Revisiting Disney Channel Original Movies: Obscure DCOMs Part I
Welcome back to the Film Beat’s series on Disney Channel Original Movies, or DCOMs for short. This week, as we move beyond the Classic DCOMs, we’re heading into the realm of DCOMs that are less well-known.
When you have over 100 original movies, it’s impossible for all of them to be successful. Some of these films didn’t have enough star power to propel them into the DCOM spotlight, and some weren’t given enough screen time to gain traction, and some of them are just plain bad. Whatever the reason, these DCOMs aren’t a part of general public knowledge, except as part of a childhood experience you aren’t totally sure was real, or occasionally resurging as a widespread meme. The Unknowns don’t always have great writing or creative plots — a surprising number of them seem to rotate around unconventional sports — but they have a lot of heart, the way that only a 75-minute TV movie can. The summaries below may contain spoilers
— Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer
I have always wanted to be a skater — whether it was rollerblading or skateboarding, there has always been a certain appeal to rolling down the street on a set of wheels, wind in my hair and mall security huffing behind me as they yelled to get off the property. Skate parks do exist for a reason, though, and 1998’s “Brink” shows that while some cool races can be had on school property, it’s not worth the risk of expulsion if you have a large set of ramps and rails specifically for ripping some cool moves in sunny southern California. “Brink” follows Andy “Brink” Brinker (Erik von Detten, “Toy Story 3”) in his life as a California teen, in-line skating his way through life. And while Venice Beach in 1998 is a far cry from Ann Arbor in 2020, somehow, “Brink” still manages to be relatable. Tension arises with the introduction of a possible skate sponsorship and Brink is forced to make a decision — sell out and help his family through hard times or stick to his soul and his roots and skate for the love of skating? It’s a classic Disney conflict, at least when friendship is on the line instead of a relationship. Unsurprisingly, the film comes to a head at a large skating competition. And with the encouragement of a faceless announcer, the audience watches as Brink and his underdog team win the competition and Brink is faced with another tempting skate sponsorship. But, because everyone loves good character development, he turns it down, embracing his love of skating. Tear-jerking. ☆☆☆
— Emma Chang, Daily Arts Writer
“The Thirteenth Year” (1999)
I have a faint memory of totally wacky, Met-Gala level campy promos for “The Thirteenth Year”: “Hey kids, what’s the deal with puberty? You think growing body hair is hard? Try growing fins!” I probably didn’t see this because it was released the year I was born, but I can imagine the corporate fat cats at Disney pitching it like that with cigars hanging halfway out of their mouths. It follows cool-guy Cody as he experiences a series of amphibious growth spurts after his thirteenth birthday, eventually learning that he’s part mermaid with the help of his trusty part-time band nerd, part-time wannabe marine biologist sidekick. I only remember watching it after binging other less-remembered late-90s early-aughts DCOM hits like “Rip Girls,” “Going to the Mat,” or “Now You See It” at 4:00 AM after being scared by Cartoon Network switching over from “Billy and Mandy” to Adult Swim’s “Robot Chicken.” But for what it’s worth, it’s great if that’s the purpose it’s meant to serve. It totally takes advantage of every little kid’s urge to try swimming in a pool with your legs together like a mermaid. Its biggest star is a post-Alanis-Morissette Dave Coulier (It’s like rain on your wedding day, it’s a free ride when you’ve already grown fins that help you beat your middle school arch nemesis on the swim team…) and the acting is stale in a period-typical way, but it’s sweet and mindless and a whale of a time. ☆☆☆
— Mary Elizabeth Johnson, Daily Arts Writer
“The Color of Friendship” (2000)
I never watched “The Color of Friendship” as a kid — maybe I was too young for it (it was released in 2000, the year I was born), maybe Disney Channel didn’t air it often enough for me to get around to watching it, or maybe it just didn’t look interesting to me. But now, watching it for the first time 20 years after its conception, I really, really wish I had. Set in 1977, “The Color of Friendship” tells the true story of young Black pre-teen Piper Dellums (Shadia Simmons, “Life with Derek”), who convinces her father, Congressman Ron Dellums (Carl Lumbly, “Supergirl”), to let her family host a pre-teen girl from South Africa through an exchange problem. Both girls are shocked by each other when they finally meet: Piper assumes the exchange student, being from Africa, should be Black, while the exchange student Mahree (Lindsey Haun, “True Blood”), assumes her host family, with a Congressman father, should be white. Though their early days together in Washington DC are rife with tension and racism on Mahree’s end (Mahree, raised in apartheid South Africa, has been brought up to disparage and condescend to Black people), the two girls grow to love each other in spite of their differences. I loved growing up with DCOMs like “Starstruck,” “High School Musical” and “Camp Rock,” — films which are pure fun and proudly devoid of any real substance. Yet I wish “Color of Friendship” was in the mix, too. It’s not perfect — to avoid talking about racism in our own country, the Disney Channel decided to talk about racism in another, depicting the United States as a counter to South Africa, a country of racial equality and justice (which it most certainly is not). But it is definitely a start. Nuanced, heartfelt and surprisingly relevant 20 years later, “The Color of Friendship” is the kind of DCOM we may not necessarily want, but undeniably need. ☆☆☆☆
— Elise Godfryd, Senior Arts Editor
“Rip Girls” (2000)
With the slight blur of a made-for-TV Disney movie made 20 years ago, “Rip Girls” is a lesson in nostalgia, complete with a teen romance and new friendship. The film follows Sydney (Camilla Belle, “The Mad Whale”) as she returns to Hawaii with her father and stepmother, though “return” may be a strong word for what they’re doing. Soon after their arrival, it’s revealed that the family has to deal with their large property that apparently is up for sale. With the recent uptick in media regarding the pretty appalling US occupation of Hawaii, “Rip Girls” is oddly relevant to 2020. The film highlights the manipulative nature of developers and the importance of understanding the culture and history of native peoples. Though these ideas are more peripheral to the general discovery of self that every 13-year-old Disney star has to go through, they allow the film to have a surprising amount of depth. So, while kids might be focused on the cute love interest, they’re also subtly being told about the questionable nature of capitalism. But, as always, take this idea with a grain of salt because it is, in fact, Disney coming up with this twist. Overall, the plot isn’t great, but I give it an extra star for the added spice of criticizing large real estate developers.☆☆☆
— Emma Chang, Daily Arts Writer
“Motocrossed” is another DCOM that delves into a niche sport — motocross racing in this case. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” the film follows the Carson family, whose life revolves around motocross: Edward Carson (Timothy Carhart, “Thelma and Louise”) coaches his son Andrew (Trevor O’Brien, “Dodgeball”), and their family acts as pit crew. Andrew’s twin Andi (Alana Austin, “A Simple Twist of Fate”) also races, but her dad forbids her from competing, partly because of safety concerns and partly because of sexism. When a friendly race between the twins leads to Andrew getting hurt, Andi has to disguise herself as her brother and race in his place in order to navigate the hypermasculine world of motocross. “Motocrossed” is filled with hijinks, but in the end it’s about breaking the mold. Andi is an excellent female character, a cheerleader who paints her nails and loves NSYNC (very 2001) but is also an unapologetic badass on the track. It’s upsetting that she has to masquerade as a man just to be given a chance, but it’s still nice to watch Andi take her opportunity and run with it. If you can get past some awkward moments and 2000s clothing, it’s great to watch the rest of her competition eat her dust.☆☆☆☆
— Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer
“A Ring of Endless Light” (2002)
As someone who’d read the Madeleine L’Engle novel “A Ring of Endless Light,” I was surprised to see that Disney Channel had adapted it. The original novel is dark, filled with queries around death, depression, suicide and more. So while I wasn’t surprised that they had changed quite a few things, it was a little disappointing to see L’Engle’s poignant take on grief transformed into flimsy DCOM about dolphins. The story revolves around Vicky Austin (Mischa Barton, “The O.C.”), who is spending the summer with her brainiac siblings and ailing grandfather (James Whitmore, “The Shawshank Redemption”). Unlike L’Engle’s introspective protagonist, this Vicky is reduced to a Girl Who Stares Out Windows and Struggles to Live Up to Her Parents’ Expectations. Vicky meets Adam Eddington (Ryan Merriman, “The Luck of the Irish”), a boy who works at a marine biology research center, and reunites with Zachary Gray (Jared Padalecki, “Supernatural”), her troubled ex-boyfriend (we first meet him when he pulls up in a black car with rock music playing, and that’s how we know he’s a bad boy). The only impressive thing about the film is the casting: “A Ring of Endless Light” features Merriman at the height of his DCOM fame, plus Barton a year before “The O.C.” and Padalecki three years before “Supernatural.” The film is filled with a fascinating array of visuals: shoddy special effects, a dolphin giving birth, cute hairstyles with butterfly clips and the highest number of kisses I’ve seen in a DCOM (more than five!), not to mention Adam passionately advocating for marine life and environmental activism. In the end, however, visuals can only do so much — a picture of a sunset with the sound of dolphin squeaks in the background just doesn’t do much to describe human existence.☆☆
— Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer
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