High School Musical 2 (8/10)

If you’re not familiar with Disney channel movies, you really should acquaint yourself with the genre…at least, only if you want your eyes to melt from the camp, cheese, cliches, poor script, and bad acting that this fare is usually known for. When High School Musical landed on the Disney channel back in 2006 (was it really that recently?), it wasn’t much of an exception to the rule. Its only saving grace was that it was an homage to the classic Grease, guy and girl meet on vacation, then discover they’re going to the same school after break, and they need to deal with all the cliques and prejudices that greet them upon arrival. And yet, this small, nothing special Disney channel movie became a mega-hit, evolving all the way to a country-wide sold-out tour, several DVD editions, endless re-runs, spinoffs and movie deals for several of the cast, and the lead Zac Efron even earning a spot in this year’s, “Hairspray.” With all this hype and excitement, High School Musical 2 was an inevitability, and I’m happy to report that this movie met all my expectations and even surpassed them, and it might even be better than the original.

Summer has arrived at East Side High, and the kids are ready for some fun in the sun and three months of kicking back and doing nothing. Troy and Gabriella have plans for a romantic relaxing summer, but their parents have other plans. College is only another year away, so all of them are bugging the kids about getting a job in preparation for it. Sharpay is just as much of a hissing asp as ever, and she has plans to win Troy over from Gabriella by hiring him at her parents’ day spa in the middle of the desert. When she does, though, Troy lets all his wildcat friends in on the deal, much to her chagrin. And to top it all off, the annual talent show (come on, you know there had to be an excuse for a stage finale) has been won the past five years by Sharpay, so her trophy is in danger when some of the wildcats set their eyes on the prize.

A lot has changed since the first film. The kids are still all squeaky clean, but the villain is much more villainous, true love is beginning to show its face in Troy and Gabriella’s budding romance, some extra dancing has been thrown into the mix, and most of the beats (aside from the opening and closing numbers) are dramatically different from the first film’s poppy sugar-coated ones. They are much more techno and hip-hop rhythms than before. What does this mean for the movie as a whole? Well, rest assured, for the most part, the transition to a groovier sound is successful, though occasionally the low budget can be heard through almost unbearably metallic sounding voices that sound like they’re coming straight from a recording studio. However, I would even call this a strength of the movie – one of the things that made the original so enjoyable was its sheer badness – a lot of the songs were poorly voiced-over, but still extremely fun. This time around, it seems the change of tune is purposeful – not so much an accident as a conscious decision to go in this direction, and I think it works, because there was one thing I was more afraid of than anything going into this film, and that’s that the weight of a franchise would affect the cast so much that it would cease to be camp and cheese and actually become, well, good.

This may sound like an odd complaint, but let me explain. My fears were, in many ways, confirmed, but in others, they were denied, and I think this movie strikes the perfect balance as it takes the inevitable step upward from the badness of the original. Aside from the bad techno-ness of the songs, there were several moments that gave me nostalgia for the old one as they touched that too-deep well of bad Disney channel films. This film is actually a lot closer to good than the previous one, but it retains just enough bad for it to be a fun transition into the (hopefully) theatrical release of High School Musical 3. You can see the filmmakers slowly and deliberately shedding their Disney channel skin – this one could almost have passed for a theatrical release itself – most of the acting is actually good – Zac Efron shows us some acting chops that he no doubt developed while filming Hairspray, and they do the movie good. He doesn’t get caught up in that world, though – he slips right back into the role of Troy Bolton as easily as if he were putting on a jacket. He shares great and believable chemistry with his real life sweetheart Vanessa Ann Hudgens. The two are almost too cute as they share countless special moments throughout this movie. Another thing that has definitely improved over the first film, though, is dancing.

With most musicals, massive dance numbers are a staple. Just look at Hairspray. Or Newsies. The first HSM had some pretty fun music, but there was never any real dancing until the final number. With HSM2, “What Time Is It?”, the opening song, makes it very clear that this one is going to change things up a bit. There’s moves in this one song, less than three minutes in, that trump everything in the first film. The moves top themselves in every way, and so do the number of songs. Whereas there were only seven or eight songs in the first film, this one has ten or eleven. Most importantly, the cast has a lot more fun. There is so much more energy in this film, as these kids know these roles like the backs of their hands and give it their absolute all. The first one was never meant to be anything more than another Disney channel movie of the month, so none of the cast really could put as much heart into the film. With this one, every single one of these kids knows how big of stars they are, and they throw their hearts, souls, and bodies into every single musical number, I was bopping my head up and down uncontrollably and tapping my feet on the rug as my eyes were glued to the TV screen. This is a much more slick production than the previous one – Disney was very careful not to drop the ball.

The story is also better, carrying more conflict and heartache than before. The first film’s story was very straightforward, and though HSM2’s plot is not rocket science, it at least tries to be different, not content to remain with the same old stuff. Trouble in paradise happens as Troy and Gabriella experience the first pangs of relationship issues; Sharpay’s brother Ryan develops some extra dimensions; Troy’s friends all feel betrayed as he becomes distracted by Sharpay orchestrating things so that the University of Albaquerque expresses interest in the young basketball star. Like I said, nothing too deep, but it’s enough to please fans of the original, me included. I also think it’s a clear step up than simply, “oh my gosh some girl’s not gonna let us audition for the winter musical.” The music itself is better, as I already mentioned, and it has plenty of corresponding songs for all those who loved the original. “You Are the Music in Me” is “What I’ve Been Looking For”; “Everyday” is “Breaking Free”; the basketball number’s “Getcha Head in the Game” is now a baseball one, “I Don’t Dance”; Gabriella’s “When There was Me and You” is now “Gotta go My Own Way.”; “We’re All in This Together” is now “All for One.” The songs aren’t going to win any awards or points for originality and the pop is so sugary you should probably brush your teeth after watching the movie to avoid a cavity, but hey, it’s fun.

While part of me wishes some of the innocence of the original could have been kept, not needing to wow us every five minutes with another elaborately choreographed dance number, another part of me really loved this second one. One thing it does for sure is stay true to the spirit of the series, and if you loved the first one, chances are you’ll love this one too, and whatever reservations I may have about it, you can “bet on it” that I’m going to grow to love this one just as much as the first. Now all we have to do is hold our collective breath for the theatrical release of High School Musical 3!

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