Revisiting Disney Channel Original Movies: Musicals

Thursday, December 3, 2020 - 3:42pm

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Design by Samuel Turner

Welcome to the final installment of the film beat’s exploration into Disney Channel Original Movies, or DCOMs for short. Last time, we finished our journey through some of the more obscure DCOMs. This week, we’ve saved the best for last: the musicals.

From the early 2000s on, Disney Channel began converting some of their charming Disney Channel Original Movies into charming Disney Channel Original Musicals, creating hit soundtracks that kids could purchase and listen to on repeat. It’s a move that arguably revolutionized the movie musical game, and a move that revitalized DCOMs as must-see, iconic films for everyone who grew up in the 2000s. Let’s never forget the summer of 2007, where any mention of the word “time” or “summer” could cause a group of kids to break into a chorus of “What Time Is It” from “High School Musical 2” — “HSM 2” was, after all, watched by 17.2 million people on the night it premiered, shattering Disney Channel and TV viewing records alike.

At some point, Disney Channel must’ve realized that they could go beyond being a children’s television powerhouse and foray into the world of pop music — this was around the time that Disney Channel started encouraging all of their TV stars to pursue music careers as well. The result is a number of musicals with bright costumes, flashy dance numbers, sequels (a lot of sequels) and, of course, delightfully nostalgic songs. DCOM Musicals have a lot of songs that are absolute earworms — but they’re all kind of incredible, even when some of them are kind of bad.

I know it’s contradictory. But if we’ve learned anything from this series, it’s that DCOMs are perfectly paradoxical: deeply flawed and perfectly delightful, terribly made and incredibly enjoyable. The reality is that when we decided to start this series and watch all of these films again, we jumped at the opportunity. We knew that no matter which film we were watching, we’d be watching it with a smile — perhaps a pained smile, or maybe a genuine one, depending on the DCOM. But still, we’d be smiling. And isn’t that all you can really ask for?

So thank you for joining us on this journey through DCOMs, whether they were memorable, unknown, terrible or iconic. And now, there’s only one thing left to say:

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

— Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer

“The Cheetah Girls” (2003)

While “The Cheetah Girls” may not be the most realistic DCOM ever — though I’m not sure if there is a DCOM that could fairly take that title — that doesn’t stop it from being groundbreaking in its own way. The film follows four girls, The Cheetah Girls, in their attempt to rise to superstardom, but it wouldn’t be a DCOM if there wasn’t some drama. As Galleria (Raven Symone, “That’s So Raven”) begins to choose fame over friendship, The Cheetah Girls start to crumble. It’s not the most realistic or unique plot ever, sure, but somehow the movie still captures your attention and makes you feel like a kid again with the friendships and songs that it features. However, the movie isn’t all catchy songs and 2000s fashion, hair and slang; it actually touches on important topics, something that many newer DCOMs shy away from. Galleria is biracial; Chanel (Adrienne Bailon, “Coach Carter”) is the child of a single mother; Aqua (Kiely Williams, “The House Bunny”) is Southern, sassy and unafraid to speak her mind; and Dorinda (Sabrina Bryan, “The Next Dance”) is a foster child. Somehow the movie is able to add those important undertones of real-world drama to an otherwise unrealistic movie. I think it’s safe to say that The Cheetah Girls embodied diversity and “Girl Power” for modern audiences. ☆☆☆☆

— Sabriya Imami, Daily Arts Writer

“High School Musical” (2006)

I don’t remember the first time that I saw “High School Musical.” In a lot of ways, it feels like one of those movies that I don’t remember life before it existed. It may not have been the first DCOM, but it is the DCOM. The quintessential Disney Channel Original Movie that everyone has seen, everyone has sung along to and everyone loves. It’s the only DCOM that has had such an impact that, not only did Disney make two sequels, but they also made a spinoff movie (“Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure”) and a TV show (“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”) following it. Everyone knows the story: Troy (Zac Efron, “The Greatest Showman”) is captain of the basketball team, and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens, “The Princess Switch”) is the smart new girl at school. Even though they’re from different cliques, they fall in love. With songs like “Getcha Head in the Game,” “Breaking Free” and “We’re All in This Together,” “High School Musical” set the stage for Disney’s amazing and fun musicals. There are many questions about “High School Musical” that remain unanswered, like how did Troy not notice that Chad (Corbin Bleu, “Galaxy Quest”) and the basketball team had set up a webcam for Gabriella to see what Troy was saying about her? Why did no one find it weird that siblings Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale, “Scary Movie V”) and Ryan (Lucas Grabeel, “Switched at Birth”) played the romantic leads in a bunch of school plays together? Will “Bop to the Top” ever not be a bop? (Actually, I know the answer to that one. It will always, always be a bop). Admittedly, like most DCOMs, the movie is a little cringe-worthy, but it’s iconic in a way that very few films are. ☆☆☆☆½

— Sabriya Imami, Daily Arts Writer

“Camp Rock” (2008)

When I think about “Camp Rock,” perhaps the most important film of my childhood, it’s the little things I remember most fondly — Caitlyn’s (Alyson Stoner, “Step Up: All In”) unforgettable piano solo, the food fight involving completely dry spaghetti, Shane’s (Joe Jonas, “Jonas”) just a smidge too tight skinny jeans. But Mitchie (Demi Lovato, “Sonny with a Chance”) is unquestionably the star of the show, the heart of the film. After a lot of convincing, Mitchie persuades her mom Connie (Maria Canals-Barrera, “Wizards of Waverly Place”) to let her attend Camp Rock, a performing arts summer camp meant for teens destined for stardom in the entertainment industry. However, her participation is contingent on one condition: Mitchie must help her mom in the kitchen, as it’s Connie’s job as a cook that allows Mitchie to afford the camp. Confronted with Camp Rock’s often unwelcoming and elitist culture, spearheaded by resident popular girl Tess (Meaghan Martin, “Mean Girls 2”) and the snobbish yet sensitive Shane, Mitchie is compelled to lie to the rest of the campers about her true origins. To say anymore would spoil the story, but you can rest assured that “Camp Rock” is jam-packed with romance, character growth, truly unforgettable musical numbers and some surprisingly nuanced statements about class. Sure, it’s no “High School Musical,” but I love it for that. Unlike “High School Musical,” “Camp Rock” is no ensemble piece, which allows it to invest more energy in developing Mitchie, a character I looked up to as a girl more than any other DCOM star. She’s an imperfect, immature Disney Channel heroine who makes stupid choices that are simultaneously completely understandable. Her faults, and consequently her humanness, make “Camp Rock” a DCOM that is fun and heartwarming without sacrificing relatability. ☆☆☆☆½

— Elise Godfryd, Senior Arts Editor

“Lemonade Mouth” (2011)

“Lemonade Mouth” encompasses everything that makes a DCOM a DCOM. It has a somewhat unbelievable plot, killer songs and a ragtag group of kids that defeats the odds. The band Lemonade Mouth consists of five high school students who find each other and make a band despite the school’s authority figures fighting against them. To be completely candid, the very Disney trope of high school students creating bands or becoming famous singers is next to impossible as realism goes, but it’s still an entertaining plot that never gets old. With a stellar cast including Naomi Scott (“Power Rangers”) before she was Princess Jasmine in “Aladdin” and Hayley Kiyoko (“Insidious 3”) before she became famous, this movie, well, hits all the right notes. And “Lemonade Mouth” is especially amazing because it combines a fun musical plot with the message of questioning authority. I don’t think that was necessarily Disney’s intent, but the older you get, the more that message comes across. All the songs also contribute to a greater, more important message: “She’s So Gone” is a female empowerment anthem like no other, “More Than a Band” shines a light on the importance of friendship and the iconic song and rap “Determinate” reminds listeners to “push until you can’t and then demand more.” What better message than that? ☆☆☆☆½

— Sabriya Imami, Daily Arts Writer

“Teen Beach Movie” (2013)

I first saw “Teen Beach Movie” the summer it came out, when I was 13 and probably too old to be watching Disney Channel, and then proceeded to watch it over and over again. For those of you who were too old for Disney Channel in 2013, “Teen Beach Movie” follows surfers Brady (Ross Lynch, “Austin & Ally”) and Mack (Maia Mitchell, “The Fosters”) as they find themselves in a 1960s beach movie, “Wet Side Story” (get it?). And not in the movie, as in acting in it, but in the movie, as in playing out plots and musical numbers as if they were reality. Sure, it sounds ridiculous, but somewhere in a world of ditzy movie characters, a glowing surfboard of destiny and the best 1960s-era costume design I’ve ever seen, Disney struck gold with this delightful DCOM. Crucially, it’s got incredible choreography to match an incredible soundtrack, enough that I actually bought a few of the songs on iTunes — a big deal in 2013, at a time when every iTunes purchase required thorough deliberation beforehand. It helps that the characters are likable (which is not a given in most DCOMs) and carry a surprising amount of emotional depth, not to mention that Mack and Brady’s attitudes about gender equality give the film a delightful level of feminist critique and anti-toxic masculinity sentiment. Plus the actors make the film particularly special: watching a Disney-era Lynch infuse his character with unbridled enthusiasm or reveling in the near-debut of the ever-adorable Jordan Fisher (“To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You”) is a whole different experience in 2020. Don’t get me wrong, “Teen Beach Movie” is incredibly campy — with wacky villains, silly comedic bits, bonkers accents and flashy musical numbers — but it’s all explained away by the fact that it’s part of a 1960s beach movie. It’s a brilliant move that gives the film a chance to be silly and showy while giving it a failsafe as to why, a tactic that only makes it more enjoyable to watch, and boy oh boy is it enjoyable to watch. The film gets to a point where it’s impossible to tell whether the dialogue is stupid or comedic genius. I’m going to go with comedic genius. ☆☆☆☆☆

— Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer

“Descendants” (2015)

“Descendants” is probably the most ‘Disney’ of all the DCOMs due to the fact that its plot centers around classic Disney heroes and villains. The story follows the daughter of Maleficent, Mal, (Dove Cameron, “Liv and Maddie”) and her fellow villain-children friends as they try to steal the Fairy Godmother’s wand in Auradon, the land of all the princes and princesses. This movie is full of callbacks to older Disney films, some of which are great and some of which are forced or bad. For instance, “Descendants” features a rendition of “Be Our Guest” that is part-song, part-rap and all bad; it’s so terrible that I had honestly blocked it out of my memory. Some of the songs in this film are fun though, even if they aren’t necessarily great, like “Rotten to the Core.” (True story: my younger brother learned how to spell the word ‘ridiculous’ because of the song “Did I Mention,” which is the perfect blend of weird and fun). While “Descendants” doesn’t have the most original or interesting story and doesn’t have quality graphics or visuals, there are some parts of it that draw you in, like Kristin Chenoweth’s (“Bewitched”) portrayal of Maleficent. It’s absurd to see this Broadway actress sing a song called “Evil Like Me,” to say the least. With its classic Disney movie references, mixed bag of good and bad songs and characters learning to find who they are, “Descendants” is exactly the kind of DCOM you would expect it to be. ☆☆☆

— Sabriya Imami, Daily Arts Writer


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