Those of us who love dance movies—we're the people who saw the original Step Up on opening night, own copies of Center Stage on both VHS and DVD, and have been known to interrupt screenings of How She Move to complain about bad projection—were thrilled when we first heard about Step Up 3D (Disney). Although dance movies come along at a steady beat, this release is the first since 3D became de rigueur in Hollywood, and we've been wondering what the new technology would do for dance.
The answer, I'm sorry to report, is: Not much.
Step Up 3D abandons Baltimore (where the first two movies in the Step Up series were set) for New York City, where it tracks the plight of a dancer named Luke, played by Rick Malambri with cologne-model looks and not much else. Luke has problems: The bank is about to foreclose on the spacious warehouse where he trains and houses his international troupe of misfit dancers, and the only way to pay the money is to come up with a killer routine that will beat rival dance ensemble the House of Samurai and win the $100,000 prize at the upcoming World Jam competition. (We've all been there.)
Also on hand is Moose, one of the breakout characters in Step Up 2 The Streets, now a freshman at NYU who's promised his father he's "done with that dance business." But after Luke watches Moose win an impromptu dance battle in Washington Square Park, he recruits the skinny engineering student (played by mop-topped Michael Cera lookalike Adam G. Sevani) for his dance crew, the Pirates. "You're B-Fab," he tells Moose, by way of a compliment. "Born from a boombox." He introduces Moose to his new teammates, crowing: "This kid could be the spark that we need!"
Preposterous plot devices, leaden acting, and clunktastic dialogue are acceptable in a dance movie, but bad choreography is not, and it's during the dance scenes that Step Up 3D fails. On the positive side, the style here is fun and fresh, owing more to America's Best Dance Crew than to the School of American Ballet. In the battle sequences, rival dance crews borrow elements from stepping, break dancing, capoeira, and parkour. (There are a lot of variations on the robot.) The problem is that we can't see the routines.
All dance movies end the same way, with a training montage that builds toward the final dance-off that will secure our hero a win at the Step Monster or prize money for med school or the grudging respect of the admissions officers at the exclusive ballet academy. The trick is to show enough of the training process so we can understand what our protagonist is learning but not so much that the audience isn't surprised and impressed by the brilliance of the resulting number. The dance sequences in Step Up 3D shirk this time-honored storytelling. The moves we see in practice are unrelated to those we see in the battles. The crew has so many nameless dancers in it that it's hard to tell who's who. (When one dancer quits Luke's crew in the middle of the movie, I was less shocked than confused: I honestly hadn't noticed her being part of the team before.)
And the 3D doesn't help. All too often, the dancers crouch low and dance at us, hands extended in a series of angry pokes. The camera darts in and among the dancers, showcasing stomping feet and aggressively popped shoulders, but it rarely pulls back to let us admire the crew in action—Busby Berkeley-style. The dance numbers are so poorly conceived that I found myself rooting against our heroes, the Pirates, in all three of the battles we see: The way the movie is shot, it looks like they've been outdanced.
Still, dance-movie enthusiasts should see this film, which abandons what I hesitate to call the "dance realism" of movies like Save the Last Dance, Step Up, and How She Move—where poor kids use dance to gain a foothold in a world that seems to bear some relation to our own—for a more gonzo and bizarre aesthetic. At times, Step Up 3D resembles nothing so much as a Hayao Miyazaki * movie. It's full of strange children navigating a world of inscrutable rules. Luke's dance crew includes a sassy pair of rabbit-faced twins from Argentina and a wordless hulk whose specialty move looks like the Terminator doing a line dance in strobe light. Luke himself dances only to respect the wishes of his dead parents, backup dancers who founded the dance commune Luke now maintains. (What he really wants to do is direct.) When he takes his love interest, Natalie, on a date, they carry slushies to a subway ventilation duct, and when a gust of wind blows skyward, they send strawfuls of cherry ice spiraling to the heavens (which, in an aerial shot, means that 3D ropes of slushy neon backwash come flying at the audience). Then they kiss, and there's somehow confetti everywhere.
Step Up 3D is a little weirder than your average dance movie. Unfortunately, that's not enough to make it good.
Correction, Aug. 7, 2010: This article originally spelled the first name of Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki wrong. (Return to the corrected sentence.)