When I first reviewed the original Disney movie High School Musical, I had no idea what I was getting into. Before I watched it, I believed (rather naively I might add) that this was going to be just another TV movie concocted for kids, some pabulum-like entertainment that wouldn’t hold my interest.
Boy, was I wrong, and then some. The first film was intelligent and fast-paced, with bright young actors and actresses who brought out the best in the music and dance numbers. Repeated viewings didn’t lessen how much I enjoyed the film, and since my daughter (now six) has watched it at least twenty times since its premiere, I’ve had plenty of time to absorb the overall message of the film and understand its lasting impact.
Of course, along the way, it became a cultural powerhouse that has affected people of all ages. Students everywhere are putting on their own versions of the film in school productions, and the concept of “musical theater” is now more popular than it has been since John Travolta strutted his stuff in Grease (1978). My daughter understood right from the start that this was something bigger than “big,” just the way I did when I sat on the living room floor and stared in excited wonder at the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show while my parents felt they were nothing more than a flash in the pan. Yeah, right!
After my first review received over 2,500 comments (and still counting), I realized that High School Musical was a Disney juggernaut comparable in some ways to the success of the Fab Four with tweens and pre-tweens like my daughter. Anything somehow related to the movie (posters, lunchboxes, backpacks, pajamas, T-shirts, toys, etc.) was selling out fast and, as the young stars made the rounds on talk shows and other appearances, the squealing girls certainly reminded me of that Beatles phenomenon from my youth.
With my skepticism thrown to the wind, this time I was enthusiastically on board for the exciting ride and my daughter and I watched the movie together as I sat with pen and pad in hand. I can happily announce that director Kenny Ortega and his singing and dancing minions (all the original cast returns, even Zac Efron with slightly darker hair from his tour of duty in Hairspray) deliver a slam-dunk sequel that in some ways is even better than the original (and I don’t think I’ve said that since... gulp... Godfather II).
In an obviously more lavish (and thus expensive) production, all the stops are pulled out as the East High kids prepare for summer vacation. The old stomping grounds at their Albequerque high school (the film was actually shot in Utah) are revisited during the opening number “What Time Is It?” We briefly see Troy (Efron) and Gabriela’s (Vanessa Hudgens) tormentor Mrs. Darbus (Alyson Reed) from the first film, but she is merely part of a fast-paced exposition that sets the East Siders free for what should be a carefree summer. The kids go through the now familiar hallways, cafeteria, and eventually finish on a high note on the outside campus with the school building in the background. The message is clear: school is out for summer; let the party begin.
Unfortunately, reality wriggles its way into the story. Troy and his teammates play basketball with his father (Bart Johnson), who happens to also be the team’s coach. Dad/coach establishes the idea that summer is also a good time to make some money to either buy a car, get things they want to buy, or perhaps save for college. This is the pivotal point in the rising action, for Troy’s concern about the cost of college leads him and his friends to take jobs at local resort. Unbeknownst to them, this has all been set-up by the snooty Sharpay (played with a touch of evil glee by Ashley Tisdale) in order for her to get closer, much closer, to Troy.
As the old gang descends on an upper-crusty New Mexico country club, we discover that Sharpay’s parents own the place, and she has not learned her lesson from the first movie and still foolishly has her eyes focused on Troy Bolton. Troy has wisely found a way for all his buds from East High, along with his favorite gal Gabriela, to get hired with him, making the situation ripe for sparks to fly as the annual talent show literally sets the stage for conflict.
There are solid dance numbers performed throughout, with some of the ancillary stars from the first film getting a little more to say, do, and sing this time around. The best one is “I Don’t Dance” set on a baseball field under a crystal clear blue desert sky. Here, Chad (Corbin Bleu) and Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) face-off in a battle of wits and physical prowess. It is what was once called a “showstopper” and manages to lift the spirits while propelling the plot forward nicely, slipping Ryan into the “in” crowd he never thought he could ever join.
Sharpay somehow manages to suck Troy into singing with her in the talent competition, based on the notion that it will help him land a college scholarship (and she mistakenly believes this will gain Troy’s affection). This temporarily alienates his friends and his lady love, thus giving Efron even more opportunities in the spotlight to flex his acting muscles. He earnestly proves his worth here, singing stronger and better than in the original and showcasing the maturity that will inevitably make him a really big star like the previously mentioned Travolta.
As in the first film, major conflicts seem to be quickly dissolved or resolved at the end. I won’t ruin the denouement for those who have not seen the film, but let it suffice to say that the overriding theme of the first movie (we’re all in this together) resonates in this sequel, and by the time we see everyone singing and dancing in a rousing finale, we can rest assured that all will be well with the East Side gang until the next sequel (if Disney can somehow find a way to lasso Efron’s rising star).
Credit must be given to all involved in this production, especially director Ortega. Obviously Disney gave him the time, money, and talent to mount a superior production, and (just as he did in the first film and Cheetah Girls 2) Mr. Ortega knows his audience and shows deference to their cultural touchstones, such as previous Disney films they have all grown up with.
The sub-textual references to all the princess movies are obvious here, with Sharpay literally in her ivory tower staring down at Gabriella and Troy, her dashing Prince Charming to be sure. No matter how much Sharpay stares into the mirror, Gabriela will still end up being the fairest of them all and manage to snag her Prince in the process. All the sprinklers in the world can’t be turned on to douse that kind of love, and Ortega not only knows that his audience understands that but he also respects it, too.
Thus, I tip my cap to all involved in making this wonderful film. It actually does more than entertain; it motivates kids (and their parents) to get up and dance and sing. Besides the aerobic benefits from all this, it’s just good, sweet fun and, in an ever more troubling world, we can all use that.