From “Hocus Pocus” to “High School Musical” and “Descendants,” Kenny Ortega crafts wonders that embed themselves in the hearts of multiple generations. His arguably most successful work, “High School Musical,” is loved for its inventive dancing, memorable music and catchy lyrics. With experience and success guiding his way, Kenny Ortega strives to create another piece of nostalgia-in-the-making with “Julie and the Phantoms.”
Netflix was a good place to experiment with inclusive storylines
Brimming with nostalgic energy that evokes the spirit of a kid-friendly “Grease,” the “High School Musical” trilogy encouraged viewers to break the status quo through self-expression, conveying messages with a cliched love story, fun music and creative choreography. With director Kenny Ortega leading the way, “High School Musical” skyrocketed in popularity and spawned two sequels, cementing it as a cultural phenomenon. After developing “High School Musical” and other creative projects at Disney, Ortega produced “Julie and the Phantoms” in collaboration with Netflix.
“Julie and the Phantoms” centers around the life of Julie Molina, a talented musical artist struggling with the death of her mom. While exploring her mother’s possessions, she encounters the ghosts of the band Sunset Curve, meeting Alex, Reggie and Luke. Julie creates music with the band to propel their new band, Julie and the Phantoms, into stardom. The show itself focuses on growth and moving on from things that are out of our control, and it does it masterfully with music.
“Julie and the Phantoms” takes it further with music
“High School Musical” and “Julie and the Phantoms” both incorporate much of Kenny Ortega’s trademarks, including music and dancing. “Julie and the Phantoms,” however, takes the predecessor’s structure and creates something deeper and more nuanced than a classic musical.
“Julie and the Phantoms” surpasses “High School Musical” in several ways, starting with character development. In “High School Musical,” the characters are sorted into cliques. These cliques are two dimensional and narrowly defined, with Taylor McKessie and Gabriella Montez as the nerds, Chaz Danforth and Troy Bolton as jocks and Sharpay and Ryan Evans as two students trying to prevent changes in the battleground that is the drama department — all against a musical backdrop. The message is the classic change-for-the-one-you-love kind of deal.
As a fan of “High School Musical,” I was skeptical about whether Kenny Ortega could outdo himself and bring another set of characters to life through music. As much as I love “High School Musical,” I was looking for something more nuanced than the simple high school love story seen elsewhere.
In contrast to “High School Musical,” “Julie and the Phantoms” implements more subtle character development. It is broken down into a series format rather than being limited to one film. It benefits from this slower pace because with everything slowed down, the intricacies of the characters and their relationships, aspirations and motivations can be explored much more closely. The longer runtime gives the audience more time to become emotionally invested in the characters.
As in “High School Musical,” which is full of hits like “Start of Something New,” “Can I Have This Dance?” and “Gotta Go My Own Way,” “Julie and the Phantoms” also benefits from good musical accompaniment. In both creative works, songs provide key expositional and emotional information to the audience. An example of this is the song “Unsaid Emily.” The song reveals Luke’s desire to make it as a musician since he and his family had a falling out before he died. The song “Unsaid Emily” details the regret Luke has with leaving his family; Julie responds that music was part of his life until the end and thus, he should have no regrets about being a musician.
“Julie and the Phantoms” sparkled with good music and reminded me of the wonder “High School Musical” had originally provided. The key difference is the deeper insights into the emotions of the characters in “Julie and the Phantoms.” Their thoughts and feelings play out over the course of the season, allowing the characters to address different struggles without the constraints of a tight timeline. The TV format allows for people to invest in the journey rather than simply be a mere onlooker.
“Julie and the Phantoms” is a slow-burn love story
Instead of exploring two-dimensional characters with a plot that must be resolved in an hour and a half, a series can really stretch and explore its characters. “Julie and the Phantoms” takes advantage of this in a way “High School Musical” never could.
When done properly, the pacing of a television series can dictate how characters are developed and how they react to the world around them. Pacing also enables slower-paced character arcs. Julie starts Season 1 reserved and unable to perform music because of music’s emotional ties to her mom. As the season progresses, her confidence and love for performing grow. Her relationships with her two current love interests, Nick and Luke, have the opportunity to grow naturally without the constraints of a specific runtime. Julie doesn’t have to make a decision quickly, and showrunners have the opportunity to explore her emotions.
The music also encapsulates emotions that will likely continue with the release of Season 2. As “Julie and the Phantom” grows, it will develop music in a way that ultimately surpasses that of “High School Musical” and portray characters that feel more human.
It’s easy to see that “Julie and the Phantoms” will be successful based on the music alone. However, when this is coupled with pacing and effective character development, it becomes clear that it may prove to not only be the next generation’s “High School Musical,” but that it might even eclipse its predecessor.