Anyone who ever watched "Grease" at a middle-school slumber party should understand the "High School Musical" phenomenon: It's a vision of teenagehood made for the mind of an 11-year-old girl. What tween doesn't love elaborate choreography, mean girls who get comeuppance, and boys who woo their future girlfriends with power-ballad duets?
But while the Disney producers might have guessed they had a hit with last year's made-for-TV movie, they probably weren't expecting world domination. That's what happened, of course -- a ratings bonanza, a national tour, a successful spinoff stage show, and a soundtrack that topped Billboard's album chart for all of 2006.
"High School Musical 2," which premieres tonight at 8, is cursed with self-awareness. Compared to the original, it's slicker, brighter, more obviously produced, and a smidgen less fun. That doesn't mean it isn't going to win over the slumber-party set, or that some of the tunes won't stick in your head for weeks. It just means that this installment of the East High Wildcats' story lacks that element of happy discovery. The innocence is gone.
So is the high school setting, and that's a shame; for me, the highlight of the original movie was "Stick to the Status Quo," a Busby Berkeleyesque number about the power of cliques that played out joyously in the cafeteria. The sequel begins on the brink of summer vacation: Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) are happily dating, though they still don't appear to have kissed. The villainous Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) is plotting her revenge. And the kids are soon decamped for the picturesque Lava Springs Country Club, which Sharpay's parents happen to own.
Most of the students have taken summer jobs, waiting on Sharpay and her brother Ryan; the plot -- as thin and illogical as the original's -- centers on class warfare. Rest assured that the correct lessons will be learned and the appropriate couple will sing the duet in the country club talent show. The story is just an excuse to get to the next production number, each more frantically choreographed than the last.
The dance moves are spearheaded, as in the original, by Kenny Ortega, who also directs, and who choreographed 1987s "Dirty Dancing." The cast works hard, sashaying across baseball diamonds and on the edge of swimming pools. Because it's summer, the outfits are a good bit skimpier and the set pieces are more elaborate: We see a lot of swimming pools, fountains, and bold Bahamas prints.
Still, much of the formula is the same. Disney has reassembled its team of pop-writing veterans, so every song sounds vaguely like "I've Had the Time of My Life." And every time teen composer Kelsi (Olesya Rulin) plunks out a tune on the piano, the soundtrack swells with invisible drums and electric guitars.
Disney has figured out at least one new truth about growing tween girls: They don't want to be Gabriella so much as they want to watch Troy. Thus, Hudgens's role is reduced to a few swoony looks and a power ballad or two, while Efron gets the blue contact lenses, the dramatic dilemma, and the awkward rock number. (He's also on the cover of this week's Rolling Stone, photographed in the process of taking off his shirt.)
Efron does his own singing here -- his parts in the original were dubbed -- and it's nice, when he opens his mouth, to hear a voice that sounds practically natural. An even happier surprise is a bigger role for Lucas Grabeel, whose Ryan develops a backbone and attemps to play baseball. Tisdale overacts her way through a not-very-interesting role. The rest of the cast exists to sing backup and shoot worried looks at Efron during key dramatic moments.
Yet they manage, through it all, to look like they're having fun; with its energy and unfailing optimism, "High School Musical 2" has the odd effect of making a grown-up imagine it might be nice to be 12 again. Twelve! That's junior-high-school-age! And if that isn't Disney magic, I'm not really sure what is.