Judge Kerry Birmingham has been working on DVD Verdict Musical, with such hits as "Your Review Was Biased."
They're facing their biggest challenge yet: summer jobs.
More popular than Jesus and the Beatles put together and at least as big as Miley Cyrus, 2006's High School Musical became a left-field smash hit for the Disney Channel, which was already used to running a mini-empire of film, TV, and music based on its stable of squeaky-clean stars and inoffensive, kid-oriented shows. High School Musical rejuvenated a generation's interest in the moribund musical genre, fusing pop hooks and boy band looks into what has become a popular (and lucrative) franchise, making stars of its cast of genial teenagers who go through all the drama of real high school, just with slick, overproduced musical numbers in place of angst (none of these kids are listening to The Cure for their doldrums, though they will often break into a spontaneous dance number).
Naturally, this being popular with the adolescent set, it's proved utterly baffling to grown-ups subjected to it through their children or its pop culture ubiquity. This inevitable sequel is more of the same: the East High Wildcats are faced with a dilemma, and this time, there's a luau number.
Facts of the Case
The student body of East High School is back, this time out of school and on the hunt for summer jobs. Basketball star Troy Bolton (Zac Efron, Hairspray) is looking for a way to get some cash and, with Senior year and graduation looming, securing a scholarship. Fortune turns his way when he's offered a seasonal job at an exclusive Albequerque resort, an opportunity he turns into jobs for himself, his friends, and his girlfriend, Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens, Thirteen). Troy doesn't realize that the job offer was a manipulation of rich, haughty classmate Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody), and bringing the whole gang of East High Wildcats wasn't part of the plan. Sharpay drafts her effete brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel, College Road Trip) in a plot to break up Troy and Gabriella, get the Wildcats fired, and win the resort's annual talent competition.
Like the Star Wars prequels and Michael Bay, anything High School Musical falls into the category of "critic-proof." Well beyond the target audience, the fact of it is that any critical faculties brought to bear on this movie—its paper-thin plot, vacuous songs, hammy acting, and condescending portrayal of teenage life—mean very little to the audience this is trying to reach. Symptoms of grumpy cinema-going middle age, the only remaining option is to attempt to give it something of a fair assessment in light of the fact that no detractions will matter to anyone who wants to see this.
And in fairness, there's a lot of good things to be found in High School Musical 2. Whatever one's stance on the musical genre as a whole and the Disney-ized variation thereof, this is a well-produced movie; probably more than a direct-to-cable movie deserves, really (apparently Disney agrees: the third film is scheduled for a theatrical release). "What Time Is It?," set as the students wait anxiously for their school year to end and an endless summer to begin, sets the tone with a big, sprawling, all-school dance number. It's an impressive opening, and sets the standard for the musical set pieces that follow, veering in tone from the Hawaiian fable "Humuhumunukunukuapua'a" to plaintive ballads like "Gotta Go My Own Way." A musical is only as good as its production numbers, and HSM2, under the eye of director Kenny Ortega, meets the standard of spectacle. The cast is game and the Utah-shot desert scenery is lovely. If "spectacle" is indeed the order of the day, HSM2 is a success: shiny, happy people sing shiny, happy songs (sadness is a momentary feeling suitable only for the occasional ballad). Look under the spectacle and things begin to fall apart.
This being Disney, the moralizing comes early and often, as does some heavy-duty oversimplification (and oversimplification of morals, for that matter). Troy, lured into a life of luxury and the promise of a college fast-track by Sharpay and her connections, wrestles with the prospect of a free ride and is instantly shunned by his friends, mortified that he's developed a potential life separate from good-natured goofing off and generic all-for-one speechifying (there's even a song with that title, "All for One," a racucous, all-cast closing number to lead into the credits). It's a peculiar mixed message of instant betrayal on both sides. Hudgens's Gabriella, ostensibly the female lead (and with the vocal chops to prove it),is dangled as an occasional complication for Troy's new life only to be written out of the plot (and brought back at a moment convenient to the story). Knowing that the music and dance numbers are the draw, the filmmakers feel fine conflating old chestnuts like Grease and Dirty Dancing and slapping dazzling white smiles on it for the ol' Disney touch. It's the same old thing with a new coat of overwrought pop and heartthrobs with bad haircuts—maybe not so different after all, in retrospect.
Devotees of the HSM movies might still want to pass on this 2-Disc "Dance Edition." It's a particularly egregious double-dip on Disney's part, repeating many of the special features from the Extended Edition DVD (including the karaoke functions and "Bop Along to the Movie!" features) and is, once again, presented full screen instead of its 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Disney may not think its audience is very discerning, but movie musicals tend to be composed for widescreen and it's evident High School Musical 2 would have benefited from being released in its original aspect ratio. The transfer is otherwise clean and bright, and the 5.1 sound makes sure that all the overproduced songs come out loud and clear.
Of the new features, most or all are negligible filler found on the second disc. Of most interest (and justifying that "Dance Edition" subtitle) is the Dance Along feature, in which the cast coaches viewers on how to perform two of the film's major dance numbers, "All for One" and "What Time Is It?" With various levels of instruction and difficulty, it's little more than an exercise video, but it's a novel and thematically appropriate inclusion (I can't vouch for if it works: to quote another song from the movie, "I Don't Dance"). There's the usual plethora of justly deleted scenes, and a gaggle of music videos showcasing foreign versions of the HSM2 songs, which is little more than a chore unless you're versed in these languages or really want to know what "You Are the Music in Me" sounds like in Turkish. "High School Confidential!" is a series of brief making-of featurettes; "The Making of Humuhumunukunukuapua'a" and "In the Kitchen," provide surface details on the making of those particular dance numbers. The music video for "All for One," a brief sneak peek at High School Musical 3, an on-set tour hosted by cast members, and a fluffy "Cast Favorites" featurette ("My favorite actor is…Johnny Depp!"). Appreciation for these features decreases in proportion to your age and propensity for girlish squealing.
As far as pop culture confections go, your kids could do worse than High School Musical 2. Yes, the music is often ghastly (rule of thumb: anything that routinely mentions "rock 'n' roll" usually has none), the plot borrowed from other, better, movies unknown to the target audience, and everything from the script to the acting is plagued by chronic cheesiness, but the fact is it's harmless, and if the lessons actually stick, all the better. Indulge the kids now, let the fad pass, and in a few years' time they'll be remembering these movies with the same kind of half-embarrassed nostalgia my generation reserves for Saved by the Bell and Melrose Place. Adults may find the scenery, the elaborate production numbers, and wholesome earnestness appealing as long as they don't pay too much attention. This edition is for established HSM fanatics only; a shameless, cash-grab double-dip, it's only worth the repeat buy if you plan to take advantage of the Dance Along feature.
Disney is held in contempt of court for re-releasing this film in a flagrant grab for fans' money, and not even putting it in the correct aspect ratio. A look at the sheer number of reviews on DVD Verdict under the "High School Musical" banner proves that Disney is a repeat offender in this regard, and has not escaped the court's notice. The movie itself is guilty, though I suspect its sentence will have zero impact: it's easy to be remorseless when there's a zillion dollars and a vast pack of fans to justify what it does. I therefore let High Musical 2 go scott free due to futility.
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