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Media: Disney Takes Us Back to ‘School’

You didn’t have to pass 11th grade calculus to see that all the numbers add up to make “High School Musical” one huge hit.

You didn’t have to pass 11th grade calculus to see that all the numbers add up to make “High School Musical” one huge hit.

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The Disney Channel Original Movie was watched by 7.7 million people when it premiered back in January 2006 (6.1 million tuned in for the encore the following night). To date, over 160 million people have tuned in worldwide, and it has spawned a $100 million franchise with the soundtrack (the best-selling album of 2006), concerts and solo projects for its teen stars.

The television sequel, “High School Musical 2,” premieres this Friday and the third installment is rumored to hit the big screens as a feature film next year.

Compared to other recent Disney hits (not as epic as The Lion King, not as ground-breaking as Toy Story), “HSM” is unapologetically silly, fun and formulaic–squeaky clean with no reservations. And that’s exactly why it’s such a sensation. No one should be surprised at its success, especially not Disney. After almost a century of entertaining families, the Mouse knows exactly what it’s doing.

But the success of “HSM” is not just another case of the corporate marketing machine using children to get to their parents’ bank accounts. It’s much more complex than that. Kids enjoy it, but parents consume just as much of the fantasy.

At the core of the movie is a wholesome message: Be yourself, break the mold, you’re the star of your own show. Most recent pop culture has forced tweens to swim in a dirty “Laguna Beach” of celebrity overexposure that this inspirational story now feels sincere rather than sappy. The movie has enough spirit that you can’t be too mean when criticizing it. After all, it takes guts to be so transparently nice nowadays. Not taking itself too seriously, “HSM” is camp at its freshest.

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Whether it’s a karaoke competition or the school musical auditions, the characters in the movie almost always burst out into a song for some logical reason, a la Singin’ in the Rain. Tweens are smart and even fantasy worlds must have some sort of reality embedded in them.

“HSM” does sell a fantasy, but not just to tweens. After all, their parents are the ones holding the checkbooks. The fictional high school exists in educational utopia where race, drugs and hormones are not part of the G-rated vocabulary. “HSM” is high school the way we wish our children would experience it. Not Dangerous Minds, post-Columbine, metal-detector, drug bust, but a place where the end of the day would culminate in a dance.

“High School Musical 2” premieres on August 17 on the Disney Channel.

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