Revisiting Disney Channel Original Movies: Obscure DCOMs Part III
Welcome back to the Film Beat’s series on Disney Channel Original Movies, or DCOMs for short. This week, we’re finishing up talking about some of the more obscure DCOMs, the ones that slipped out of the public eye.
Now, to be fair, the obscurity of this round of DCOMs is not necessarily due to their lack of star power, but instead to the fact that Disney Channel viewers began to age out of the mix of neon colors and cliche plot lines that is the typical DCOM. That’s not to say that they didn’t have impressive casts — this era of DCOMs continued the tradition of getting as many Disney Channel stars into the film as possible, many of whom are now famous beyond the Disney Channel bubble — but the devoted DCOM watchers of the 2000s had mostly grown up by then. By the time this round of DCOMs aired, between 2011-2014, some of the film beat writers were a little too old (and usually too self-righteous about it) to bring themselves to watch these DCOMs, while others shamelessly watched these films well into their teens.
But being “too old for Disney Channel” at the time these DCOMs came out doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy them now; in fact, I would argue that watching early 2010s DCOMs now makes them even easier to appreciate, or, in some cases, cringe at. As with any group of DCOMs, there’s variety: Some of these films are winners, while others are difficult to watch. Yet this is why we watch DCOMs now — for the sheer nostalgia of the era we grew up in, for the delight of seeing a pre-famous actor getting their big break on a poorly written made-for-TV movie and for the moment of magic when, against all odds, the film exceeds expectations. (Some of the summaries below may contain spoilers.)
— Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer
“Geek Charming” (2011)
Yeah, this one hurts. Not because it’s bad (it is), not because it’s aged so poorly (it has), but because of what I now know about Matt Prokop (“High School Musical 3: Senior Year”). Sarah Hyland (“Modern Family”), Prokop’s “Geek Charming” co-star, revealed in 2014 that Prokop, also her former real-life boyfriend, physically and emotionally abused her over the course of their five-year relationship. Knowing this, when I look at Prokop’s character I can’t see the “geeky” film nerd the movie wants me to see: I see the face of an abuser. When I see Hyland, who plays Dylan, the most popular girl in school who Prokop’s character Josh is making a documentary about (initially with the aim of exposing the vanity and shallowness of the “populars”), I don’t see her either. I see the young woman behind the character, and I wonder about her — how she’s feeling, where her head is, what’s happening to her. The plot isn’t worth writing about: Everything you expect to happen, happens. Josh, through the process of filming Dylan’s life, discovers that she is not as shallow as she appears. Likewise, Dylan discovers that Josh is much more than a film nerd. That’s it. That’s the movie. I know this isn’t a typical “review,” but I don’t want to write a review of a DCOM right now. DCOMs are stupid fun and I love them for that. But the knowledge of what happened behind the scenes of “Geek Charming” strips the movie of any fun it may possess as a movie. It is forever haunted by the horrifying actions of its lead actor. I’m officially ready to say goodbye to this piece of my childhood. There will always be other DCOMs to watch.
— Elise Godfryd, Senior Arts Editor
Ensemble films are the best kind of film — a ragtag, seemingly disconnected cast that somehow crosses paths in the oddest ways possible. Antics ensue, love is ignited and an audience is entertained. The 2012 DCOM “Frenemies,” with Zendaya (“Shake It Up”) and Bella Thorne (“Shake It Up”) in the throes of their Disney Channel careers, is no different from the classic formula. In fact, it’s arguably better. The typical group movie is often set in a large city like Los Angeles or New York — the question of why these people don’t know each other isn’t up for debate. “Frenemies,” however, is set in a high school in a nondescript American town. Why the characters aren’t friends to begin with is a puzzling notion that is only explained by the nuances of the high school social stratosphere. It’s this tension between the familiar and the anonymous that lends the teen characters of “Frenemies” their relatable qualities and makes the film one of the less cringe-inducing DCOMs. Besides, who doesn’t want to watch the early days of Zendaya and Nick Robinson?
— Emma Chang, Daily Arts Writer
“Radio Rebel” (2012)
“Check this out. Vibe it. Really, really dig on it. Then, see how it feels.” It feels … lackluster, honestly. I might be prejudiced because “Radio Rebel” aired when I was 13 years old and just self-important enough to have stopped watching Disney Channel, but even other DCOMS from the 2010s like “Teen Beach Movie” and “Descendants” had more charm than this. Tara (Debby Ryan, “Suite Life on Deck”) is a shy high school student who only feels free to express herself behind the safety of her bedroom walls as her anonymous alter ego, the titular Radio Rebel. Her podcasts push the typical platitudes about rejecting the status quo and being yourself, inspiring her classmates who feel that their school is an Orwellian dystopia for confiscating their headphones and banning music during free periods. Most of the movie is spent trying to keep her identity secret, but when the student-led anti-prom MORP (prom spelled backwards) votes for Radio Rebel as their MORP queen, her secret is revealed. Like Harvey Dent in “The Dark Knight” or the “It’s my vagina” scene in “Sex Education,” one by one, Tara’s peers insist that they’re the real Radio Rebel in order to protect Tara. The authoritarian principal who sought to ban the podcast surrenders her attempt to expel the original Radio Rebel when she realizes that, in the end, we’re all Radio Rebel. Beyond its place as a TikTok sensation, “Radio Rebel” falls flat. If you ask me, stick to the ’00s and the ’90s for all your DCOM needs.
— Mary Elizabeth Johnson, Daily Arts Writer
“Let It Shine” (2012)
“Let It Shine” somehow takes the classic Cyrano de Bergerac plot and slots it into the world of young aspiring hip-hop artists, and the result is, somehow, outstanding. The story follows Cyrus DeBarge (Tyler James Williams, “Everybody Hates Chris”) — get it? — a shy but talented musician who enters a contest to work alongside his childhood friend and big-time pop star Roxie (Coco Jones, “Good Luck Charlie”). His song wins, but after a case of mistaken identity, Cyrus helps his charming best friend Kris (Trevor Jackson, “Grown-ish”) pass off his songs as his own — you know, a classic Cyrano. I have so much to say about this DCOM … A glimpse of a young Chloe x Halle! The slightly odd but intriguing religious undertones! The deep nostalgia that awakened in me after watching the film! But I don’t have a lot of space, so I’m going rapid-fire here. Like a lot of DCOMs, this one flirts with being a musical, but unlike a lot of DCOMs, this film’s soundtrack is … good. Like, the “I’m currently (and only semi-ironically) listening to the music right now” kind of good. The lyrics are honestly beautiful, and the actors are all pretty talented: Coco Jones even won Disney Channel’s Next Big Thing. Do you all remember when Disney Channel had an American Idol-like game show aimed towards aspiring musicians? Because I had forgotten. Sure, some of the dialogue and acting is atrocious, as one would expect, but so much of the film exceeds expectations: The dialogue has some solid jokes and the rap battles have some solid burns. It’s one of the best visually designed DCOMs I’ve seen yet, and, despite the fact that they’re rapping in a DCOM, it doesn’t feel forced. The costumes are 2012 in the best way — sequined jackets, jaunty hats and Roxie’s neon feathers in her hair that are reminiscent of my own foray into hair feathers in 2012. But there’s more. DCOM bullies that are basic caricatures? Most definitely, in the form of an obnoxious rapper named Lord of Da Bling (Brandon Mychal Smith, “Sonny with a Chance”) — and no, that’s not a typo, it’s just a DCOM. Relatable internal conflicts? Of course; Cyrus refers to himself as “wallpaper in a hoodie,” and it hits right in my adolescence. Unattainable boy typical of the DCOM genre? Yes ma’am, because a boy who is as cute, musically talented, intelligent, cultured and kind as Cyrus does not exist. Dramatic revelations in song? You bet. And it all ends with a toe-tapping, hip-hop-infused finale. Incredible stuff.
— Kari Anderson, Daily Arts Writer
“Girl vs. Monster” (2012)
“Girl vs. Monster” is Disney’s foray back into the Halloween-themed movie genre after a short hiatus, and in all honesty, it isn’t as bad as you would expect. It follows Skylar (Olivia Holt, “Kickin’ It”) as she realizes that her parents are monster hunters — admittedly, Danny Phantom’s parents do it better, sorry Disney — and that she has accidentally unleashed a monster whose singular goal is to possess Skylar, or something like that. Weird? Yes. But it is a Halloween movie, so I think the weirdness can get a pass this time. The movie is full of very Disney, very cringy moments, like Skylar and her friends “learning to face their fears,” by asking people out on dates and spelling words correctly (I’m not joking at all). Plus Katherine McNamara (“Shadowhunters”) stars as the token mean girl and has a moment in the spotlight singing a sort of grunge-rock version of one of Skylar’s songs … which is very interesting and more than a little strange. There are some great songs in this movie like “Had Me @ Hello” that have gone unappreciated compared to bigger, “better” DCOM songs but are really good when you give them a chance. This movie isn’t exactly a home run in terms of quality — the DCOM-level graphics are terrible and the green screen use is pathetically obvious — but it is a fun, lighthearted Halloween movie that’s definitely not as scary as some others. If you’re the kind of person who can’t handle real scary movies, give “Girl vs. Monster” a shot. The plot might not scare you, but the Disney CGI probably will.
— Sabriya Imami, Daily Arts Writer
“Cloud 9” (2014)
Remember “Brink,” the DCOM about a ’90s in-line skater who had to find himself through skating? Take that DCOM, add some snow and a mountain and turn Brink the in-line skater into Kayla the ambitious snowboarder, and you have “Cloud 9.” There are obviously only so many angles you can take with sports movies — the underdogs finally beat the egotistical sponsored team, or the prodigy comes back, despite injuring themself physically and mentally. All of these tropes come together, if not seamlessly, then at least without glaring potholes in 2014’s “Cloud 9.” Dove Cameron (“Descendants”) plays the charming, albeit a little misguided, Kayla Morgan as she confronts her own ego and where she stands as a boarder and as a person. Meanwhile, Luke Benward (“Minutemen”) is an embarrassed athlete making his return to the sport. It’s a cheesy plot line that we’ve seen before, but I’ll watch anything for Luke Benward. This man went through puberty while on the Disney Channel, and that’s probably one of the funniest reasons to watch “Cloud 9,” especially if it’s preceded by “Minutemen.” Benward goes from a short, nerdy time traveler to an abnormally tall, smooth snowboarder and I have zero complaints.
— Emma Chang, Daily Arts Writer
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