You know what they say about decision by committee.
After the phenomenal success of Disney's made-for-TV movie "High School Musical," fans were invited to submit suggestions for what they'd like to see more of in the sequel. More big numbers, they said. And more spotlight on a few marginal characters. Well, their wish was the filmmakers' command.
In case you don't live in a household that's home to a "tween" or younger, let me bring you up to speed. "High School Musical" was a surprise megahit. The title was a pun of sorts, since the movie was about a too-shy-to-sing-in-public brainiac (Vanessa Hudgens) and a star basketball player (Zac Effron) who loves singing but has to keep it secret or face his teammates' razzing. It was part more-wholesome "Grease," part happier "West Side Story," and (being Disney TV) part broad comedy, with brother-and-sister music theater people (Ashley Tisdale and Lucas Grabeel as Sharpay and Ryan Evans) providing the silliness.
But the film had heart and plenty of themes that would resonate with the target group. It was a story about cool kids versus not-so-cool kids, about teacher's pets versus the rest of the kids, about class ( and I don't mean get there on time or you earn a detention), and about finding yourself and your niche in that sometimes difficult microcosm we call high school. The faces were fresh and the performances endearing, but "High School Musical" worked so wonderfully because the music and dancing were so well-integrated into the narrative that they never took away from an otherwise believable plot.
Sharpay and Ryan were spoiled rich kids who were used to getting their way and manipulating people, and they weren't about to lose their perennial hold on the top two positions in the school musical to two newcomers. Meanwhile, Gabriella and Troy are trying to figure out how to be with each other and audition for the musical without losing their friends, who think they should just stick with "who they are" and not mix with people from outside their clique. Throw in a subplot about a talented student composer (Olesya Rulin), some truly special songs, and some high-energy dancing and you've got an irresistible film for the target audience (and parents, too).
"High School Musical 2" goes a different direction. With one big number after another done in highly staged, super-polished music video style, it's a more self-conscious film, and that self-consciousness spills over to the cast as well. In the first film, everyone was just doing their best, not knowing the phenomenon that "High School Musical" would become. Now, they're all annoyingly aware of their own success. Efron and Hudgens in particular really play to the cameras more than they ever did in the first film, as if to say, "We're cute, we've got fan clubs, and we're stars--deal with it."
The plot doesn't make as much sense, either, and it doesn't throw as many factors into the mix. Inexplicably, Sharpay has decided she wants Troy for herself (like, uh, what do they have in common?) and with school out for the summer she arranges it with the Country Club manager to hire Troy so she can get to know him better. You know, take a few golf lessons from him?
I thought he played basketball, actually, and that a country club would be able to afford a golf pro for their kids who wasn't a graduating high school senior looking to play basketball in college. But the logic stretches even further. The manager was told "whatever it takes" to get Troy, and apparently that's hiring all of the East High Wildcats, so that you effectively move everyone from high school to country club.
Hudgens gets a job as lifeguard (what lifeguard have you ever seen in heavy make-up with perfect hair and curls tossing flirtatiously across her forehead?), while the rest of the gang end up in the kitchen or with more menial jobs.
But the imagination-meter really dips when the filmmakers turn to yet another show, this time a talent competition that Sharpay wins every year and now is in danger of losing because her brother is now working with the friends Troy is alienating (huh?), while Sharpay hooks Troy and gets him to rehearse with her and the Sharpettes.
Now, some songs, like the big opener ("What Time is It?"), Sharpay's Madonna moment ("Fabulous"), and the quiet version of "You Are the Music in Me" that pairs Troy and Gabriella again are as strong as the music from the first film. The dancing is just as energetic, too. It's just that everything is so glitzy this time around, and so music-video. The worst among them is one that Troy does by himself, pumping his fists and echoing Michael Jackson in "Bet on It." Yuk.
There's not as much dramatic tension this time around, and that's because the silliness has expanded. The final big number isn't as moving, either, because there've been so many big numbers throughout. And yet, that target age group is still going to enjoy this one.
Okay, big disappointment here for fans of the original aspect ratio. Though both "High School Musical" and now "High School Musical 2" were shot in 1.78:1 widescreen, the two films are presented in pan-and-scan 1.33:1. If you want widescreen, you have to plunk down the money for the Blu-ray version.
The quality is a mixed bag. While there's an uncommon sharpness around the edges of objects and people that you normally only get with HD--a very nicely detailed picture--the colors are so strangely calibrated that Sharpay and half the gang look like George Hamilton with a bad spray-on tan. Everyone's skin is really ooky-orange, so much so that it matches the Phoenix landscape at times. Unless you're able to tweak the settings on your player or TV, all that orange can be a bit much. "Fabulous?" Not.
The audio is a very strong and pulsing English Dolby Digital 5.1, which makes full use of the speakers with a driving techno-bass and a bright and peppy treble. It's a clean-sounding track, with a nice rich timbre.
Not surprisingly (these kids are STARS now, remember) none of the actors appear on camera or commentary except in a blooper reel and an extended "Backstage Disney" feature called "rehearsal cam." Though none of the characters speak, I have to say that this rehearsal footage from EVERY number in the show is really fun to watch. Ortega really has fun putting them through their paces, and gets into it himself. It's possible to watch the rehearsal footage and then the final take, and to choose your song or play all.
Would be Troys and Gabriellas will love the High School Karaoke feature. There are two music video versions of "You Are the Music in Me" (one U.S., the other Mexico), and two music video versions of "Gotta Go My Own Way" (French Canadian, English Canadian).
The blooper reel is better than most, and gives fans their only real intimate look at their favorite stars, but the real plum feature is the rehearsal footage of "What Time is It?" "Fabulous," "Work This Out," "You Are the Music in Me," "Humuhumunukunukuapua'a," "I Don't Dance," "You Are the Music in Me (Sharpay's Version)," "Gotta Go My Own Way," "Bet on It," "Everyday," and "All for One." There's also an extended version of that hard-to-pronounce Hawaiian fish song.
If "High School Musical" rates a 7 out of 10 (and I think it does), then despite some high-stepping dance moves this one is a step off the pace. Though parts are "Fabulous," too much music-video cutesiness and not enough plot or dramatic tension, even for a musical comedy, make it a 6.