Revisiting Disney Channel Original Movies: Obscure DCOMs Part II

Thursday, October 29, 2020 - 2:30pm

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Design by Samuel Turner

Welcome back to the Film Beat’s series on Disney Channel Original Movies, or DCOMs for short. This week, we’re continuing to talk about lesser-known DCOMs: The DCOMs that didn’t gain as much traction in the 2000s and so aren’t as well known.

These unknown DCOMs aren’t always terrible — but many of them aren’t good either. So many DCOMs fit in a very specific range of wild plots, terrible writing and touchy-feely morals that make for movies that are terrible and wonderful at the same time. Most of the obscure DCOMs are ones that put you right in the middle of a love-hate relationship: It’s the mindless, half-baked DCOM plots that you love, paired with the mindless, terrible DCOM writing that you hate. This week’s obscure DCOMs aren’t winners, but by riding a wave of nostalgia — for the actors, the clothes or the songs — they’re charming all the same. (Some of the summaries below may contain spoilers.)

Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer

 

“Pixel Perfect” (2004)

Fame is something we all think about it — some of us crave it and others may shy away, but there’s no denying its alluring nature. In Disney Channel’s “Pixel Perfect,” we follow Roscoe (Ricky Ullman, “Phil of the Future), Sam (Leah Pipes, “A Beauty and the Beast Christmas”) and Sam’s band, the Zetta Bytes, as they rise to stardom, with the help of Roscoe’s computer generated super star, Loretta Modern (Spencer Modern, “Look”). Despite its innocent premise, “Pixel Perfect” deals with some pretty heavy themes. Consider, first, what it means to be a celebrity in the first place. The film opens with the Zetta Bytes bombing an audition for a producer because they don’t have the “It” factor that we see in girls like Britney or, in 2020, Charli. There’s a certain tension created when a powerhouse like Disney scrutinizes this cookie cutter definition of fame — Disney Channel stars are notorious for a specific image that leads to their success in the business. And Roscoe’s ability to successfully generate this image in his lead singer, simply by analyzing the qualities of famous performers at the time, questions the nature of the very stardom Disney is known to create. It’s reminiscent of Miley Cyrus’s 2019 “Black Mirror” episode — or, rather, the “Black Mirror” episode evokes many of the themes explored in “Pixel Perfect.” On a more technological note, “Pixel Perfect” also contends with the moral ambiguities of artificial intelligence. Who is Loretta Modern? For much of the film, she is as real as Sam or Roscoe — that is, until she disintegrates when she sticks her hand out of the browser window. And though she isn’t exactly a person, the question of her identity comes to a head when it’s revealed that a large production company wants to manufacture more holographic pop stars. And so, with its neat, hour-and-a-half package of societal critique, “Pixel Perfect” reveals itself as a hidden gem among the DCOMs from the early 2000s. ☆☆☆☆

Emma Chang, Daily Arts Writer

 

“Tiger Cruise” (2004)

Most DCOMs are silly, fun stories with vapid plots. “Tiger Cruise,” however, takes a more ambitious concept: A Navy aircraft carrier’s annual “tiger cruise” (where family members can join their military parents, children or siblings) is disrupted when the September 11 attacks occur while they’re at sea. Talking about sensitive topics like terrorism isn’t really what Disney is known for; that said, Disney Channel somehow pulled this one off without being too heavy-handed, and it’s the most poignant DCOM I’ve seen yet. The film follows Maddie (Hayden Panettiere, “Heroes”), a Navy brat with perfect blonde curls who is visiting her father (Bill Pullman, “Independence Day”) on this year’s tiger cruise (but don’t call her a brat or she will roll her eyes with the intensity that only teenage bitterness can bring). Whether Maddie is making friends with other “tigers” or trying to process 9/11’s devastation from 500 miles off the American coast, the film is a fascinating exploration of emotion for the kids and adults alike — resentment, enthusiasm and sheer uncertainty. Even if it uses a lot of obvious green screen — renting an entire aircraft carrier at sea was out of Disney Channel’s price range — “Tiger Cruise” features some solid acting from the early days of Panettiere, who delivers guilt trips and teenage angst with ease. As a bonus, there’s even a fleeting glimpse of a very young Jeanette McCurdy (“iCarly”). Sure, the film is blatantly pro-military in a way that is occasionally tacky — the movie’s slogan (“Maddie wanted a father. She found a hero.”) is about as bad as it gets — but for the most part it comes from a genuine place. To its credit, “Tiger Cruise” takes a pretty tricky topic and does its best to put it in a form that’s digestible for the children of the early 2000s, and the result is something that’s worth paying attention to.☆☆☆☆

Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer

 

“Now You See It…” (2005)

Some DCOMs make me laugh when I realize that someone got paid to write them, and if I’m being honest, “Now You See It…” is one of them. Allyson Miller (Aly Michalka, “Cow Belles”) is an aspiring teenage producer who gets to work on a reality show for kid magicians. Things get more complicated when she begins to suspect that her contestant, Danny Sinclair (Johnny Pacar, “Make It or Break It”), might not just be a trickster but have — gasp — actual magic powers? It’s the kind of wacky plot that shouldn’t work and … doesn’t, but somehow makes up for it with sheer DCOM charm. Allyson is likeable but comes across as so, so intense, though it’s difficult to tell if that’s a result of Michalka’s acting or the terrible writing — lines like “I’d love it if kids my own age could actually relate to me” don’t make her seem more normal. “Now You See It…” is a time capsule for 2005, with the clothes (the LAYERS), leather necklaces and stringy hairstyles that bring me back to watching TV as a kid — plus Michalka’s cover of Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic” that I remember seeing all over Disney Channel after this movie came out. In the end, “Now You See It…” is inane, mindless fun, with dramatic walk-away lines that are completely nonsensical and special effects that are just a cartoon magician’s hat swirling across the screen (I am not joking). Yet somehow this goofy, absurd film started to grow on me. Maybe that’s the real magic.☆☆☆

Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer

 

“Dadnapped” (2009)

“Dadnapped” is a strange paradox because it simultaneously feels like a non-DCOM movie and an incredibly DCOM-esque film. On the one hand, I can imagine a low-budget, non-Disney production company coming up with the same idea and making it a bit less of a feel-good film, with a little more suspense and violence. On the other hand, the after-school special themes of family and learning about yourself are so predictably Disney that I’m not even a little bit surprised that this is a DCOM. The film follows Melissa (Emily Osment, “Hannah Montana”), the daughter of a famous writer. Her father Neal (George Newbern, “Scandal”) is kidnapped first for fun by superfans Wheeze (David Henrie, “Wizards of Waverly Place”), Sheldon (Denzel Whitaker, “Black Panther”) and Andre (Moises Arias, “Hannah Montana”) and then for real alongside Melissa by wannabe writer Skunk (Charles Halford, “Constantine”) and his brother Maurice (Phill Lewis, “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody”), so that Neal can help Skunk write a better story. While Wheeze, Sheldon and Andre try to rescue the two, Melissa also tries to save herself and her father, with her father’s fictional character Trip Zoome (Jonathan Keltz, “Entourage”) following Melissa around in her mind. By the end, she ‘learns to trust herself’ and ‘not compare herself to others’ and everything else you need to make a DCOM. It’s more than a little bizarre, but with Emily Osment’s song “Hero in Me” playing and exciting scenes like the one where the kids set up a bunch of pranks, it is a fun watch. Could it be better? Definitely. But altogether, it’s definitely not the worst movie on this list. The very-Disney cast combined with the very-Disney take on the plot somehow work in making this a fun, family-friendly movie. ☆☆☆ ½

Sabriya Imami, Daily Arts Writer

 

“Hatching Pete” (2009)

When I first saw “Hatching Pete” at around ten years old, I didn’t really get the message about breaking out of your shell (get it?). I think I just kind of thought, “Ha ha, funny chicken dancing.” Pete (Jason Dolley, “Good Luck Charlie”) is a shy kid who just can’t get girls to notice him. Cleatus (Mitchell Musso, “Hannah Montana”), his best friend, has the boldness to be the class clown and the school mascot, but he’s allergic to the synthetic feathers on the costume. Total Sisyphean curse. The two friends make a deal that they should say that Cleatus is the mascot while Pete puts on the suit and does whatever mascots do during the basketball games. Pete gets to use his skills from when he took gymnastics (but was teased for it) without being intimidated by the spotlight, and Cleatus gets to make his dad (who literally comes from a long line of mascots because I guess it’s a play on the whole “It’s not my dream, Dad, it’s yours” trope) proud. It’s a win-win until it’s not — Pete learns to put himself out there and Cleatus learns that he should just be himself rather than the chicken. The iconic overgrown-bowl-cut-swoops on the leading men are so evocative of the time that I can ignore the over-the-top acting. The Disney-typical camp feels like a set-up for a “Tim and Eric” skit where somebody gets brutally injured in a car accident or something similarly shocking to offset the weird wholesomeness. Speaking of brutality, I feel like Pete has a Batman poster with the quote: “No one cared who I was until I put on the mask.” I can’t prove it, but this did come out before “The Dark Knight Rises,” so technically it is possible that Christopher Nolan saw this as a villain origin story. Not to harp too much on the brunette, but using the same song twice in “Hatching Pete” in a sad attempt to kickstart Mitchell Musso’s rap career definitely feels like Joker levels of theatricality and misery. Still, he has the charm of the kid who got voted class clown once in third grade and now thinks he’s Jim Carrey — which is to say it’s tolerable and I even laughed once or twice.☆☆☆

Mary Elizabeth Johnson, Daily Arts Writer

 

“Avalon High” (2010)

“Avalon High” is a fever dream — both because it came out in 2010, one of the transition years out of Disney for many of us, and because it’s a children’s movie about the resurrection of King Arthur and Camelot. Starring Britt Robertson’s (“The First Time”) horrendous running technique as Allie Pennington and Gregg Sulkin’s (“Status Update”) questionable American accent as quarterback Will, “Avalon High” is about as close to a period piece as DCOMs get, except for maybe the Zenon series. The film is based on Meg Cabot’s 2005 book of the same name, and while that should tell you all you need to know, there are still things worth pointing out — for instance, Allie’s parents and the fact that they move around at a rate similar to an army family. Given what little experience I have with the nature of studying King Arthur, I don’t know if this is an accurate portrayal of the experience for Allie’s parents, but how volatile is academia, really, for two established professors of King Arthur’s court? Allie’s new class uses a textbook written by her parents, so they’re obviously successful. And yet they continually move throughout the country searching for, what, exactly, Disney? Intrigue for their main character daughter? Speaking of Allie’s new class, her teacher walks around with a cane; again, Disney with the character depth. Despite these odd characteristics, or maybe because of them, “Avalon High” is still one of the more original DCOMs and a solid early credit for Britt Robertson. ☆☆☆½

Emma Chang, Daily Arts Writer

 

“16 Wishes” (2010)

I should begin with a disclaimer: I have such fond childhood memories of “16 Wishes.” The premise is memorable, it perfectly encapsulates the late 2000s/early 2010s aesthetic I associate with my childhood and Jay (Jean-Luc Bilodeau, “Baby Daddy”), the love interest, is very, very cute. All of this makes it so much harder to admit to myself now that “16 Wishes” isn’t just “meh,” it’s a truly terrible DCOM. Debby Ryan (“Jessie”) stars as Abby Jensen, a teenager who has been looking forward to her sixteenth birthday her entire life. When the big day finally arrives, she is given a pack of 16 candles by a mysterious woman named Celeste (who exactly this woman is, or where she comes from, is frustratingly never explained). Each candle corresponds to a wish on Abby’s wish list; when she blows a candle, the corresponding wish on the wish list comes true. The wishes range from relatable (“I’ll have my own bathroom”) to downright cringeworthy (“I’ll like sushi”). Unsurprisingly, Abby learns that, even when all of her wishes come true, her life still isn’t perfect. The things that really matter aren’t material … they’re the people we love. The fact of the matter is that “16 Wishes” is a blatant rip-off of “13 Going on 30” — not only that, it’s painfully dull. Ryan’s character is impossible to like, even if she’s redeemed in the end. I’m struggling to write this blurb because I simply have nothing else to say about it. “16 Wishes” gets one star: half a star for Jay, another half for Abby’s little brother Mike (Cainan Wiebe, “American Horror Story: Hotel”). Keep playing that guitar, Mike — you’ve got a gift.

Elise Godfryd, Senior Arts Editor


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