For the third film in the dance franchise the action moves away from the Maryland School of the Arts to New York City where hitherto minor characters Moose (Adam G. Sevani) and Camille (Alyson Stoner) arrive to start college. Within minutes, Moose is drawn into a dance-off in Central Park against Kid Darkness (Daniel 'Cloud' Campos, the Asian dancer from Madonna’s Hung Up video) and his House of Samurai crew, after which he meets the amazingly agile Luke (Rick Malambri). Impressed with Moose’s moves, Luke invites him to join his tight-knit, multi-ethnic underground dance crew The Pirates. Hoping to win a $100,000 prize at World Jam, a high-stakes hip hop dance showdown, Luke also enlists nimble Natalie (Sharni Vinson) into his body-popping posse. While Moose discovers his dedication to dance has blinded him to the fact Camille is in love with him, Luke and Natalie start falling for each other until a shock discovery jeopardizes their relationship.
Step Up 3D drew surprisingly good notices even though it essentially recycles the template set by the first Step Up (2006) only with the plot pared down even further, if you thought that were possible. Maybe critics were wowed by the 3D. The spectacle of human movement is a more honest argument for the stroboscopic process than the usual fantasy-action blockbusters where the devices often distances viewers from the story. Sloppy storytelling and over-earnest emoting through some silly dialogue are deficits, but once again the undeniably infectious ebullient spirit, with its winning emphasis on dance as a force for social liberation (highlighted in the engaging video interviews that kick off the movie, where real dancers recount how dance more or less saved their lives) combine with outstanding choreography and often charmingly old-fashioned 3D sequences to make this uplifting and fun.
The film picks up the idea established in Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) of dance as a form of urban warfare, with Moose at one point ambushed in the toilet by dance ninjas from the House of Samurai and dance-offs staged like some unholy fusion of arcade games, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and a Lau Kar-Leung martial arts epic. Dancers gyrate like robots, perform borderline supernatural moves, form human sculptures or snarl and throw shapes just like kung fu fighters while elderly Chinese gentlemen lay bets in the corner. Drawing heavily from videogame imagery with bright colours and flashy effects, returning director Jon M. Chu mounts the dance set-pieces with exhilarating verve. Even further removed from original’s barely credible combination of dance and urban angst, this third entry is a brightly-coloured dance fantasy where kids hang out in a hi-tech clubhouse and party every night. Chu also includes a vaguely autobiographical element, casting Luke as an aspiring filmmaker who compiles ingenious short films from his video interviews with dancers, but is uncertain about his talent till love interest Natalie steers him right.
Although Chu invests as much visual flair into Luke and Natalie’s romance as he does with the dance scenes, their relationship regrettably fails to engage quite as much as the subplot pairing the goofily likeable Adam G. Sevani with veteran Disney dance machine Alyson Stoner. Indeed these two feature in the most charming scene in the movie, a beautifully staged tribute to MGM musicals that sees them tap-dancing through a crowded street to a remix of Fred Astaire singing “I Won’t Dance.” Except whereas Fred and Ginger Rogers usually drew benign glances from passers-by, our luckless youngsters are amusingly heckled by surly New Yorkers including a mouthy little girl who shouts: “Give it up, you suck!”
Eventually Moose brings back the MSA crew from Step Up 2 to help the beleagured Pirates get their groove back, including Glee star Harry Shum Jr. and Mari Koda as the Asian dance sensation who is forever in denial about her impenetrable accent. From the delightful opener that sees Moose slide past a barrage of brightly-coloured balloons and pop a series of bubbles to the hip-hop beat, to the crowd-pleasing climax wherein neon-lit outfits transform our heroes in living videogame characters, Step Up 3D foregrounds spectacle often to the detriment of its threadbare plot but in a manner so eager to please many will feel inclined to forgive its flaws.