Eleven years ago, the Disney Channel dropped High School Musical, a made-for-TV-film about an athlete called Troy (Zac Efron) who falls in love with a smart, beautiful girl called Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) on a Christmas vacation and discovers his love of singing. When they return to school, though, he has to choose between the pressure to dedicate himself to basketball and his love of both music and Gabriella. It was obscenely popular, made a shit ton of money, and made its stars famous. Off the back of its popularity, a year later, High School Musical 2 – its infinitely better sequel – was released.
High School Musical 2 takes the High School Musical template of Troy's inner struggle between his desires and responsibilities and transposes them onto a non-school setting. This time, rather than being girl vs friends and songs vs sports, he's grappling with the harsh realities of adult life vs the fun of his personal relationships. The film takes place over the summer, and while all of the kids want to fuck around and play some ball, they're forced by the cruelty of capitalism to get jobs instead. They somehow all get work at the same country club, and have to bend over backwards serving the 1%, including the rich kids from their school.
The film had a budget of $7 million and, despite debuting on television, managed to pull in 17.2 million viewers on its premiere, making it the highest-rated basic-cable telecast of its time. In 2006 and 2007, between the first two films, the franchise made an estimated $1 billion in operating profit. It was better received than the first instalment, reviewed well by grown adults, and weirdly popular with teens who loved it "ironically". While the first film had brought its stars to global relevance, the second saw that relevance reach new heights. Despite being essentially child stars, Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron became one of the most-talked about celebrity couples, with their love and fallings out all over the covers of tabloids.
But why? How could a made-for-TV musical aimed at children manage to not only appeal to its core audience of tweenaged girls whose sexuality would be formed by Zac Efron, but also receive decent reviews and long-lasting success? Simple, really: it fucking bangs. High School Musical 2 is better than the other films in the franchise because it has the holy trinity of comedy, hard-hitting themes, and absolute belters. The film is, as you might expect, very extra. It's meant to be. It is melodramatic but brutally self-aware; a trivia version that aired in the weeks after the premiere included, among other things, a counter on screen that totted up the many times one character changed hats. It is intentionally funny and a masterclass in visual and spoken comedic timing. It deals with responsibility, the push-and-pull of work and friends, the real world. It's heavy stuff. I'm not even joking.
Depending on what side of the fence you sit when it comes to whether you should give in to capitalism in order to survive, you can read High School Musical 2 as either anti or pro capitalist. Whether it is or not, the film is explicitly about how horrible it is to work; especially to serve those who do not work. It's about the ways in which money can motivate us to do things we wouldn't otherwise. As Fulton tells Gabriella, "sometimes, we have to perform tasks, however unpleasant, that are necessary for that all-too-important paycheque to land in our all-too-empty pockets!" Even if the people in the film don't necessarily believe in the system, they have to work within it to get what they want. They often work from the time the doors open until late at night. They are not allowed the same privileges and facilities as the members and are even banned from partaking in the members' annual talent show. When Troy gets the chance to see life from the other side, he's far less against nepotism and wealth than he was before. When he starts to regret how his success is affecting his friends, his dad tells him coldly, "it's called a job". In the last song, "All For One", everyone, rich and poor, workers and members, cast aside their differences and uniforms to sing together and have a pool party. So yeah, in some ways, it's like Animal Farm but with more abs and pop songs.
High School Musical 2 has also been read as lowkey exploring themes of queerness. In the film's fifth song, "I Don't Dance", Ryan goes to Chad's baseball game and tries to convince him to dance in the talent show. It could be understood as yet another push-and-pull between Chad's interests, but there is arguably something deeper. Ryan, who until this point has never expressed any sexual desire or really spoken to anyone but his sister, tells Chad that if he can exist in 'his world', then Chad can dance. "I don't dance", Chad tells Ryan. "There's just one little thing that stops me every time." Through flirtatious dance and glances and overarching baseball metaphors (batting for the other team, etc) things heat up a little: "you'll never know if you never try", Ryan tells Chad. As Ryan gets better at baseball, he proves to Chad that it isn't one or the other. It isn't baseball or dancing, just like it isn't one gender or another. With compromise, you can have whatever, and by the end of the song they've swapped outfits. While it might be a reach, it looks like as overt a metaphor for sexual fluidity as you could get away with on the Disney Channel in 2007.
Aside from hard-hitting themes and tight comedy, High School Musical 2 also works because the songs do. The soundtrack debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and had the fourth best first-week sales of 2007 – after Kanye West's Graduation, Linkin Park's Minutes to Midnight, and 50 Cent's Curtis. Although that is in part because there are a lot of Disney-loving kids out there, it's also because it's full to the brim with hits. While the songs in the first and third films are often either extremely saccharine, full of romantic longing or slow jams, the second prioritises angst, speed and hilarity – partly because the stakes are higher as the students wrestle with adulthood and each other. Instead of focusing on sickly high-pitched kid bops that mainly children under ten see the appeal in, the soundtrack includes real-world genres. The film opens with "What Time Is It", an all-cast song that centres around the marching band and incorporates drums, brass instruments, and, naturally, electronic beats. It was released as the first single to the film and became the highest-selling single of the year-end chart for 2007. "Gotta Go My Own Way" is a pop ballad that sounds exactly like JoJo's iconic "Leave (Get Out)" mixed with Vanessa Carlton; "All For One" sounds like surf rock mixed with the Black Eyed Peas; "Humuhumunukunukuapua'a" is a strangely calypsoesque song despite its Polynesian themes; "I Don't Dance" incorporates swing elements; "Fabulous" is a funny, smart homage to diva pop; and then there's "Bet On It" – an almost-rock song that Entertainment Weekly called a "terrific crisis-of-conscience number".
The film is also the first time in the franchise that Zac sang his own songs, and as a result, "Bet On It" is pitched lower than the songs in High School Musical. It's strong, loud, and angsty (at this point in time, angst basically meant emo, therefore Troy is dressed head-to-toe in black topped off with Vans). Its lyrics – " how will I know if there's a path worth taking? Should I question every move I make? With all I've lost, my heart is breaking" – aren't a world away from something Good Charlotte might have written. He looks at his perfectly computer-generated reflection in the lake and sings " it's no good at all to see yourself and not recognise your face", before smashing the reflection. He's still expressing his rage through cartwheels and spins, but it works.
While High School Musical 2 may not be a masterpiece in everybody's eyes, exactly, it far surpassed its status as a made-for-TV Disney musical. Every single song on the soundtrack is enjoyable in a way that other Disney songs of the era just weren't. The film took inspiration from the worlds of pop and rock to create songs that genuinely weren't grating – that, even without context, can be listened to. Plus, while Disney and the teen media generally have always tried to convey "messages", the ones in High School Musical 2 are actually useful, interesting and relevant. Whether or not you read into the fan theories about queerness and socialist revolution, the film still deals with the importance of personal responsibility. For many kids, it was perhaps the first time they were told to consider their responsibility to their friends, work, and play and how those things interact. The entire franchise's impact and success is inarguable, but High School Musical 2 is the most legitimately and non-ironically watchable of them all.
Follow Marianne on Twitter.