Sequels can generally be very hit or miss. Some sequels can expand on a movie’s universe, develop more intricate storylines, and support interesting character development. On the other hand, sequels can also feel like an unnecessary cash grab; if done poorly, sequels can pale in comparison to the original, or worse, retroactively ruin the original.
It’s hard to come by a movie sequel that feels purposeful and organic to the cinematic universe. Ironically, one of the most well-done movie sequels comes from a children’s movie franchise: High School Musical 2. Not only does it hold up well compared to the original HSM and retain that wildcat spirit, but High School Musical 2 was actually the best film in the trilogy; here’s why:
- The plotline is the most straightforward
As iconic as all of the High School Musical movies were (and still are), let’s be real, they literally made no sense. As with any kid’s movie, the audience members certainly have to suspend their disbelief with some of the ridiculous or unrealistic plotlines, but High School Musicals 1 and 3 were both weirdly hard to follow. As a kid, I didn’t realize that the “Breaking Free” scene was a callback, and not the actual musical. I could not explain to you what an academic decathlon was. And it did not register with me that Mrs. Darbus’s class was homeroom, not drama class. Realizing how much I’d gotten wrong or misinterpreted as a child somewhat retroactively ruined the first film for me.
High School Musical 3 was just trying to do the absolute most, perhaps because it was the first DCOM to be released in theaters. To be perfectly honest, I could not summarize the plot of that film off the top of my head if I tried. They were writing their own musical about their senior year, but it was unclear when the musical numbers occurred in their reality as a rehearsal for the musical, or just an embellished representation of a straightforward dialogue. Plus that whole thing of Gabriella leaving for Stanford before the year even ended just made no sense, and don’t get me started on how none of them knew where they were going to college until literally graduation, because we all know that decision day is May 1st. And that weird sub-plot of that British girl trying to take Sharpay’s place, and Rocketman? Who were those characters, and why were they even in the movie?
High School Musical 2 has the most straightforward plot to follow: the Wildcats end up working summer jobs at the country club at which Sharpay and Ryan are members, and have to deal with the club’s strict manager, despite wanting to perform in the annual talent show. Troy agrees to sing in the talent show with Sharpay and accept special treatment from the Evans family, in the hopes of getting recruited for college. Conflict and dance breaks ensue. Put simply, High School Musical 2 is the easiest to follow and has the most logical story arc. Which really should be the bare minimum for a movie, but since 1 and 3 were pratically incoherent, here we are. Plus, other than the part about a country club hiring an entire school of teenagers at the last minute, HSM 2 has the fewest instances where viewers have to have to suspend their disbelief.
- The teen angst is actually so real
Sure, it’s a bit annoying that the main conflict in the movie centers around the multitalented, privileged, golden boy Troy Bolton. But his worries about getting into college and anxieties about getting a scholarship do actually feel somewhat true to the teenage experience, at least more so than most other kids’ films set in high school, where teenhood centers around first kisses, sneaking out to parties, and maybe your biggest problem being embarrassed by the mean girl in the cafeteria.
And as someone who spent the summer before my senior year of high school finalizing my college essay and the list of colleges I wanted to apply to, I actually could relate to Troy Bolton and understand why he’d sell out and align with Sharpay if it meant ameliorating some of his anxieties about the college application process. Being able to re-watch High School Musical 2 as an actual high schooler, and having it resonate with me in a new way, made the film feel like it held up a little better over time even after I’d aged out of its target demographic. We rarely see teenagers worrying about the long-term or the future in movies, so High School Musical 2 is surprisingly refreshing in this sense.
- The music is top notch
“Fabulous.” “I Don’t Dance.” “Bet On It.” Need I say more? The soundtrack to the second High School Musical absolutely slaps, and I’d even say it’s my favorite soundtrack out of the three. It’s the most consistently good, the most fun to sing along with, and the most iconic.
Sure, High School Musical had “Breaking Free,” “Getcha Head in the Game,” and “Stick to the Status Quo,” but overall the soundtrack is a bit more hit-and-miss, Some of the songs are a bit less fun to listen to — “What I’ve Been Looking For” and “When There Was Me and You” just aren’t it, and the equivalent songs from High School Musical 2, the slow love ballad “You Are The Music in Me,” and the dramatic Gabriella breakup song, “Gotta Go My Own Way” are far more engaging, while still hitting the same emotions.
And High School Musical 3 had “The Boys are Back” and “I Want it All,” but, while the entire soundtrack of HSM 3 was perhaps of a higher production value, none of the songs really stick out as particularly nostalgic, iconic, or meme-worthy.
- Ryan Evans gets his moment in the spotlight
Ryan is the most underrated character in the HSM franchise. While he’s certainly melodramatic and flamboyant like his sister, he’s a lot less cunning than Sharpay, getting whisked away in her schemes rather than acting as an antagonist in his own right. Despite being perhaps the most talented wildcat, Ryan is avoided by the East High students because they associate him with his sister, but his sister doesn’t truly support him and only uses him for her own success.
In HSM 2, however, Ryan befriends both Gabriella and Chad and is just generally becoming accepted into the East High squad. In a rare act of selflessness, Sharpay gifts him the Star Dazzle award for his choreography at the talent show. Finally, Ryan gets the credit he deserves. It’s just such a gratifying character arc for a man who can rock a fedora like no other.
- The side characters are more entertaining to watch
It’s not just Ryan who shines in this film — Chad and Taylor also feel a bit less antagonistic in this movie, which really adds to the wholesome, East High-pride vibe of the film. While Taylor doesn’t really do too much, at least she’s not actively trying to tell Gabriella what to do and bossing her around for personal benefit. And Chad gifted us with the musical masterpiece, “I Don’t Dance,” one of my personal favorite rejections of toxic masculinity. And of course, the sexual tension and chemistry between Chad and Ryan in that scene is honestly one of the biggest highlights of the movie, if not the entire franchise. Thank you, HSM 2, for gifting us one of the most iconic enemies-to-lovers ships in Disney history.
- The humor is unparalleled
High School Musical 2 is the funniest movie in the trilogy — perhaps because both the plot is more straightforward, and the side characters feel more familiar to the audience, there was more space to be creative with the physical comedy and one-liners, like when Kelsi said that her plans for the summer were to “Grow. Write music. Grow.”
The humor adds to the campiness of the film and also serves as an effective contrast to Troy’s angst, making the film feel over-the-top in all the best ways and chaotic in the best sense of the word — but not tonally inconsistent, or like it was trying to do too much. Because there are some intentionally funny bits, the parts that are unintentionally funny end up feeling more humorous than cringy, so this movie is the most enjoyable to re-watch when you’re not its target audience.
High School Musical as a franchise is perhaps Disney Channel’s magnum opus, each film was so iconic that we’re still talking about them over ten years later. But gun to my head and I have to pick a favorite? The second one, all the way. Let me know if you agree (or disagree) on Instagram @hercampusconn.