Things I Learned Watching High School Musical 2
Soon enough, these kids will own all of us
The first High School Musical was some bizarre combination of cult success and cultural juggernaut. The soundtrack album was last year's highest-selling CD, the movie was maybe the greatest success in Disney Channel history, and the cast toured arenas. But all of this came through something like word-of-mouth; other than the Disney Channel, the mainstream media barely picked up on the story and not even top-40 radio got near the album even as it was outselling Justin Timberlake and Beyonce and Rascal Flatts and everything else. So this was a cult phenomenon, and in this case the cult was mostly made up of 11-year-old girls. I haven't yet seen any sales figures for the sequel's soundtrack album, but expectations are high. Disney has already announced plans to get another sequel ready to go next year; they may well keep jamming out these movies until Corbin Bleu starts losing his hair or Lucas Grabeel gets arrested for knocking over a liquor store. This time around, though, the outside world has at least started to sit up and take notice. HSM lead Zac Efron appeared in the Hairspray movie-musical this summer, and last month Rolling Stone put him, in some intermediate stage of undress, on its cover. But none of this attention made the slightest impact on HSM's sui generis universe; if anything, the sequel finds these kids even more frighteningly chipper than they were in the last one. High School Musical 2 finally premiered on the Disney Channel on Friday night, and here's what I learned watching it.
• At least in the screening I caught, the movie's cast came on between commercial breaks to perkily thank its audience for watching and to run through shrill, manic cheerleading bits; apparently, we're to believe that this cast is super-amped to watch the movie on TV. These segments also featured director Kenny Ortega; the kids, you see, were all over at his house to watch the movie. I can't be the only one who found this to be just a little bit creepy. Would you want your kids hanging out with the guy who directed Newsies?
• The movie proper opens with a big celebratory start-of-summer-break dance-number, and it's good to see that the HSM dancing is still as charmingly goofy and awkward as always. Is it cruel to open a kids' movie with a song about how awesome summer vacation is and then showing it on TV for the first time just as summer break is ending?
• Efron, it appears, has spent his time since the first movie submerging himself in a giant vat of tanning lotion.
• The people behind the soundtrack songs seem to be working from a teenpop-template that's remained blissfully unchanged at least since the days of Debbie Gibson. (Or actually, there's one major change; the kids' voices have all been filtered and autotuned all to hell, which has the disorienting effect of making everyone sound like Akon.) In this movie, we get a good forty-five minutes in before we get an even halfway emotive song. But that first halfway emotive song, "You Are the Music in Me," is better than anything in the first movie and probably better than any Debbie Gibson song this side of "Only In My Dreams." There's a pretty good chance that this song will be stuck in my head long after I'm dead. In the plot, perfect couple Troy and Gabriella are both spending their summers working at a country-club, and they plan to sing the song at the club's talent show. But rich skank Sharpay wants to win the talent show and steal Troy away, and she ends up singing the song herself, turning it into a Vegas-revue Elton John pastiche. We're supposed to see this as being ridiculously overblown and comical, but it's not like her version of the song is any less overblown than the average song here. In Disney's blindingly fake universe, it's hard to distinguish between what's supposed to be real and what's supposed to be fake.
• Zac Efron has golf skills! In the last movie, he was supposed to be the high school's basketball hero, despite looking like he'd never touched a basketball in his life. The basketball scenes in the new movie are as ridiculous as ever, but it seems he can handle his business on the golf course. I wonder if they wrote that stuff in for him.
• The movie's funniest dance-number is about how dancing and baseball require the same basic skill-set, which seems a little dubious to me. The song is called "I Don't Dance," and routine scene-stealer Corbin Bleu sings the title while dancing. The song also manages to include rapping and swing-dancing, which sort of blew my mind.
• Best line in the movie: "That girl's got more moves than an octopus in a wrestling match." I hope someone got a raise for that one.
• Troy gets deeper and deeper into the country-club world and starts treating his friends like dirt, only wising up when he realizes what a dickhead he's become. Turns out that the plot of the movie ultimately revolves around the perils of selling out, which is a pretty weird message to drive a Disney Channel movie. That's certainly not a groundbreaking insight or anything, but little kids are going to be watching this movie over and over, and I can think of worse ideas to drill into their heads.
• Troy's realization that he's become a self-obsessed jerk, of course, comes in the form of "Bet On It," his angry song, which involves lots of intense staring and pointing at the camera. Also: hair-metal guitars!
• These plot advancements are all told in the old Saved By the Bell shorthand where the entire population of a high school mostly exists to stand around in the background and react while five or six lead characters do stuff. I love the idea that none of these other kids have lives of their own.
• Sharpay also played the villain in the last movie, and she was ultimately redeemed at the end. Encouragingly enough, she starts out this movie by forgetting all the things she learned at the end of the last one; I guess someone had to sacrifice herself to fuel the plot's engine. She manages to (spoiler alert) relearn all those lessons by the end of the movie, of course, and she's redeemed again. I wonder if she'll miraculously turn into a butthead again by the start of the next movie or whether we'll get a whole new villain.
• That the movie ends in a pool-party scene and that that scene features prominent surf-guitar are prime indicators that we're in total Frankie and Annette territory here. Who would've thought it possible to make something so cynically wholesome into a cultural phenomenon again in 2007? If these kids all reunite to spoof their old movies in twenty years or so, I sure hope Fishbone is involved.
• As with the first movie, there's no actual musical in High School Musical 2. In fact, we don't even glimpse a high school after the first scene.
• All told, this movie isn't a terrible way to spend a couple of hours; just turn it off before the god-awful blooper reel that accompanies the credits.
Voice review: Mordecai Shinefield on the High School Musical 2 soundtrack
Voice review: Mikael Wood on the High School Musical soundtrack