The second installment of the High School Musical franchise was a step up in overall craftsmanship…Disney actually knew what a big deal this film would be this time around, and they poured a lot more effort and budget into it. The plot is quite a bit stronger, dealing with issues of temptation and selling out…not in the deepest way possible, granted, but one can’t expect miracles.
The real star of the show, acting-wise, is Ashley Tisdale as Sharpay Evans. Her role is greatly expanded from the first installment, and she plays a much more manipulative and diabolical villain here, playing up her campy portrayal from the first movie into a hilariously terrifying blend of lapdog and rottweiler. Her portrayal here may seem to contradict her friendly about-face at the end of the first movie, but I think it indicates that Sharpay Evans, like Velma Von Tussle from Hairspray, is that particular brand of the ‘conniving bitch’ archetype who’s actually a perfectly nice person until and unless she wants something.
The rest of the cast are about the same as they were in the first movie, although the more dramatic script gives them more opportunities for acting. The main difference is that the dubbed voice of Troy from the first movie, irritating proto-Bieber falsetto Drew Seeley, is gone, and Zac Efron is doing his own singing. Efron was still kind of figuring out the whole acting thing at this point, but he turned out to be a surprisingly strong singer…not only should he have been doing his own vocals from day one, but unlike Seeley, he has some heft in his voice. It was this realization that presumably led the songwriters to create the most dramatic song in this score, “Bet On It”. Yes, it’s incredibly melodramatic and has an almost comedic effect, but I think a fair amount of that was intentional…after all, this is a franchise whose saving grace was never taking itself too seriously. And in any case, Efron’s powerful baritenor and ultra-forceful delivery sell the Hell out of it.
The rest of the score is less even than the first one…it even features the franchise’s first true Floppo number, the indescribable Hawaiian novelty “HUMUHUMUNUKUNUKUAPUA’A”…but its best moments are much more sophisticated and well-crafted than anything in the previous score. Many of the songs are admittedly clear retreads of song models from the first movie…the love duet heard as a ballad for the heroes and as an up-tune for the villains (“What I’ve Been Looking For”/”You Are the Music In Me”); the R&B-influenced production number based on a sport (“Getcha Head In the Game”/”I Don’t Dance”); the melancholy third-act breakup ballad (“When There Was Me and You”/”Gotta Go My Own Way”); the soaring eleven-o’clock ballad (“Breaking Free”/”Everyday”); and the dance party finale with a message about togetherness (“We’re All In This Together”/”All-4-One”). But with the exception of that last one, all of these examples show a marked improvement from their predecessors in the original, which somewhat justifies the practice. (This wouldn’t stop with the third installment, either…”Bet On It” and the avaricious villain Wanting Song “Fabulous” would get counterparts there in “Scream” and “I Want It All”).
This film is more polished, and (I suppose) marginally more ambitious than its predecessor, but it is ultimately the same kind of silly but harmless guilty pleasure that the first film was. That said, it’s interesting to note that this particular installment of HSM has almost exactly the same plot setup and structure as Jason Robert Brown’s 13, and despite marginally less interesting music, it is actually much more likable, consistent in tone, and generally satisfying than that show will ever be. So if you ever feel the need to see a production of 13, remember: this movie has about equally good music and tells almost the same story, in basically the same genre, but in a much more enjoyable fashion. And frankly, you can watch this film for a fraction of the ticket prices even at the regional theaters 13 has now been consigned to. So this movie does have a definite use—as a positive alternative to an overrated second-tier musical, and a reminder that the HSM movies actually did some things better than some of their more sophisticated imitators.