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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
The young ladies of High School Musical 2, Kelli Baker, Tanya Michelle, McCall Clark, Lucas Grabeel and Ashley Tisdale.
High School Musical 2 airs at 8 tonight on Disney Channel. Grade from Deggans' girls: A+. Grade from Dad: B+.
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The moment the closing credits rolled, it was obvious. They loved it.
The older girl sat beaming, braces adding sparkle to her shy smile as she recounted favorite moments. Her younger sister sat at her left, still sniggling over the outtakes at the show's end featuring co-star Corbin Bleu flubbing a line.
These girls were my daughters, ages 12 and 11. And they had just finished watching the only media product that could compete with Harry Potter for their "tween"-age devotion: High School Musical 2.
Forget about their fuddy-duddy dad, who could only see flashy, Busby Berkeley-influenced dance numbers connected by a too-predictable plot and sitcom-level acting.
For these girls, the Disney Channel's second movie centered on unlikely lovebirds Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez was all they hoped for and more - kinetic dance numbers, bouncing, upbeat pop tunes, a kid-friendly plot and all the cute girls and boys they'd come to know from the first extravaganza.
It didn't even matter that we'd sat through the entire two-hour workout plopped in the middle of a Verizon showroom in Carrollwood. Verizon's FiOS TV system offered a free preview of the film through their video-on-demand service, and officials were nice enough to let me haul my own personal focus group to one of their stores, commandeering the biggest TV in the joint.
So, as the clueless parent, I had to ask: What's so cool about all of this, anyway?
Was it hunky guys like star Zac Efron - whose ice blue eyes seemed to jump off the screen, even to me - and his adorably frizzy-haired pal, Bleu? Was it the expertly crafted songs, filled with candy-coated pop hooks and sing-along melodies aimed right a generation weaned on American Idol?
Or was it the message that the only really uncool people in high school are those who use their wealth, status or talent to make other people feel like outsiders?
"Dad," sighed my older girl when I peppered her with these questions and more. "We just like it. I don't know why." So much for my focus group.
The word blockbuster doesn't seem adequate to describe how the first High School Musical took over the attention of fans ages 9 to 14.
Nearly 8-million people watched the movie when it debuted in January 2006, spawning sales of 7-million CDs, 8-million DVDs, viewings by 170-million people globally and an estimated $1-billion in profits. Stars Bleu, Vanessa Anne Hudgens and Ashley Tisdale have found chart-topping success with their own albums, paving the way for an even larger sequel.
The plot connecting the dance numbers in the second movie is simple: egotistical, blondiful rich girl Sharpay parents: picture a smarter, kid-friendly Paris Hilton finagles a summer job for hunky, floppy-haired basketball star Bolton at a resort controlled by her parents.
Imagine her ire when Bolton gets all his pals from their high school hired, too - including his smart, pretty girlfriend, Montez (an always appealing Hudgens). Tisdale gleefully chews the scenery as a scheming Sharpay, pressuring the resort's obsequious manager to crack down on the kids she doesn't like, while showering Efron's earnest Bolton with presents, including the possibility of a basketball scholarship.
Will Bolton forget his friends, seduced by Sharpay? Will Montez walk away from her high school love, put off by his selfishness? Will none of them perform in the resort's big talent show?
If you have to ask, then you've never seen a Disney Channel production - where the villains always learn the error of their ways and the good guys eventually do the right thing.
The film's opening number, What Time Is It?, is obviously positioned as the successor to the original film's monster hit Get'cha Head in the Game. Buoyed by a big marching band-influenced sound and powerful group chorus, it marries a giddy tribute to summer fun with a funky, appealing groove.
Of course, the songs and choreography remain High School Musical's not-so-secret weapon. Fans have already seen an advance version of Bleu's showcase number I Don't Dance - it's a enduring irony that a performer as smooth as Bleu is playing an athlete who supposedly hates singing and dancing.
And the water ballet that accompanies Sharpay's materialistic ode to resort life, Fabulous, recalls classic Hollywood show-stoppers featuring '40s and '50s-era swimming bombshell Esther Williams.
Indeed, the oddest thing about this Disney phenomenon is how the company recycles old-school media to fuel its new block- busters.
Tween-friendly comedies such as That's So Raven and Hannah Montana are straight-up classic sitcoms, filmed live with a minimum of production and plots that could have been ripped straight from old Laverne & Shirley episodes.
My daughters know '70s-era hit songs such as Will It Go Round in Circles and Do You Believe in Magic because they've been remade by the channel's young stars ('80s popster Robbie Nevil - a one-hit wonder as an artist who has written songs for Ashlee Simpson and Jesse McCartney - even co-writes several songs in HSM2).
Now, thanks to Disney's talent for reinvention, they've discovered the wonder of the Hollywood musical.
Watching my girls hum the melodies on our ride home, I was amazed and gratified that they were so taken by a movie starring a multicultural, talented group of kids focused on succeeding in school and breaking down hurtful cliques.
We might give High School Musical 2 high marks for different reasons. But somehow, Disney found a way to win us all over - offering a film that appeals to our fondest hopes and dreams, albeit in slightly different ways.