I’ve found that it’s a surprisingly contentious topic which High School Musical film is the best of the trilogy. I have always come down on the side of Part 1 for its upbeat energy, lightning-in-a-bottle spark, zeitgeist soundtrack, and sparkling ending.
But I’ve encountered a surprisingly strong contingent that supports Part 2, and their claims are not without merit. There is a lot to love in this Disney Channel Original Movie. It is a blast of summer energy, and the songs more than match the original. In fact, I think if you were to carve out the musical sequences in each, High School Musical 2 pretty easily takes the cake, even if there’s nothing quite as iconic as Gabriella’s red dress in “We’re All in This Together.”
Some of these numbers are mini-masterpieces, infinitely rewatchable in a vacuum: “What Time Is It,” the “school’s-out” barn burner; “I Don’t Dance,” a hilarious, homoerotic satire of organized sports; “Fabulous,” a maximalist anti-heroine anthem; “Bet On It,” a thumping angst scorcher with eye-popping black-green contrast and a soul-stirring camera stare by Zac Efron; and, my favorite, “All for One,” the giddy surf rock closer.
Oh boy, I just listed a whole soundtrack’s worth of great numbers, didn’t I? I guess the High School Musical 2 soundtrack really is that good. Each of these tracks have their own distinct purpose and visual design. It’s a buffet of Disney pop tunes, united by the theme of highly-saturated colors and summer sweat.
The more I watch these Disney Channel musicals, the more I care about aesthetic, choreography, and sugary soundtrack numbers above all else. By that metric, High School Musical 2 is the undisputable champion of the franchise, and the credit lies in large part to director and choreographer Kenny Ortega. Ortega stretches every dollar; this sequel had a budget of only $7 million, but it looks better than half the movies you’ll see in theaters. (This budget efficiency would be taken to ridiculous extremes in the gaudy High School Musical 3.)
Unfortunately, all that delightful music is burdened by a mean-spirited, soggy story with some seriously questionable character writing.
First, and most brutally, Sharpay is rewritten as an old money country club brat. While it makes for a great song (*pauses writing this review to go watch “Fabulous” on YouTube again*), it completely undermines what made her such a hilarious and memorable character in the first High School Musical. The fact that she simply imagined herself as the queen of the hill based on absolutely nothing but her own self-vision was her charm. She ruled the drama club because no one else was there, and her character was built around the struggle between drama geek and aspiring tyrant. Making her an actual dictator is a bummer.
The entire movie is built around Sharpay manipulating everyone around her because she’s rich, and not much else. It makes for a pretty dour arc (though an effective depiction of class disparity, I suppose). Worse yet, her manipulations work. Everyone except Troy becomes miserable to spend time with; Chad, in particular, comes off as a horrible friend; and yet the movie ultimately vindicates his selfish “if I can’t have it, why should you?” attitude.
The movie’s writing never gets out of its way enough to be fun or rousing for any stretch. There is, I suppose, some self-awareness here: The plot’s sole purpose is to provide enough conflict to string together a bunch of terrific musical numbers. But after the first movie managed to nail both the characters and the songs, this feels like a failure.
It’s hard to get too worked up, though. Just look at those colors! Flamingo pinks, chlorine blues, MiracleGro greens! The camp factor is amped up, especially for Sharpay. (One friend pointed out to me that the 2011 Sharpay spinoff was pretty unnecessary because High School Musical 2 is already a starring vehicle for her.) It’s simply a joy of a film to look at and pump your fist to.
And when it ends with a big pool dance party, it’s a enough of a chaser to keep you thinking about the good stuff when the credits roll.