Step Up 3D hardly revolutionizes storytelling. It doesn’t even break the mold of the “inspirational arts and/or sports film” subgenre. There are your typical characters – attractive and confident or nerdy and awkward, but always likable – and their struggles are always the same – “I want to pursue my passion, but my parents want me to do otherwise,” “We’re a scrappy band of outsiders and we want to follow our dreams, but someone is standing in our way!”
This time it’s floppy-haired Moose (Adam G. Sevani), who looks like a young David Krumholtz but dances like the rubber-boned, b-boy offspring of Michael Jackson, who has given up his passion for dance to live out the dream his parents have for him. He starts the film as a freshman at NYU, pursuing an engineering degree, but quickly – like, before orientation is even over with quick – falls in with Luke (Rick Malambri) and his rag-tag dance crew, The Pirates. Luke is like a more wholesome, young, attractive version of Charles Dickens’ Fagin, or maybe like a dancing Robin Hood. He plays the father figure for his crew and houses them at a giant warehouse called the Vault, which his late parents converted into a rehearsal and living space. But time and money are running out and his rival Julien (Joe Slaughter), a trust-fund baby and leader of rival dance crew The Samurai, is looking to buy the Vault. So Luke must figure out how to win the World Jam and care for his patchwork footloose family while also romancing the mysterious Natalie (Sharni Vinson). Meanwhile, Moose must juggle his new position as boy-wonder superstar with The Pirates, his actual school work, and his relationship with BFF/love interest Camille (Alyson Stoner).
The story is warmed over and scarcely “inspiring,” and the romantic sub-plots are paint-by-numbers. The dialogue can be painful and some of the acting (especially Malambri’s performance) is sub-par. What does make Step Up 3D exceptional is that it utilizes this new 3D trend in a truly original way. Unlike recent “3D” posers such as Clash of the Titans and Avatar: The Last Airbender, which were converted to 3D after filming, Step Up 3D was actually shot in the 3D format. And there are plenty of crafty visuals to take advantage of that format. One thing this film does as opposed to the previous two Step Up films is that it features more than one big dance scene. The other two would show plenty of practice scenes – just to let us know that the characters could dance and were putting the time in – but they saved the truly awesome stuff until the very end.
The makers of Step Up 3D know that you aren’t there to see the same characters act out the same plots for the third time; if you’re shelling out $12 a ticket for this film, you want to see some dancing. And they deliver. There are at least three big dance battles, and plenty memorable scenes in between with the dancers performing for the camera, their arms and legs coming directly at the audience. They utilize their atmosphere, too. In one scene, dancers send clouds of dust wafting from the screen. In another, they slosh across a soggy dance floor, spraying water everywhere. The final dance ups the ante with more tricks and crazy visuals, including some that would be impressive even without the added bonus of the 3D.
On this blog, I’ve knocked other films that fancy themselves to be more thought-provoking or that aspire to a higher level of “art” than Step Up 3D does (like James Cameron’s Avatar, and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland). But what made me appreciate Step Up 3D was that it’s a self-aware film. It’s not set-up to be some breathtakingly original spin on an old classic, or an award-grubbing movie with a message. It aspires to nothing less than to entertain the audience for a while, and to give viewers exactly what they expect. Sure, the plot may be mind-numbing at times, but the dance numbers and the sheer thrill of experiencing a 3D film like it’s supposed to be presented nearly outweigh any artistic follies.
And, perhaps accidentally, the film has opened a door into a new film-making possibility. The sheer abandon and pure spectacle of Step Up 3D hints that this may be the format that suits dance films, and maybe even big-production movie musicals, best. I’m not usually a fan of the “just turn your brain off and enjoy the film” argument, and so I’m not going to make it. There is a better reason to enjoy this film, and that is to appreciate dance on the big screen in a flattering new light. Not to mention that it may be the best entry into the new canon of 3D films. If Hollywood insists on making more of them, here’s hoping that they resemble Step Up 3D.