2007; Director: Kenny Ortega; Writer: Peter Barsocchini
With Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu,
Walt Disney Video
Available Dec. 11, List Price $29.99
After Walt Disney's death in 1967, the studio he left his name and his legacy to couldn't seem to find its founder's deft touch with stories. For a while, practically everybody was doing Disney Spielberg with E.T. (the adorable creature was Dumbo or Pinocchio stranded in an alien land), Robert Zemeckis with Back to the Future (turning the Absent-Minded Professor's airborne Model T into a De Lorean), Penny Marshall with Big (Flubber as a growth hormone) everybody but Disney. Finally, a new team harnessed the old magic, or reinvented the formula. And now, with Enchanted on movie screens, The Lion King and Mary Poppins on Broadway (with The Little Mermaid opening next month) and Hanna Montana on the Disney Channel, the Mouse House seems to have its retro mojo in high gear.
Another Disney Channel smash, last year's High School Musical, spawned a sequel this August that's now on disc in an "Extended Edition." What does that mean? You get backstage extras, a karaoke function for the 10 tunes and an extra song: "Humu Humu Nuku Nuku Apua'a," a pretty clever Hawaiian love chant with some over-the-top-of-Diamond-Head production values. Sung by the cootchy, poochy egomaniac Sharpay (Tisdale) to the dreamy hero Troy (Efron), it mixes her ravenous ambition to be his wahine let's get lei'd with the synergistic island echoes of the Tiki Room at Disneyland.
But just about every song in HSM2 evokes some other, older musical style. The opening number, "What Time Is It?", blasts the kids out of their end-of-term classroom, down the corridors and into the gym to a tune that might be Alice Cooper's "School's Out" as slightly toned down for Grease. The kids don't want to blow East High School to pieces, just to raise the roof, which they nearly do in Charles Klapow's infectious, exhausting choreography. It's summer (to get the kids into skimpy swimwear), so the rest of the movie takes place at a country club. That's where we find Sharpay, in a self-stunning pink and white ensemble think of her as East High's younger Dolores Umbridge doing one of her gimme songs, "Fabulous," lounging by a swimming pool where her tuxedoed accompanist is sunk waist deep with his grand piano. Elton John, meet Esther Williams.
In between the production numbers is a lot of dead air aka, the script which goes way too heavy on agonized comedy involving Troy and Sharpay, her marginally less annoying brother Ryan (Grabeel) and Troy's girlfriend from the original film, Gabriella (Hudgens), whom he ignores for most of the movie. (As does the movie.) Antsy around Sharpay but attracted to her father's dangling of a college scholarship, Troy ditches his pals and his head swells like a Macy's parade balloon animal. It takes only a deep soul-searching, and a tortured who-am-I? solo ("Bet on It"), for Troy to come to his senses and sing a passionate duet ("Everyday") with OMG, fan me down Gabriella! Happy endings all around: lovers reunited, comic villainess humiliated but chipper, and one last song ("All for One") to be chirped by the company and put into heavy rotation of Radio Disney.
Like the first HSM, this one manages to address matters of lust and loyalty while being innocuous enough for the Disney Channel tween audience. (Troy's strongest oath: "What the heck?") In other words, it has the calculated innocence of nearly every musical made in Hollywood's Golden Age. HSM2 also shares the original mission: to prove to the young that musicals are Not That Gay. So Ryan, who's into pastels and production numbers, is given a song ("I Don't Dance") that shows the local jocks how much athletic skill goes into Broadway-style footwork you can terp without being a twerp. Instantly, the baseball diamond is a-throb with acrobatic chorus boys dancing down the lines, making smooth moves in the field, cartwheeling across home plate, all under ex-nerd Ryan's super-stud supervision. Even Gene Kelly might be pleased.
One distinguished cultural critic, whose name I will not reveal because she's my editor at the magazine, has praised HSM 2 as "the thing of the year." I wouldn't go that far, not nearly at best, it's an honorable sequel to the thing of last year but I'm pleased it exists, and more tickled that the franchise is so successful. This, and Dancing With the Stars, may get kids thinking of dance as part of their cultural life, a way to channel their energy into elegance. The movie is also the snazziest showcase yet for Efron. Just turned 20, he's a throwback to a Broadway-Hollywood past: the acting-singing-dancing star whose violent blue eyes and winsome charisma would've had bobbysoxers swooning from the top balcony of the Roxy Theatre.