Disney ready to cash in on 'High School 2'

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Read our review of 'High School Musical 2'

After a blaze of publicity, Walt Disney Co. on Friday launched the sequel to its surprise, blockbuster TV musical "High School Musical," aiming to retain its spell over the preteen set.

Disney was unprepared for the worldwide success of the first, Emmy-winning movie that was made for just $4.2 million as one of about 10 original movies to air in 2006 on its Disney Channel cable network.

The musical, described as a modern day "Grease," was watched by more than 200 million viewers in 100 countries and its soundtrack became the best-selling album of 2006 as Disney scrambled to build a merchandising program.

But this time every division at Disney is geared up for "High School Musical 2" ahead of its TV debut on Friday, with expectations running high for the movie and its franchise.

"What's different for the second one is that demand is soaring," Rich Ross, president of Disney Channel Worldwide, said in an interview. "Every division at Disney has figured out how it makes sense for their products to roll out."

Disney is leaving no merchandising stone unturned this time, aware of the rising value of the "High School Musical" franchise -- and also the fickle nature of teenage audiences.

A North American stage show adapted from the franchise opened on August 1, and an ice-skating show launches next month while Disney expects to have 100 licensed products in stores by year's end, ranging from shoes to backpacks.

Its video game publishing arm is releasing games on various consoles while Disney Studios released cell phone ring tones.

Disney estimates the "High School Musical" franchise will contribute an estimated $100 million in operating income in 2006 and 2007 and has forecast it will grow to $650 million in global retail sales in fiscal 2008.

KITSCH AND GLITZ

The original movie was set in the fictional East High School, where the basketball team captain, Troy (Zac Efron), joined up with brainy student Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) to beat rivals and win top roles in the school musical.

The sequel is a bigger, more ritzy production, that reunites the original cast at a posh country club owned by the parents of scheming Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale), whose romantic designs on Troy tear apart friendships and romance.

As in the first movie, the solution is to put on a show, but this time it all ends with pyrotechnics and a kiss.

Reviews have been mostly positive leading up to Friday's premiere, though reviewers conceded that their opinions are unlikely to matter to young fans.

"This is a first-rate family film: sweet, bursting with talent and energy, and awash in innocence," USA Today reviewer Robert Bianco wrote on Friday.

The New York Times said the movie was mediocre and the actors badly fake-tanned, while conceding it had "haphazard charm."

But Disney is expecting the appeal of the show to go on, with plans for a third movie in 2008, this time set in a haunted house, to debut in movie theaters.

All signs indicate the franchise will continue to grow. The sequel's soundtrack was released on Tuesday and has gone gold in Britain while a "High School Musical 2" book debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times best-sellers list this week.

For although critics may deride the sugar-sweet movies, parents have no doubt about its appeal.

"It's all about the music and dancing. My kids know it by heart," said New York mother Cecilia Ponte, whose two children were among millions of preteens counting down to the movie.
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