Throughout movie history, the sequel has rarely outdone the original. In fact, most are an insult to the legacy of the source material (see: The Hangover Part II, American Psycho 2, every single Jurassic Park film since the first one). But among the garbage there are some gems: both The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are stark improvements over their precursors; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the best film in its entire franchise; and lately it seems that every Mission: Impossible movie is better than the last.
But this isn’t about Tom Cruise’s one-man battle to save movie theaters or the crimes Todd Phillips has incurred, and will incur, against us. Fifteen years ago today, High School Musical 2 premiered on Disney Channel. Starring Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, and Corbin Bleu, the follow-up to 2006’s High School Musical was an instant record-breaking hit. It was the most-viewed film premiere in the channel’s history and at the time, was the most-watched basic cable broadcast of all time, period.
Since the second film’s debut, fans have debated whether High School Musical or High School Musical 2 is the best film in the trilogy. (Sorry High School Musical 3: Senior Year, it’s not you). The standard opinion, of course, is that High School Musical is clearly the best. But as the years have gone by and the franchise’s audience has matured, a different sentiment has begun to rise, and an obvious choice has become clearer and clearer. With its fresh story, refined themes, and better overall collection of songs, High School Musical 2 is clear as the superior film in the series.
Disagree? Doesn’t matter—you’re wrong.
Let’s start the examination with a quick game of “What Movie Is This?”
A great high school athlete, coached by his father, discovers he has an interest in an activity that is the antithesis of what he is supposed to be interested in. Worried about what his friends and father would think, he signs up for it in secret. As the athlete spends more time on his extracurricular activity than his sport, his play starts to slip and people start to notice. When his friends and coach find out he’s been sneaking around doing the other activity, it sends everyone into a frenzy, and the worst part is, the big game and the extracurricular event are on the same day! So what does our hero decide to do? Both of course! While watching him struggle, his friends realize that his extracurricular activity is important to him and help him participate in both events! When it’s all over, everyone reconciles and understands that it’s cool to do both, as long as everyone works together.
What movie is this? Is it:
- (A) The original High School Musical or ...
- (B) Eddie’s Million Dollar Cook-Off, a movie that came out THREE YEARS before High School Musical?
Guess what? It doesn’t matter—they’re the same movie!
It’s disappointing to think about in retrospect, but High School Musical doesn’t tread any new ground. The biggest problem the characters face is being forced into old-fashioned high school archetypes, a quandary whose solution is dreadfully obvious. Like many films before it, High School Musical proclaims that people don’t have to fit nicely into everyone’s preconceived idea of what they should be; it’s up to the individual to decide for themselves. There’s nothing wrong with being a chemistry expert and a dancer, an athlete and a baker, or a basketball player and a singer. The film doesn’t do anything new, doesn’t ask imaginative questions of its characters or audience, and expects the viewer to coast on lighthearted vibes alone. “We’re all in this together” is a reductive, played-out resolution in a modern world that demands complexity and creativity.
The sequel, however, poses a much more existential query. The crux of the film rests on Troy’s indecision between his friends and his future. He’s promised Gabriella and his boys a fun summer together, but an opportunity to further his basketball career arises and changes everything. Troy is at a crossroads: Does he start thinking about his life beyond high school or enjoy summer with the rest of the Wildcats? It’s a real dilemma that doesn’t have an easy answer. The sequel is about more than just a school musical and shifting social hierarchies; it’s about the push and pull of moving forward when you don’t want to leave your loved ones behind. Eventually, Troy comes to realize that his friends mean more than some potential college scholarship (a RIDICULOUS decision if we’re keeping it a stack), but the trials he goes through to get to his choice represent the first real stakes in the series.
It’s why HSM 2’s characters feel so much more fleshed out and complete, even beyond Zac Efron’s Troy. Ryan Evans, the precursor to Shohei Ohtani, finally gets to step out of Sharpay’s shadow and becomes a leader and true member of East High. Chad Danforth finally opens up to the idea that he can dance, all while learning to trust his best friend. Sharpay finally puts others before herself and gains real acceptance from her classmates. (“Is Sharpay Really the Villain of High School Musical?” is a good question ... for another time.) Even side characters like Jason, Martha, and Kelsi get a little extra love, whereas the most High School Musical does to flesh out a bit role is tell us a skater boy plays the cello.
But most importantly, High School Musical 2’s supremacy also extends to its soundtrack. Of course High School Musical has bangers, but it doesn’t have a three-song run like its sequel: “Gotta Go My Own Way” into “Bet on It,” followed up by “Everyday,” is the DCOM musical equivalent of Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant. On their own they would be game breakers, but together? It’s just unfair. And that’s not even taking into account “Fabulous,” Sharpay’s magnum opus; “You Are the Music in Me,” which inspired one of the greatest vines of our time; and “I Don’t Dance,” the song with a dance number that is solely responsible for tiding us over between Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick. Songs like “Start of Something New,” “Breaking Free,” and “We’re All in This Together” are excellent tunes, but good songs on that soundtrack are few and far between. Like Ryan Evans pitching against the entire East High lineup, High School Musical 2 delivers heater after heater.
Plus, the male lead actually sings in High School Musical 2. Sorry to peel back the curtain like this, but it is a poorly kept secret that Zac Efron didn’t sing in the first High School Musical; the voice heard throughout the movie belongs to Canadian actor and singer Drew Seeley. According to Efron, he was never given an explanation as to why he was replaced. That didn’t deter him, however: He put the time and work in to make sure he was featured in the follow-up, and that energy is reflected in Efron’s vocal showcase near the film’s climax.
I wanna make it right, that is the way
To turn my life around, today is the day
Am I the type of guy who means what I say?
“Bet on It” hits a little harder when you picture Zac Efron in the lab for five months trying to get his voice right, doesn’t it? And knowing that that’s not Zac’s sweet, sweet voice in the first High School Musical erases some of the magic, wouldn’t you agree?
There is no argument about whether High School Musical is a certified classic. It changed childhoods across the world, made household names out of unknown teen actors, and ushered in a new era of IP for one of the biggest corporations in the business. Like Star Wars: A New Hope, The Terminator, and The Godfather before it, High School Musical created a playground for an entire generation to explore. And just like The Empire Strikes Back, T2, and The Godfather: Part II, High School Musical 2 improved on its predecessor in ways that stand the test of time.
We can still be in this together—so long as you agree that High School Musical 2 is better.