they can be viewed individually. They’re also in nonanamorphic letterbox.
The disc includes previews for MTV’s The Hills, Rob & Big, and Jackass’ Tribute to Evel Knievel. There is no trailer or preview for this production.
The American Mall is a stopgap for those youngsters breathlessly waiting for this winter’s theatrical release of High School Musical 3. There are some pleasing songs here (but nothing that stayed with me once I ejected the disc, unlike both High School Musical films which each had a couple of songs I hummed incessantly after watching), and the familiar story may be comfort food for those who aren’t looking for anything demanding in their summer viewing.