How High School Musical 3 and Trainspotting 2 Are (Thematically) the Same Film



When the coronavirus forced many of us to stay home for our own safety, we found ourselves turning to the arts for comfort. Books, television, games, music, and movies alike proved to be our trusty companions when life as we knew it changed forever. Personally, copious amounts of movies were binged to occupy my time: most of them titles that I hadn’t seen before as well as turning to a few reliable classics. My sister and I grew up on the High School Musical franchise, and they were among the films revisited. Upon watching the third instalment (along with a generous helping of rum), I stumbled across a weird realization.

Behind the Disney filter and musical numbers, it felt so much like another much darker film: Trainspotting 2. Even if the movies couldn’t have been more different in the presentation of their stories, the messages their plots tried to communicate remained the same. But how could a joyful film about American high schoolers in Albuquerque preparing for college be the same as a movie about middle aged ex-junkies from Edinburgh?

While the stories aren’t carbon copies of the other, there are themes which remain consistent between them. Both films deal with the main characters struggling with the conflicts of the anxieties of their present, looking at their past through rose tinted glasses, passing on their legacy to the next generation, and wrestling with an uncertain future.

Trainspotting 2 and High School Music 3 take similar approaches to their characters growing older. Trainspotting 2 has the consistent feeling of carrying regret along with age, looking through the days of youth as a better alternative to the present, even if the memories aren’t pleasant. The film is brimming with nostalgia, which even shows up in the dialogue when Sickboy remarks to Renton how he is a “tourist in [his] own youth”. In fact, a reason Danny Boyle put off doing a sequel for so long was so that people who first watched the film could relate to this particular theme better. Why rehash something so familiar when you can tell a more profound story further down the line?

High School Musical 3 tackles a similar idea. Though it shows the film through a much happier lens, the protagonist’s anxieties of the future are what make up the main conflict of the story. Even if High School Musical arrives at a much happier ending compared to the Trainspotting characters – who continue to carry the weight of their past with them after the story’s conclusion – both sets of characters struggle with the concept that their time is running out.

There is an underlying theme of passing legacy onto the next generation in both films. One of the main subplots in High School Music 3 follows Troy and Zac’s relationship with a couple of freshmen who idolize them but also irritate them throughout the film. This is mirrored in Trainspotting 2 in the familial relationships Begbie and Spud have, though Spud is shown attempting suicide at the start of the film instead of continuing to disappoint his family, while Begbie is aggressive with his son and wife throughout most of the film. The two films also have similar conclusions: In High School Musical 3, the freshmen take up Troy and Chad’s mantle after they leave for college, carrying on their basketball legacy. In Trainspotting 2, Spud comes back to Gail and his son, and Begbie ends his family’s cycle of violence, ultimately leaving his family but on a peaceful note.

The setting of these individual stories is a vital part to the films as well. High School Musical 3 sees a return to the hallways of the school seen in the original film as the characters go through their senior year. The surroundings are relatively unchanged, only the people are. In a similar way, Trainspotting 2 portrays the characters witnessing echoes of themselves from the previous film. Spud even finds comfort and purpose writing down the stories of the group’s shared past. Even the city itself plays a part in their story: it has changed so much that it is barely recognisable to Renton.

The Trainspotting and High School Musical franchises are phenomenons in their own right. Danny Boyle translates Irvine Welsh’s gritty writing about the mundanity of life into one of the most culturally significant films of the nineties, while High School Musical resonates with a generation that grew up on Disney. That’s another thing that both films share: they were loved by the people who watched them, and subsequently the creators felt it appropriate to continue their stories.

There’s a piece of narrative theory that says there are only seven different plots in storytelling. Despite the fact that these films are presented in vastly contrasting manners and peddled towards different audiences, it’s interesting that common themes and messages still pop up. Though one is a commentary about the mundanity of life expressed through tales of addiction while the other is a musical about American school life, the stories of the Trainspotting and High School Musical franchises, of growing older and facing the challenges that come with it, are things we can enjoy.

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