Revisiting Disney Channel Original Movies: Classic DCOMs Part I

Thursday, September 17, 2020 - 10:53am

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Design by Samuel Turner

Last spring, the Daily Film beat was inspired by the doldrums of quarantine and the introduction of Disney+ to watch and review a number of Disney Channel Original Movies — DCOMs for short. There are many ways to look at DCOMs — as relics of the 2000s, as problematic attempts at representation, as textbook examples of the power of nostalgia — but there is no denying that they are somewhat trivial in the grand scheme of things.

If we’re being honest, it’s been a while since quarantine has felt truly idle: Between the pandemic, protests and politics, the world feels as though it is unraveling. It can feel odd to talk about something as inconsequential as DCOMs when these past few months have been difficult for everyone in different ways, and we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that. That said, there is a difference between reprieve and perpetuating ignorance. If you choose to go on this DCOM journey with us, we ask that you keep this in mind.

For us at the Daily Film beat, DCOMs were a big part of our childhoods. The Disney Channel has long been a staple of children’s entertainment, churning out hit TV shows, family-friendly pop stars and their beloved original movies. Over 100 original DCOMs have aired on Disney Channel since the DCOM banner began in 1997, raking in millions of viewers with each film. As a beat, we’ve decided to watch and review a number of these films, whether they’re musicals, classics or generally unknown. We all know that these aren’t exactly high-concept — despite their charm, most DCOMs are incredibly low-budget, filmed cheaply in Canada with unseasoned child actors and awkward dialogue. So instead, our reviews are based on how much we enjoyed the film in the context of it being a 90-minute TV movie made for kids. We’re also aware that these reviews are particularly biased, fueled by nostalgia for the films, actors and music that defined our childhoods.

The first installment of this series will cover the first set of what we’re calling “Classic DCOMs” — well-known DCOMs that reached a wide audience through high viewer ratings and perpetual re-airings. Many of these DCOMs feature Disney Channel stars, killer 2000s soundtracks and iconic aesthetics. As you join us for this joyride of nostalgia and charmingly low quality, we only have one thing left to say:

“Hi, we’re the Film beat, and you’re watching Disney Channel.”

— Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer

 

“Halloweentown” (1998)

Disney Channel in October was always an experience — fun, Halloween-themed movies playing every day of the month and new Halloween episodes of “Hannah Montana” and “Wizards of Waverly Place” on Sunday nights. What more could an eight-year-old ask for? Obviously, the only thing better than a month of Disney Halloween is to create a universe where Halloween is through the whole year; enter, “Halloweentown.” Released in 1998, the film is the first installment of four in which we meet the Pipers: Marnie (Kimberly J. Brown, “Quints”), Dylan (Joey Zimmerman, “Treehouse Hostage”) and Sophie (Emily Roeske, “Fell’s Redeemer”). The film also introduces their mother Gwen (Judith Hoag, “Forever My Girl”) and grandmother Aggie (Debbie Reynolds, “Singin’ in the Rain”). For Marnie and her siblings, the magic of Halloween is marred by the fact that their mother refuses to let them enjoy the holiday to the fullest, a tragedy for anyone who understands the joys of trick-or-treating. As the film progresses, the audience learns about Halloweentown, a world of warlocks, witches, trolls and other fantastical creatures. “Halloweentown” is one of the more impressive DCOM franchises, second only to “High School Musical.” The first film addresses how well we really know our parents. As 10-year-olds, we’ve really only been alive for a third of our parents’ lives, a fact that becomes increasingly clear when Marnie learns of her mother’s witchy history. On top of that, the films successfully create a whole other dimension with social issues that parallel those of the real world (for example, the prejudice towards “mortals”), all while maintaining that signature Disney pluck. ☆☆☆

— Emma Chang, Daily Arts Writer

 

“Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century” (1999)

“Zenon” is arguably one of the most iconic DCOMs, with its neon color palette and costumes that gave millennials a nostalgic love of holographic outfits. The film is set in 2049 on a private space station that Zenon Kar (Kirsten Storms, “General Hospital”) has called home for eight years. Despite growing up in space, Zenon is basically a normal 13-year-old girl: curious and unapologetic, with boy band posters in her room and a vocabulary of unique slang terms (like “Zetus Lapetus” or “lunarious”). Clashes with the station’s rules lead to Zenon getting “grounded” — sent to live on Earth with her slightly agoraphobic Aunt Judy (Holly Fulger, “Anything But Love”). Adapting to life on Earth is not easy for Zenon, whether it’s understanding money, learning how to ride a bike or making friends. To make it harder, it’s suddenly up to her to save the space station and everyone on it. “Zenon” has a predictability to it, but it’s unique in terms of creative worldbuilding. It’s fun to see the idea of 2049 from a 1999 point of view: The tech gadgets are advanced but the rock stars still have frosted tips. The movie inspired two sequels, making it one of Disney Channel’s first franchises, and features Raven-Symoné (“That’s So Raven”) at the beginning of a long Disney Channel career. And while “Zenon” may inspire some questions — are all of the cars in 2049 Volkswagen Bugs? Did they really give a Northwestern University astronomy professor an unacknowledged cameo? How do I pull off a high side-ponytail like Zenon? — you can’t deny that this film is, as Zenon might say, totally lunarious. ☆☆☆☆½ 

— Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer

 

Smart House (1999) 

“Smart” technology, beginning with the smartphone, has certainly changed the way we go about life — there’s little that isn’t documented through the help of an iPhone camera, and with the rise of technology like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google Home, the idea of a smart house is no longer just a cheesy 1999 Disney movie, but rather our reality. In “Smart House,” technology and the way characters interact with it are surprisingly similar to today, regardless of the fact that “Smart House” is over two decades old. Ryan Merriman (“The Luck of the Irish”) plays Ben, a teenager desperate to make sure his family doesn’t forget their late mother, mainly by preventing his dad from ever meeting someone new. Part of this plan involves winning, and moving into, a “smart” house. And, at first, it seems to work — Pat, much like Siri or Alexa, is programmed to respond to whatever the family asks of her. Whether it’s finishing up homework or making a snack, this smart house can do it. What’s interesting is the warning that Disney gives regarding our reliance on technology. Ben programs the house to act as a surrogate mother, not realizing the detrimental effects this may have on his life. Expecting a computer to behave like a human is a dangerous idea with which many science-fiction authors have grappled. In spite of the fact that it instills a fear of technology, Disney’s “Smart House” deserves much praise, if only because the dad (Kevin Kilner, “A Cinderella Story”) is beautiful. ☆☆☆☆

— Emma Chang, Daily Arts Writer

 

“Johnny Tsunami” (1999)

“Johnny Tsunami” is one of the best, most literal takes on the DCOM fish-out-of-water story, centering Johnny Kapahaala (Brandon Baker, “One World”), who was born and raised in Hawaii. His grandfather Johnny Tsunami (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, “The Last Emperor”) is a legendary surfer and has been teaching Johnny to surf his entire life. The Kapahaala family isn’t always on the same page: Johnny’s father Pete (Yuji Okumoto, “The Karate Kid Part II”) has a troubled relationship with his father that extends to his relationship with Johnny, while Johnny’s mother Melanie (Mary Page Keller, “Duet”) tries to keep the peace. When the family moves to Vermont for Pete’s job, Johnny is forced to adapt, leaving Hawaii, surfing and his grandfather behind. He gets involved with winter sports, but finds himself in the middle of a bizarre turf war between private school and public school kids: Private school kids, known as Skies, are skiers, while public school kids, known as Urchins, are snowboarders. Even with the strange socio-economic undertones (did the public school kids really have to be called urchins?), it’s a status quo that’s itching to be broken. Despite going to private school, Johnny becomes friends with Sam (Lee Thompson Young, “The Famous Jett Jackson”), an Urchin who teaches him how to snowboard.  Together, they dare to break the mold, hoping to unite the mountain in the process. “Johnny Tsunami” can be cheesy at times, but it’s generally delightful. It’s a wholesome movie about taking on challenges and being yourself, as well as a beautiful mix of surfing and snowboarding montages that make me miss the beach and the mountains at the same time. ☆☆☆☆ 

— Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer

 

“Luck of the Irish” (2001)

The plotline of “Luck of the Irish” is bonkers: 15-year-old Kyle (Ryan Merriman, “Smart House”) discovers that he’s half-leprechaun after losing a family good luck charm. Kyle is a relatively popular basketball player with a lucky streak, so he finds it distressing when he starts having bad luck, as well as getting shorter and occasionally slipping into an Irish accent — all side effects of losing the lucky charm. He then has to work with his family and friends to get the charm back from a zany and maniacal villain (Timothy Omundson, “Psych”), a struggle that concludes with a bizarre Irish sports tournament. “Luck of the Irish” is occasionally hilarious, sometimes when the writers are trying to be funny and sometimes when they really aren’t. The writing is often awkward, and the strong Irish accents are impossible to take seriously. It’s a fascinating amalgamation that doesn’t always work — part fantasy and part sports movie, with a dash of Irish step-dancing and a strong through-line about heritage that essentially (and disappointingly) ends with “we’re all American.” It’s interesting to see where Disney tries to broach the idea of discrimination with a very brief discussion of anti-Irish sentiments in the 1800s, but it’s almost as interesting to wonder why so many people are invested in junior high school basketball. “Luck of the Irish” is such a weird film, but it’s fun enough to deserve some credit. ☆☆½

— Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer

 

“Get a Clue” (2002)

This Lindsay Lohan (“The Parent Trap”) vehicle is something like “Clueless” meets “Nancy Drew,” where a group of wealthy Manhattan kids investigate the disappearance of a missing teacher. Lexy Gold (Lohan) has an expert knowledge of expensive fashion and an advice/gossip column that she writes for the school newspaper. Her best friend Jen (Brenda Song, “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody”) shares her love of fashion, and they both wear incredibly 2000s outfits — think pink fur and crimped hair. After a teacher goes missing, Lexy and Jen team up with classmates Jack (Bug Hall, “The Little Rascals”) and Gabe (Ali Mukadam, “Radio Free Roscoe”) to look into it. Jack, who’s the editor of the school paper, is a classic DCOM boy — smart, empathetic and too good to be true — but they work well as a team. “Get a Clue” is certainly engaging: There are spy gadgets, criminals on the run and a bunch of thirteen-year-olds spying on their teacher doing jazzercise. Despite the sneaky music that might be playing in the background, the kids prove to be horrible spies. Still, somehow they’re able to wrap the case up, and in the end you’re left to enjoy a killer theme song, a glimpse of a gold metallic paisley-print shirt and a pretty decent mystery. ☆☆☆½

— Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer

 

“Cadet Kelly” (2002)

“Cadet Kelly” is an example of Disney Channel recycling content — as my sister put it, they basically took Lizzie McGuire’s entire personality and used it for this movie. Kelly Collins (Hilary Duff, “Lizzie McGuire”) is a perky eighth grader who trades in her bangles and pink clip-in highlights for a military uniform when her mother marries the head of a military school. Kelly is overwhelming, but Duff brings some of her “Lizzie McGuire” charm to balance out her unrealistic personality. Plus it’s interesting, and sometimes entertaining, to watch her try to maintain individuality in a place that values uniformity. In some ways the military school is like any school, with crushes, dances and rivalries — Kelly quickly starts a rivalry with Cadet Captain Jennifer Stone (Christy Carlson Romano, “Even Stevens”). And of course there has to be a love interest: Brad (Shawn Ashmore, “X-Men”), a Cadet Major who is uncomfortably old and not particularly attractive. As my sister said, “If they just took this man out of it, it would be perfect.” Perfect might be a bit strong, but it would definitely be better. “Cadet Kelly” is salvaged by a plot about the drill team, which features synchronized rifle sequences and adds stakes to an otherwise frivolous film. The last 20 minutes is the film’s peak, with flashy rifle routines, a wholesome relationship between Kelly and her stepdad (Gary Cole, “Dodgeball”) and an iconic dance with Kelly and Jennifer. “Cadet Kelly” isn’t horrible, but it’s even better in context, probably best enjoyed in the early 2000s by 13-year-old “Lizzie McGuire” fans. ☆☆

— Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer

 

Stuck in the Suburbs (2004)

Of all of the DCOMs on this list, I’ve been most excited to watch this film for one reason: young, pre-“SNL” Taran Killam (“Saturday Night Live”) as a 2000s pop star. Killam’s Jordan Cahill is an off-brand Jesse McCartney with screaming female fans, unoriginal pop songs and hair I can only describe as Keith Urban-esque. Brittany Aarons (Danielle Panabaker, “Sky High”) is a Jordan fan whose boredom with the suburbs motivates a friendship with Natasha (Brenda Song, “The Social Network”), a spunky and nonconformist new girl. When a series of unlikely circumstances leads to Brittany and Jordan’s cell phones getting swapped, Brittany and Natasha start intervening in Jordan’s life. The meddling is morally questionable, but getting a hairdresser to chop off his Keith Urban mane did make the film more bearable (he still had frosted tips, but it was better). Surprisingly, Jordan welcomes the changes and starts to rebel against his image. The film is an interesting take on the music industry, where you see how pop stars get trapped in a brand. Jordan may look like a 2000s pop icon stock photo, but Brittany and Natasha learn that he’s actually a polite and thoughtful person who lost his sense of identity in his rise to fame. “Stuck in the Suburbs” finds something very sweet in a world of ancient cell phones, identical suburban houses and an original soundtrack of fake 2000s pop songs. ☆☆☆☆

— Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer