There is a scene — one scene — in the The Lucky One, the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation (out Friday), in which Zac Efron dances. It’s a quick moment: Efron plays an Iraq War veteran, all solemn stares and curt “yes ma’am”s, and his character isn’t the kind of guy who breaks out into an impromptu samba (or makes a joke, or has any fun at all). But when ex-Marine Logan begins to twist with the young son of his puppy motel boss slash love interest, a new man very briefly appears on the screen. Efron’s eyes light up; his entire body animates, not just from the physical demands of dancing but from some spiritual core, as if he is finally allowed to express himself the way nature and High School Musical intended. It’s among the most enjoyable ten seconds of The Lucky One, and for a very simple reason: Zac Efron was born to move. Stationary, he’s an indistinguishable Disney idol with floppy hair and average bra-unhooking skills. Dancing, he’s a star.
Consider New Year’s Eve, the interminable ensemble rom-com that kept Efron on a Vespa for two hours and then devoted the entire credits sequence to his shimmying. Had his jerky character dropped any of those moves during the movie itself, we might have forgiven him for saying cruel things to Michelle Pfeiffer, or for signing up for New Year’s Eve at all. And surely Charlie St. Cloud, a.k.a. the Ghost Brother movie, could have benefited from a pelvic thrust or two. (It wouldn’t have ruined the movie, at any rate.) The last time Efron looked truly comfortable on-camera was in 17 Again, a movie that did not involve highly choreographed routines but did require him to play basketball, mimic Matthew Perry, and swagger around campus while Spoon played. There’s a physicality to Efron’s screen presence, and without some way to channel that energy — be it shooting free throws or cavorting with a mike stand (really, anything besides just standing there) — he becomes a little dull.
Clearly, Efron is trying to navigate his way out of post-teen-idol purgatory, and we understand that one stray grapevine (or Footloose) is all it takes to remind the world that his face is still plastered on a million High School Musical backpacks. His next projects were obviously carefully selected for crossover: The Lucky One is his appeal to older female audiences; Lee Daniels’s Paperboy is the general interest, relatively pedigreed attempt; and if it actually happens, the American adaptation of Snabba Cash will be his bid for the elusive younger dude set. But for his plan to work, Efron will actually have to charm these audiences — and how can he possibly do so while denying his most obvious talents? If there’s no room for a Zac Efron Dance Sequence, surely directors can find room for a sports sequence, or maybe even a pratfall. Just let him get loose for a bit! It’s pretty magical when he does.