The first day of my vacation—commencing with a visit to Walt Disney World and continuing with a four-night cruise on Disney's Wonder ship—is also the beginning of an extended week of Disney movies.
I was aware of the High School Musical phenomenon for quite a while before I even knew exactly what it was. I wasn't sure if it was a live show, a movie, a TV series or some weird hybrid, and I can't say I much cared. But last year, I sat down with my young nieces and watched the 2006 Disney Channel TV movie that started it all, and to my surprise, I found it to be a very entertaining movie musical (it has since spawned a stage version), full of teen-pop songs, comedy and a cast of characters that felt strangely familiar to me. At some point during the movie, it dawned on me why. What if Archie, from the old comic books, had preferred sweet, unassuming Betty instead of rich, scheming Veronica? Now make Betty the brunette and Veronica blond, and you've got High School Musical. Both sets of kids sing pop songs, there are buffoonish teachers, concerned parents, assorted friends and every teenager cliche imaginable—the only appreciable difference is that High School Musical is marginally more cartoonish than Archie.
Having said that, the first HSM was surprisingly engaging (what can I say? I always loved Archie), so I knew I had to check out the sequels. I was reasonably certain that HSM3 would be screened on the Disney cruise, so I brought along HSM2 with the intention of watching them all in the proper order. I'm nothing if not a strictly linear fellow.
Thinking back on all of the classic female villains introduced by Disney over the years—Cruella De Vil, Cinderella's and Snow White's wicked Stepmothers, Ursula the Sea Witch, et al.—it's tempting to put Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale) at the top of my list of favorites. A spoiled senior so egocentric that she has her own logo, Sharpay is the ultimate comic narcissist; she's the star of every talent show and school musical, and everybody loves her—or risks being an outcast. Sharpay has eyes for the popular jock Troy (Zac Efron), who in turn has eyes for pretty brunette Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens). This first HSM sequel opens as the clock ticks down on their final seconds as high-school juniors, and I've rarely seen an opening number of a musical more full of energy and enthusiasm than "What Time Is It?," the film's first song and one of the most delightful rejoicings of summer that I've ever heard. It's a joyous, exuberant showstopper that stops the show barely after it starts. I was charmed from the start, and the spell cast by HSM2 lasted all 104 minutes. The plot has to do with the kids all getting summer jobs at ultra-rich Sharpay's country club, and although I swear I saw the exact same thing on Saved by the Bell 20 years ago, I didn't much mind. For a movie aimed squarely at kids, I was amazed by how the writers deftly crafted half a dozen morality plays into the story—this is a film about trusting your instincts, treasuring longtime friendships, the importance of brotherhood and responsibility, the pain of breaking up, the dangers of selling out, the corruptibility of absolute power and the possibility of redemption. (No, I'm not kidding.) It doesn't hurt that all the teens are talented and extremely good-looking, and that the 10 or so songs are all very tuneful and performed flawlessly.
There's an almost science-fiction element hidden in here: Ryan, a flamboyant choreographer who wears pink shirts and a pretty pink hat, is heterosexual (!), never ostracized by his fellow classmates and, most significantly, not strung up by his balls, dragged from the back of a truck or even picked on once. I don't care if he's Sharpay's twin brother—high-school kids aren't this tolerant. But then, nothing about HSM is particularly true to reality. Didn't bother me; this is a sequel that surpasses the original, and I'd be lying if I said I hadn't gone back and watched the movie again since my cruise. Rating: 5/5.