By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 17, 2007
After Disney captured utter magic last year when it all but stumbled upon the pop culture, tween-fave phenomenon that is "High School Musical," the question soon became: Can the studio do it twice?
The real question about this sequel, though, is: How hard is it not to succeed the second time 'round? The momentum is so huge, the anticipation so out of control, that "High School Musical 2" seems destined to do gonzo numbers -- on cable, no less -- when it premieres tonight on Disney Channel. And reruns tomorrow and Sunday. And then again and again and again, if it has anything like the legs of the original -- which drew 7.7 million viewers in its debut airing, then raked in an additional 35 million unique viewers in reruns over the next few months.
Nationwide, there are sleepovers and birthday parties and pizza parties long planned for this particular night; already, kids are downloading the new soundtrack to their iPods, not even having seen the film.
All that really seems to matter is that Troy is back, as are Gabriella and Sharpay and the whole gang. Only instead of hanging out at East High, they're relocating to a country club for the summer, where Sharpay is up to even more manipulative tactics, and Troy breaks into song more often than ever.
Fortunately for fans, the movie is as good as the first one, with even better dancing and a story line that engages.
For adults, it's easy to want to compare "HSM" with "Grease," the iconic musical about high school life. But Zac Efron (who plays Troy) and Vanessa Hudgens (Gabriella) are no John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. And "Grease" -- as any parent who has nostalgically played the DVD for their kids can attest -- is filled with all kinds of vices: smoking, drinking, sex, possible pregnancy, drag racing . . . the list goes on.
The "HSM" franchise is the definition of wholesome; in the original, millions of preteen girls everywhere were wildly disappointed when Troy never planted one on Gabriella. A whole movie about whether the boy gets the girl, and there's no kiss?
The sequel is just as squeaky clean, although the script does acknowledge the whole kiss factor. While the movie opens with the assumption that Troy and Gabriella are a couple, and have clearly kissed lots before, every time the two get close to an on-screen smooch, something interrupts them. (Okay, maybe not every time. Or maybe. Let's not spoil it.)
The other self-referential running gag is the repeated use of the most popular phrases from the original, such as "We're all in this together" (the original's most popular song title) and "As long as we're together" (another phrase from a song).
If "HSM" borrowed from "Grease," then "HSM2" is cribbing -- a little bit -- from "Dirty Dancing," as Troy and his friends all get summer jobs at the residential country club owned by Sharpay's parents and become "the help," under the thumb of the rich owners and, more to the point, their spoiled little girl.
A secondary character in the original, Sharpay (played by Ashley Tisdale), dominates "HSM2," leaving Hudgens a mere afterthought. Out to steal Troy -- if not as a boyfriend then at least as a singing partner in the summer talent show -- Tisdale totally channels Paris Hilton, right down to the little purse-size dog.
The movie's moral lies in Troy's response: Will boy lose girl (and his basketball buddies) by getting so wrapped up in his self-importance -- and all the perks Sharpay and her parents throw his way -- that he forgets the meaning of true friendship?
Director Kenny Ortega started his career as a choreographer (he's responsible for Kevin Bacon's moves in "Footloose"), and one of the sequel's strengths is the dance sequences, which are more polished and elaborate than in the original. And Efron's recent turn in the meticulously choreographed "Hairspray" shows in his dancing, which has become more stylized.
With darker hair than he had in the original (he dyed it for "Hairspray") and his pluck-me-please eyebrows, Efron takes a little getting used to; "HSM" junkies will also notice that his singing voice is different. In the original, Efron's voice was dubbed by Drew Seeley (who toured with the "HSM" concert production last year). In the sequel, Efron insisted on doing his own vocal work. The result is less polished and less angelic sounding, but, as in "Hairspray," Efron holds his own.
Although the actors portraying the main characters are now beyond high school age, they still manage to pull it off -- Lucas Grabeel (Sharpay's brother Ryan) and the still-teenage Efron have baby faces; Hudgens still has a bit of naivete to her; and while Tisdale is clearly seasoned, she makes it work.
The wild card is the music. "HSM" produced last year's biggest-selling CD on the strength of easy-to-sing-along-with numbers such as "We're All in This Together" and "Get'cha Head in the Game." At first blush, "HSM2's" signature songs don't come across quite as catchy or memorable.
Then again, that might be because they have yet to get 500 plays in the car CD changer.
High School Musical 2 (two hours) premieres tonight at 8 on the Disney Channel.