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August 20, 2007 |

By Agent Bedhead | Film | August 20, 2007 |

For the majority of discerning viewers, formulaic cinema is considered lazy and lacking in creativity, and as such, to be avoided like a rage virus. Notionally, moviegoers don’t want to toss money towards films written, produced, and acted in tune with the latest and greatest lowest common denominator. Of course, theory and reality are two different creatures, and from the success of the latest hype-filled summer of films, one can draw their own conclusions. The Pajibian state of mind still maintains the higher standard that predictability and lack of originality in theater-bound films should be met with scathing derision. However, in the world of Disney Channel original movies, mouse-shaped cookie cutters are the preferred means of production. The reasons embracing this exception are twofold: (1) Tweens by definition don’t linger in the age group for more than a few years, so the audience is continuously recycling itself, and (2) parents want to know exactly what to expect with no avant-garde plot twists. Thus, once a Disney franchise establishes itself as a phenomenon, they’re smart enough financially to stick with the successful template, ergo, Mighty Ducks I - III.

The Disney Channel churns out several original films each year, most of which are forgettable piles of rubbish that justifiably fail to take hold. Silly storylines about identical twin girls running a dairy farm (Cow Belles) fail to impress, and sports dramas (Full-Court Miracle, Right On Track) lack the sense of escapism that tweens adore (though, there are more than a few parents who’d love to see how Disney might handle Right on Crack). Then in 2006, millions of viewers suddenly, unaccountably, inexplicably tuned in for High School Musical, which surprised everyone, including Disney itself, which never expected the shuddering O-face that Zac Efron could inspire in legions of tweeny boppers. Indeed, these tweens bought the DVD version of the movie, and the franchise spawned a wildly successful karaoke singalong soundtrack, a concert tour, and stage versions in high schools around the nation. The only thing missing, of course, was Ashley Tisdale abstinence rings, which are sure to follow from the sequel. Rather than question exactly why this unexpected success occurred, however, the Disney Channel did exactly what was needed to crank out a sequel that was equal to or more successful than the original film. And, boy did it succeed, garnering the highest ratings ever for a basic cable program, as over 17 million teenage girls and lonely housewives tuned in, practically guaranteeing a pool of drug addicts, bulimics, and starletards for the next half-generation.

In the first High School Musical, Troy Bolton (Efron) met Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Anne Hudgens), and rather than make out in the hallway, the two expressed their mutual attraction by belting out some tunes together like Dolly and Kenny at a state fair. Unfortunately, this sensitive jock and pretty bookworm immediately encountered scheduling difficulties and jealous friends, so the two just stared at each other longingly throughout most of the film. After several G-rated choreographed routines, including synchronized basketball dancing, Troy overcame his inner dilemma and realized that he could “work it out,” and he and Gabriella eventually win the lead roles in the school play. Voila. High School Musical 2 sticks to the almost fail-proof method of giving the Disney audience exactly what it gave it before, but now, like successful plastic surgery, everything is brighter, bouncier, and more energetic. The overdubbed, mediocre singing and spastic dance routines are still present, but instead of the hallways of Albuquerque’s East High, most of the action in HSM2, like the sweeps episodes of “Saved by the Bell,” takes place during summer vacation.

In the sequel, the stakes are higher for Troy and Gabriella, for they not only have themselves to worry about, but now they are concerned with “making bank” to save college tuition. Along with a group of friends, the couple works at a country club run by the parents of Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) and Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) Evans. It’s difficult to dislike any film whose spoiled, blonde antagonist is named for an absurdly ugly, wrinkled breed of dog. One character even refers to Sharpay as a “show dog,” which probably wouldn’t upset Sharpay, who has her sights set on Troy as a much-needed accessory. She uses her wealth and parental connections to entice him away from his girlfriend. Gabriella tells Sharpay that Troy isn’t a prize to be won, and she won’t fight because she needs to concentrate on her own future. When Gabriela dumps Troy, she even sings him a wistful song, and his reaction is to dress in black and run into the desert to sing an angst-ridden, existential crisis of a ballad, like a young Timothy Leary high on milk instead of LSD. Still, despite all of the obvious cheesiness, it’s nice to see a positive role model for teenage girls who can focus on the future in spite of her burgeoning hormones.

No surprises lay within the ending of HSM2. Troy awakens from his reverie to realize that the obligatory feel-good show simply must go on. Oddly enough, Zac Efron delivers the weakest performance in these films, since his acting range, like Dana Carvey in a Hans and Franz skit, consists only of “pumped up” and “totally deflated” with no middle ground. Within the character of Sharpay, Ashley Tisdale carries an awesome sense of comic timing, and a few supporting characters show promise as well. In particular, Chad Danforth (Corbin Bleu) and Ryan perform a catchy musical number on a baseball field, “I Don’t Dance,” which plays out a (heterosexual) pitcher-batter showdown and pokes a little fun at the seriousness of professional sports these days.

For kids of any age, High School Musical 2, like its predecessor, is captivating and harmless viewing. For parents, it’s really hard to hate this film if you compare it to the dozens of other crap-laden films that kids want to watch. If nothing else, the growing franchise makes for tolerable background noise — hell, they’re even a bit entertaining at times. And, like it or not, High School Musical 3 is in the works.

Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and cannot sing, but she sure can dance. She shows up daily at

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