Disney Channel's 2006 surprise-hit movie operated on the aspirational principle of kid culture: just as naming a magazine Seventeen will attract 13-year-olds, so will a franchise called High School Musical reach tweens for whom high school is only an enticing and terrifying eventuality. Like the original, High School Musical 2 (Aug. 17, 8 p.m. E.T.) gives them high school with training wheels: romance without sexual pressure, G-rated teen pop (Justin Timberlake before he brought sexy back). It's a raging bacchanal of hand holding, milk drinking and explicit thespianism! Obviously, this is escapism for parents too. Even the kids' rebellions--baking crème brûlée, angry dance numbers--would look good on a college application.
In High School Musical 2, it's vacation, and the kids of Albuquerque's East High are looking for summer jobs. Jock-turned-stage-star Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) scores a sweet gig as an assistant golf pro at the Lava Springs country club and gets jobs for his pals and girlfriend Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens). The catch: his job has been arranged by spoiled rich girl and theater brat Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale), who considers Troy her rightful boyfriend. She connives for him to duet with her in a talent show--and for Gabriella to be left out. For middle-class Troy, there are connections and a basketball scholarship--if he plays along.
High School Musical 2's audience already knows how this movie ends. But they'll watch and re-watch because it has such an unembarrassed good time getting there. Where the original had a basketball dance number, the sequel has I Don't Dance, a baseball/hoofing showdown between Sharpay's fey brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) and athlete Chad (Corbin Bleu). (The double entendres--"I'll show you how I swing!"--re unavoidable, if unintentional.) The whole production is as blindingly art-directed as a sixth-grader's backpack--Lava Springs looks as if it's made out of chunks of sweet-and-sour chicken, and Sharpay pulls up to it in a pink monogrammed convertible that Barbie might drive.
Ah, Sharpay! Troy and Gabriella may provide the romance, but Sharpay is the hungry heart of the show, and Tisdale plays her with preening relish. She's the most brazen (and belly-baring) of the kids, but even her plot to conquer Troy is asexual and preadolescent; she just wants him to complete the picture of herself as school diva. He's the Ken doll that completes the play set. (Whether he's anatomically correct is irrelevant.)
Yet Sharpay is not really that bad; she just wants too much. Nobody is that bad in this world--not the popular kids, not the ditzy parents, not the overworked authority figures--and that's its charm. Everyone--band geek, hoop star, rich kid--stands side by side for their curtain call. Whether high school is in front of you or long behind, who wouldn't want to believe that story?