It’s finally here!

That’s been the sentiment of the folks over at Disney Channel for the past week, as made apparent by their offensive barrage of advertisements, music videos, special behind-the-scenes promos, and today’s all day countdown clock in the top right corner (during an oddly placed Suite Life marathon). It’s also the sentiment surrounding the kids of East High at the beginning of the monumentally anticipated Disney Channel Original Movie High School Musical 2. The students count down the seconds until summer finally arrives, and their anticipation can hardly come close to matching what kids and adults all over the country have been feeling since the final dance scene at the end of the beloved original High School Musical.

All of your favorites are back, too; Zac Efron still looks great (better, even) as the basketball playing, crooning, team-oriented Troy Bolton. The same can be said for his better half both on screen and in real life Vanessa Hudgens, who plays the sweet bookworm-turned-diva Gabriella Montez. Gabriella’s foil and self-appointed queen of the world Sharpay Evans is played by Ashley Tisdale, and her uncomfortably in the closet brother Ryan is once again played by Lucas Grabeel. Chad Danforth, the most forgettable name (at least for me) in the whole movie is back as Troy’s right hand man, and of course is played by Disney Channel sensation Corbin Bleu. I should also mention Taylor McKessie (who I have a hard time believing is Irish) has returned as her manipulative self, and is played by the 26 year old Monique Coleman.

The movie does not pick up where the last one left off. We never get to see the Twinkle Town Musical that the original was leading up to. Instead, as I mentioned earlier, we join the crew on their last day of school, and the school production is only alluded to throughout the film. As the day winds down, the kids can barely stay in their seats. This is, of course, because they have a huge dance number planned for the minute the bell rings. The movie most definitely kicks off with a bang; the first extravaganza takes the school-wide parties of the first film and puts them to shame. Solos are tossed around, the hallways are turned into well-choreographed dance madness, and it makes you rue the fact that you never got to end a school year with something this wild. Once the song ends, though, the party seems to die with it as well.

Troy Bolton, who lives in a mansion with his own basketball court, is pinching pennies for college. Lucky for him, Sharpay Evans spent the time between the two movies developing an unquenchable lust for her dirt-poor classmate. Though the crush was shown in the first half of the first movie, it seemed to have completely dissolved by the end of it. Apparently that’s not the case, and Sharpay spends the film trying to steal Troy away from Gabriella. Her parent’s impressive clout at the local country club land Troy a job for the summer, with one exception: They also have to hire the entire cast of the first film.

While at the country club, Troy experience a series of promotions while his friends are left in their low-level service jobs. Sharpay has a lot of push, and she eventually gets Troy away from the kitchen and out on the links with her influential father. Troy impresses the family, and Sharpay’s dad mentions that he’s got some influence around the University of Albuquerque, a school that Troy would love to attend. With the lure of a full scholarship hanging over his head, he begins missing dates with Gabriella and ignoring his friends who are still stuck in the kitchen.

Therein lies the conflict of HSM2 — Should Troy, who is going through financial hardships, try as hard as he can to get a full ride to college, or should he put more effort into being with his friends and neglect the folks over at UA? Troy picks the former, and his friends let him know that they’re unhappy by declining to acknowledge his existence. Gabriella breaks up with him, too, in her own personal music video. Troy laments this in the next song, which is an awkward attempt at making him a heartthrob where he dances through the desert, fist raised in agony. It contains the worst moment of the film, where he looks into a lake and looking back at him is a clearly fake reflection of himself, superimposed on the water, that was so awful that even 6 year old superfans had to cringe when they saw it.

Troy has some serious soul-searching to do, since all his friends hate him and he’s lost his girlfriend over the time he’s been putting into impressing the Evans family and getting that scholarship. Also experiencing inner conflict is Sharpay’s lapdog of a brother Ryan. Normally he is her goofy sidekick, but when she replaces his part in the annual summer talent show with Troy, he realizes he’s had enough. He joins forces with the day-laborers, and they play a painful game of baseball. I say painful because these men, who are professional singers and dancers, were never meant to get anywhere near the diamond. In the ultra-confusing number “I Don’t Dance,” they prance between the bases while professing that they never do what they’re doing. Chad even tells Ryan before the song that he’s never danced, even though we all saw his big hallway solo in the opening number. This contradiction brings up an interesting question; do they not know that they sing and dance? Troy acts like he can’t sing, Chad acts like he never dances, so maybe they really don’t. Maybe all of the big productions are really just in the mind of one of the characters, or maybe we’re getting a look into an alternate dimension during those moments. Getting back on track, Ryan has separated from Sharpay and is now bonding with the other students of East High. He is especially bonding with the recently split Gabriella, much to the chagrin of Troy. Troy has nothing to worry about, of course, because Ryan is so blatantly gay, but it still irks him.

Troy finally has to choose between his friends and his future on the night of the big talent show, where all the big boosters of UA will be on hand to hear him sing (apparently a crucial part of the scholarship process). After he learns that Sharpay has quashed the dance number prepared by Ryan and crew for the talent show, Troy has had enough. Luckily, the crafty Ryan is there to save him. He has prepared a special song for Troy, which he learns in an incredibly short amount of time. While performing it on stage, he is surprised when instead of hearing Sharpay’s voice answer his, he hears Gabriella’s. She walks from the back of the area up to the stage, and they sing a duet similar to Breaking Free, though not really as touching. The whole group joins in on stage, and at the end Sharpay has a glorious change of heart. Everybody wins, and then it’s time for a pool party! They rock around the pool in their final song, which is a fun group romp that is only equaled by the song in the very beginning. Even Miley Cyrus makes an awkward cameo for a split second, causing the room I was in to yell “What?! What is she doing in there?” God bless Disney cross-promotion.

Throughout the night, there were bumpers of segments featuring the cast having a picnic at director/choreographer Kenny Ortega’s house. The segments gave the group an uncomfortable dynamic, making it seem like they’re constantly acting, even when they just hang out. And Kenny seemed even more out of place, like an old man who invited over some attractive teens to his gorgeous house to see them in their bathing suits. The commercials were few and far between, thankfully, and didn’t interrupt the flow of the film at all, so kudos to Disney for that. The audio quality on the songs was noticeably off, and a quick glance at the Wikipedia page shows that Disney lowered the bitrate on the songs to deter pirating. It may have helped (doubt it), but it took away from the movie a bit. All of the voices sounded like they were mixed too low, and it was hard to hear them over the instrumentation.

Now, I’ll get to the good and the bad. Well, actually, first I’ll talk about how it compares to the original. The original High School Musical was a worldwide phenomenon. It was the highest rated Disney Channel show of all time. Its soundtrack went quadruple-platinum. It spawned a concert tour and a live stage musical. It has a live ice show, a series of books, video games, and dolls. Needless to say, expectations were high for this sequel. But did it live up? It’s hard to say. The original had campy dialog and a cheeseball storyline that was easily resolved. It also featured some bad acting and a whole bunch of high school stereotypes that felt lazy. The new movie improves on all of this — the dialog is rarely cringe-worthy, the acting is improved, the story is pretty solid and moves nicely, and the characters are all given some depth. What this new movie lacks, however, is the music of the original. The first film had a great mix of songs; a few big group numbers, a couple of heartfelt duets, and a solo here and there. The music was the strong point, it was the reason people loved it. The second movie is chock-full of solo pieces that will all stand as music video singles for the people they center around. The wild group party songs still are strong, but the duets don’t have the same punch and those awful solo songs just look like future Disney commercials. For a full, song-by-song analysis of the soundtrack, see my next post here.

This movie had some great moments: The first song, Sharpay’s interactions with the people around her, Troy and Gabriella’s break up (parts of it, at least). It also had some awful moments: Troy’s music video, Sharpay’s music video, Miley Cyrus’ cameo, dancers trying to play baseball. There were plenty more positives, and lots more negatives. But every detail doesn’t need to be nitpicked now, that can be saved for a later post, after I’ve seen it a few times. What is important here is how the movie stands on its own. At the end of the day, a lot of fans of the first movie (or people who pretend to be fans) are going to bash the new one because it wasn’t exactly like the old one. But that always happens when fanboys are involved, and though the second film is different than the first, it’s not really distinguishable whether it’s better or worse. It’s very different, and it’s still a lot of fun to watch. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch it again.