(CNN)Of all Disney’s teen-musical franchises (see “High School Musical” and “Descendants”), “Zombies” overcame its strained cuddly-zombie premise to become the most unexpectedly pleasing, augmenting its themes of bigotry and acceptance with best-in-class songs. Given that, there’s little pleasure in reporting that “Zombies 3” is creatively dead on arrival, reviving the concept at least once too often.
Bypassing Disney Channel and heading directly to Disney+, the story reassembles the usual suspects, in a town that has grown from humans and zombies coexisting to include werewolves and now, in a particularly weak flourish, aliens. Of course, the UFO that appears over Seabrook High brings yearbook-photo-ready teens whose extraterrestrial lineage is defined by their blue hair and a few dots on their face, just not the kind of face dots about which most adolescents fret.
Adding a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it environmental message to the package, the aliens have come to Earth seeking a new home, with ecological disaster having destroyed their world. But they must locate Seabrook’s most precious artifact in order to find it, giving them an excuse to hang around, get to know the gang and engage in some gravity-defying cheerleading, offering a preview of what the 17th season of “Glee” might have looked like.
As for the original players, zombie Zed (Milo Manheim) is eager to become the first monster to get admitted to Mountain College, primarily to avoid worrying about breaking up with his girlfriend Addison (Meg Donnelly). After all, long-distance relationships can be tough, even before the alien invasion puts a different spin on that phrase.
Back in 2018, long before the recent conservative attacks against the studio, “Zombies” felt energetic and progressive by Disney Channel standards, and the film continues along those lines, as one of the aliens (Terry Hu) represents a non-binary character. Yet as constructed almost everything here simply feels louder and clunkier, as if throwing more people into the song-and-dance numbers will compensate for their mediocrity.
The exceptions, not surprisingly, are a reprise of the soulful ballad “Someday” from the original movie and a new one sung by Donnelly, “I’m Finally Me,” which conveys underlying feelings of being different and coming to grips with who you really are that resonate in a way little else here does.
Disney has been especially adept at minting young stars as it keeps the musical alive through these teen formats, built around a colorful mix of music, magic and broad comedy. But such commodities also come with expiration dates that aren’t always easy to pinpoint in advance but become painfully apparent with the benefit of hindsight.
As a case study look no further than “Zombies 3,” which might not need to be read its last rites but at least should schedule an extended rest before anyone starts thinking about bringing the franchise back to life again.
“Zombies 3” premieres July 15 on Disney+.
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