Upon being compelled to watch last year’s Disney-movie songfest High School Musical, I cried. As in, I was moved to tears by the story of Troy (Hairspray’s Zac Efron), a varsity basketball star who learns to love his inner crooner, thanks to Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), a gorgeous mathlete. I am almost grotesque in my vulnerability to stories in which kids grow and love and explore their potential — as long as they do it with jazz hands and a lot of faux-motional singing. Don’t even get me started on Maxwell Caulfield’s haunting Grease 2 solo, ”Charades.”
In short, I am no snob about simplistic, low-bar, rainbow-colored sing-alongs. I wanted to enjoy High School Musical 2 as much as I enjoyed High School Musical: in moderation, with a pleasant blush and a benevolent, the-kids-are-alright smile. Well, bummer for me! This inevitable sequel — a third film is already in the works — feels too simplistic, too low-bar. (The colors are still pretty.) Troy and Gabriella and their Wildcat friends land summer jobs at the exclusive golf club owned by the parents of those showboating siblings, Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) and Ryan (Lucas Grabeel). That conniving Sharpay promptly starts wooing Troy with potential college scholarships and a cushy job as a golf pro! Much is made of this not-major moral dilemma. Troy misses a date with Gabriella; Troy practices with the university basketball team; Troy enjoys his new Italian golf shoes (it’s always amusing when marketing juggernaut Disney lectures kids on acquisitiveness).
Unfortunately, the franchise is overly cautious about the image of its likable, tween-idol star: Mindful that eighth graders nationwide are daydreaming of Efron giving them their first kiss while holding a teddy bear who’s holding a tiny Mylar balloon, Disney never lets the guy get too mean, too spoiled, or too…anything. By the time an enraged/ashamed/sun-fevered Troy is running across the golf course, dressed in black, jabbing and spinning while he sings a song I think is called ”Bet on It! (Bet on It! (Bet on It!))” the issue is so confused, it’s not even clear what the wager is. Ambition? Loyalty? Um…stuff?
Of course, musicals needn’t rely on heavy storytelling, because they have music! Here, the songs range from silly fun (the tiara’d Sharpay sings a splashy ditty called ”Fabulous”) to really just awful (there’s a massive dance number on a baseball diamond that’s so surreally amateurish, Will Ferrell may be behind it). HSM2 wraps with wacky ”outtakes” that sum up the whole movie: When they’re genuinely goofy, they make you grin — but too much of it feels forced. C