Having invested the time necessary to watch the first High School Musical, I thought I might as well check out the second as well. I don't know if it's just that I've gotten more accustomed to the style of HSM, or kids' TV in general, or that having seen one, my expectations are more well-calibrated, but High School Musical 2... is really good.
Yes, it's a Disney Channel movie, and yes, it's brightly colored, broadly acted, and saccharine sweet, but somehow, this time... it works. High School Musical 2, brimming with the confidence that goes with being a smash hit success, ups the ante and improves on the original in every way. Where the first movie opened with a dull, obnoxious karaoke duet of a low-energy, generic pop ballad, the sequel jumps in with both feet, kicking things off with a huge ensemble show-stopper. Sure, the song is still pretty generic, but at least this time it's high-energy, impressively choreographed, and, well, fun. Along the way we are reintroduced to our cast, including several minor characters I didn't even realize I remembered. There's something nice about that attention to detail, that affection for characters like the songwriting girl from the first movie, or the jock who likes to cook -- obviously it's there to please the audience, kids who watched the original so many times they've absorbed every detail -- but I just liked how it seemed to respect every character, no matter how small.
The story is better too. The main conflict of the first movie always felt false -- as cliquey as high school is, neither jocks nor nerds would flip out just because one of their own chose to audition for the play, nor are drama queens like Sharpay treated like school royalty. But by taking place over the summer, this movie avoids any school-related phoniness you might try to find. (The drama teacher character that I hated so much makes a return, but it is brief, and the adults that the sequel introduces in her stead are, mercifully, far less hammy.) And Sharpay's sinister scheme to tempt Troy away from his friends and girl by dangling a great job and a potential scholarship in front of him makes for a more interesting conflict anyway.
Zac Efron remains rather frustrating to watch. He's a fine dancer, but his impossibly generic good looks, too-perfectly tousled hair and fake tan don't change the fact that he's an awfully bland lead. But everyone else seems better this time around, and Sharpay's gay brother -- always one of the stronger members of the cast -- even gets a chance, in a very satisfying subplot, to grow past a stereotype into a character with self-respect.
The production numbers are impressive, much bigger and more ambitious. The songs, while still nothing special, are more energetic, less frequently dull, and more tied in to the characters thoughts and feelings, as songs in musicals should be. My main complaint is that most of the songs drop that pop music filter over the vocals so that they sound like someone's singing into a tin can. This is bad enough in a heavily processed pop song, but when characters are supposedly singing to each other live, it's not only artificial but distracting.
It also feels like there's perhaps one epilogue song too many -- at the end of the first, I felt a warm satisfaction, by the end of the second, I felt exhausted. Even so, it's hard to begrudge the movie for that second number's self-congratulatory ebullience -- for the most part, I have to say, it's earned it.