Disney Channel Original Movies: A look back at the Golden Era

cadet_kelly

Image Credit: Everett Collection

I happened to catch the High School Musical spin-off Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure while watching a friend’s kid sister last weekend, and I have to say, once and for all, that I’m totally and completely over Disney Channel Original Movies… and it’s about time. Even toward the end of what I consider the Golden Era of Disney Originals — starting in 1999 with Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century and coming to a screeching halt in 2003 with The Even Stevens Movie – I was probably a little too old to be watching them. I remember joking about the latest cheesy DOMP (Disney Original Motion Picture… I know that’s not what they’re actually called) in Geometry class even while loving every minute of it.

Now, I don’t want to make too many judgments about the current state of Disney Originals — the younger set will probably come to think of the present as their Golden Era one day — but I can’t help but think that they’re not as original as they used to be. I use the word “original” loosely, because part of a DOMP’s charm has always been predictability, but look at some of the most popular recent titles: The Suite Life Movie, Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam, Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie. As with studio movies, there’s a growing number of sequels and more reliance on preexisting franchises; plus, there seem to be fewer movies being produced each year. But it’s completely silly to overthink DOMPs, because they’re meant to be innocent fun. So, in celebration of the genre, here are some memorable DOMPs of the late ’90s and early aughts that Sharpay left me nostalgic for:

STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND; LOCALS ARE NOT AS FRIENDLY AS THEY APPEAR
Cadet Kelly
(2002): Millions of viewers tuned in to see two Disney titans, Hilary Duff (Lizzie McGuire) and Christy Carlson Romano (Even Stevens) square off in this surprisingly unflashy star vehicle. (I remember behind-the-scenes TV spots with Duff and Romano hugging and saying, “We’re best friieeeeennnddddssss” through clenched teeth). Duff plays Kelly, a hippy-dippy Manhattan art school student, content being her freewheeling and expressive self until her mom marries Joe “Sir” Maxwell (played by Gary Cole!), the Commandant of an upstate military school, where Kelly inevitably ends up enrolling against her will. Kelly struggles to temper her free spirit under the strict rule of Cadet Captain Jennifer Stone (Romano) until she discovers an unexpected outlet for her creative energy: drill team. As Disney Channel’s first “blockbuster,” this is a quiet movie with lots of sequences devoted solely to gun-twirling, but it’s refreshing to see a popular DOMP about kids learning a cool new skill rather than about kids trying to get famous.
Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century
(1999): Zedis lapedis, I still love this movie! Kirsten Storms is so much fun as the smart, independent space girl Zenon banished to earth from the space station she calls home. Zenon’s jealous, gravity-bound nemesis Margie steals a number of scenes, and it’s worth another viewing just for all the intergalactic jargon. Ugh, but how lame is Proto Zoa?
Rip Girls
(2000): I re-watched this recently — it’s a lot simpler than I remembered, and the performances are charmingly unpolished, but it’s still one of my favorites. Back when Camilla Belle was still best known as that girl who got bitten by the lizards in the Jurassic Park sequel, she played Sydney Miller, a haole girl returning to her dead mom’s homeland of Hawaii, desperate to fit in. A group of surfer kids accept her almost instantly, but it turns out they have ulterior motives. There’s an epic freak-out toward the end when Sydney confronts the girl who’s supposed to be her best friend; I know someone who can recite the scene verbatim: “Kona? Was he in on it too? I hate you. I hate all of you! I’m going to get off this stupid island and forget any of you existed!” Fun fact: This is the rare DOMP in which the romantic leads actually kiss.
Johnny Tsunami (1999): The inverse of Rip Girls, a Hawaiian surfer boy, played by Brandon Baker (One World!), tries to fit in with a bunch of Vermont ski snobs. Movie Math: Surfing + Skiing = Snowboarding. Duh!
Stepsister from Planet Weird (2000): Okay, so this movie was pretty terrible, but I have to give props to the filmmakers for originality. Megan Larson’s mom meets a weirdo named Cosmo Cola, whose daughter Ariel is smart, pretty, blonde, and gaseous — she and her father come from a planet where everyone is a bubble. Ariel hates having to take solid form on earth and fears the wind because she might, you know, pop. Yeah.

GIRLS CAN DO WHATEVER BOYS CAN DO
Double Teamed
(2002): Perhaps the least convincing pair of identical twins ever — but hey, this is a DOMP! Split-frame technology on the level of The Parent Trap wasn’t in the budget. Still, this true story of Heather and Heidi Burge, twin basketball stars who became pioneers of the WNBA, was way inspirational, and Teal Redmann plays an awesome mean girl.
Right on Track
(2003): In one of the last DOMPs I actually enjoyed, Beverly Mitchell stars as Erica Enders, a girl balancing her social life and her dreams of becoming a junior drag racing champion. I had a hard time seeing Beverly Mitchell as anyone but Lucy Camden, though. Side note: Remember back in the day, when we all used to chat about how Mitchell was actually older than her 7th Heaven big sister, Jessica Biel? Anyway.
Motocrossed
(2001): Andrea Carson cuts her hair and lowers her voice an octave to impersonate her injured brother Andy (convenient!) on the motocross circuit. The best girl-pretending-to-be-a-boy story since Shakespeare in Love.

HORRIFYING TRANSFORMATIONS THAT SYMBOLIZE PUBERTY
The Thirteenth Year (1999): Cody Griffin isn’t like most 13-year-old boys. When his teenage hormones kick in, he starts growing scales and fins and shooting electricity out of his fingers (isn’t that a dangerous power for a merboy to have)? A heartwarming and somewhat creepy tale of growing up, leaving the nest, and of course, being yourself, even if you’re half-boy-half-fish. Dave Coulier, a.k.a. Joey Gladstone and Alanis Morissette’s ex, co-stars as Cody’s adoptive father.
The Luck of the Irish (2001): What’s way less cool but way funnier than being a teen wolf? Being a teen leprechaun! Kyle Johnson, played by DOMP veteran Ryan Merriman, a popular basketball player, starts acting all Irish all of a sudden when he learns he’s half leprechaun. I started feeling all kinds of national pride when Kyle started singing “This Land is Your Land” at the end.
The Other Me (2000): Andrew Lawrence of the Lawrence Brothers goes solo! Kinda. He plays Will Browning, a lazy brat of a kid who clones a perfect version of himself to do all the stuff he doesn’t want to do. Will starts getting jealous when his family seems to like Twoie, the clone, better than they like him. This is really a DOMP classic. There’s a touching moment between Twoie and Will’s grandfather: “Being old — does it hurt?” “Not today.” Awwww.

THE “SERIOUS” ONES
The Color of Friendship
(2000): Usually, I was pretty disappointed when the DOMP of the month turned out to be a serious one with a serious message, but The Color of Friendship rocked! It’s 1977, Mahree is a privileged white girl living in South Africa during apartheid. She goes to Washington, D.C. as an exchange student and FLIPS OUT when she finds out that her host family is black. Like, seriously flips out. But with the help of her host sister Piper, Mahree learns to get past her prejudice and even teaches her host family a lesson or two. I certainly learned!
Tru Confessions (2002): An early dramatic role (many to come!) for Shia LaBeouf, who plays Eddie, a boy with a developmental disability that makes him act childish when nervous. A good mix of humor (“Paparazzi! Paparazzi!”) and touching moments.

There are so many great DOMPs that I can’t possibly mention them all — like the body-swapping Wish Upon a Star, starring Katherine Heigl — so what are some of your favorites? Do you miss the old days of Disney Channel Original Movies, or do you like the new stuff, too?


Comments (223 total) Add your comment
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  • MK

    I can barely think about bowling without getting the “Right down the middle” song from Alley Cats Strike stuck in my head. And I used to have some Erik von Detten issues, so Brink and Escape to Witch Mountain (where he and Elisabeth Moss shoot purple light out of their hands!) are also on my classics list.

    • Mike

      yes. I totally agree with you too. Genius was also good. The kid who skips middle school to go straight to college and does something weird to the ice hockey rink.

    • Liz

      @MK Oh dear, I had some of those issues as well. Never missed a new episode of So Weird.

      • MK

        @Liz — There were so. many. cute. boys. on Disney back then. So Weird, In a Heartbeat . . . that’s my Disney Channel Golden Era right there.

      • Sara

        @MK OMG I loved the show In A Heartbeat. I thought I was the only one. I also loved So Weird – I was just talking to someone about Erik von Detten the other day!

      • Erica

        neither did i lol Erik Von Detton was one of the main reasons i watched that show, haha..i watched an episode on YouTube a few yrs ago and I STILL got scared(was the episode about the building and the drowning of the little boy)..and I was like 20 or 21..lmao How in the world did I wacth this show when i was 11 and NOT have nightmares, HAHA

      • Clair de Lune

        i’m so glad i’m not alone! haha i’m pretty sure Erik was my first crush. and someone below me already said model behavior, that one was classic! don’t look under the bed, smart house, and omg Prota Zoa was TOTALLY NOT LAME

    • Ems

      Apparently we are cut from the same cloth.
      Loved Alley Cats Strike (featuring a young Kaley Cuoco)
      Brink! was on just a couple of weeks ago at midnight and was immediately DVR’d.

      Ever notice that the villian in Brink!/EM crush from EtWM/Spike from Little Giants was on Beauty and the Geek?

    • Elizabeth

      “erik von detten issues:… oh god… that was fantastic!

    • @MK

      I LOVED the Von Detton movies. I can’t tell you how many times I watched Brink!

    • elena

      WAIT–that was elisabeth moss? NO WAY. No way elisabeth moss from mad men was in that escape to witch mountain remake that I would obsessively watch every saturday. No way…

    • melaniek

      OMG every time i go bowling i think of that movie!!! one of the best…besides brink and model behavior of course!

  • Melissa Brown

    I’m in high school and my little sister begged me to watch The Suite Life movie. I knew it wouldn’t be good, but is it wrong to say I was disappointed by the movie? I grew up with Boy Meets World, Kim Possible, Even Stevens, and The Jersey(anyone remember that one?). My friends and I STILL quote Brink and Cadet Kelly. If Nick can bring their classic shows, why can’t Disney do the same? It sure beats the stuff they air now.

    • Mick

      Yea I remember the jersey with mackenzie phillips. I loved the famous jett jackson. Remember the theme song, hes the famous jett jackson.

      • Alyssa

        I just found all these old episodes of Jett Jackson and The Jersey on youtube. I actually wrote a post about that Bug Juice and a few others two weeks ago

      • Melissa

        And what about “Can of Worms”? That was SO creepy!

  • Lizzy

    Let’s not forget SMART HOUSE

    • mikey

      Never forget.

      • Kelcie

        Never, NEVER forget! They’ll re-air it now, and whenever they play the clip of the son dancing with his friends before that house party I feel pity for the kids that don’t know that video footage is from one of the greatest shows on Disney Channel: Disney In Concert. : D

      • Disney

        smart house is still my favorite TV movie, to this day. And I’m 21.

    • Nick T

      YES! With Katey Sagal!! And the one with the boogie men! He scared the crap outta me.

      • vin

        Don’t look under the bed is the one w the buggy man lol great movie!

      • Tori

        AMEN to that I actually came across that movie the other day. Then I remembered how much I loved it!

      • ashley

        Don’t look under the bed scared the crap out of me when I was little! I love all the movies that are being talked about on here. Take the hint Disney!

    • lefty

      One of the best.

    • Julie

      Directed by LeVar Burton!

    • Liz

      I learned how not to fake an appendicitis scare (hint: it’s around front) from Smart House.

    • Marshal

      That movie introduced me to B*Witched “C’est La Vie”

  • Joan

    I didn’t really watch the DOMP, but I have a similar love for an ABC channel movie, “The Great Mom Swap” with Valeri Harper and Sid Cesar…the poor/nerd girl and the rich/popular girl have to switch homes instead of getting suspended, they learn some lessons…blah blah blah, I loved it!

    • ST

      I loved “The Great Mom Swap”! It was based on a book that I also loved.

  • Petrie

    Brink!, Alley Cats Strike, Smart House, Genius, Jett Jackson

    • kt

      AH!!! YES to all of these!!! I love how they’d just recycle the same actors over, and over, and OVER again in all of these movies. That are pure, fantastic cheese, and I miss them!

      • Kelcie

        GENIUS!!! XP I love all those!! Vaguely remember “Alley Cats Strike”, but super good stuff there… : )

    • allie

      loved that right down the middle song from alley cats strike

  • Sarah

    You missed two of my favorites–Brink! and Miracle in Lane 2.

    • allie

      ah yes, miracle in lane 2. back when frankie muniz was likeable

    • Azaria

      No one seems to remember Miracle in Lane 2! It was definitely one of the best that Disney Channel ever did.

  • J.P.

    What about “Pixel Perfect.” That was a good one.

    • Andrew

      “Pixel Perfect” was one of my favorites.

  • Steve

    “My Date with the President’s Daughter” and “H-E-Double Hockey Sticks” were hilarious!!

    • Ems

      anything with Will Friedle!

      • chris

        Yes. Anything with will Friedle is pure gold!

    • vin

      I saw “My Date with the presidents daughter” on DVD @ Target a long time ago.

      • pooh bear

        i know because i act just like the movie i actual went on a date with somebody

      • pooh bear

        it was alaways movie

      • pooh bear

        it was alsome movie

  • Dash

    What “Zoom Zoom zoom make my heart go Boom Boom my super nova girl!” isnt’ the greatest song ever? Haha! I was maybe 12 when Zenon first aired and I loved every second of it.

  • sam

    Don’t look under the bed? UNDER WRAPS?

    THOSE WERE TIGHT.

    • Kelcie

      I know I’m commenting all over this but the fact that some one actually acknowledges that this era exists and that it’s so much better than DCOM’s foolishness now makes me ecstatic! THOSE were awesome! And “Can of Worms” too? Ah! Good stuff!

      • elena

        JUST wanted to say can of worms. that was my favorite alien-related movie before I’d actually seen any of the famous great ones (hello, alien!)

    • pooh bear

      i know it aws the best movie ever

  • Josie

    Motocrossed is pretty much the top of my guilty pleasure list. I’ve watched it about 30 times in my (not so) young life.

  • DT

    Did you manage to miss Lemonade Mouth? It was original, not based on an existing show, and my kids LOVED it.

    • Ems

      Lemonade Mouth is not really “golden era” though probably the best of any in the past 5 years

    • lefty

      It’s also prettttty much a combination of High School Musical and Camp Rock. Wasn’t completely awful though.

    • Julie

      It’s based off a book, actually.

      Definitely really good.

    • Paige

      I loved Lemonade Mouth as much as I used to love any Disney movie when it aired on Disney. Sure, Disney hasn’t released a consistent stream of good movies like they did during “the golden era”, but there have been some good ones. The first Camp Rock was good, as was the Princess Protection Program. My favorite of all is definitely Tru Confessions. It is such a great movie, and I was amazed that Shia could act like that since I was so used to seeing him in Even Stevens.
      But I don’t like how this article doesn’t even acknowledge some really good movies that they have released recently. And the Sharpay movie was released on DVD and then was broadcast as a movie. It’s not really a Disney channel movie, but it’t not a theatrical release either.

  • mikey

    How about a little “Phantom of the Megaplex”? : )

    • Molly

      Oooooooh man. I loved this movie!

    • Julie

      MICKEY ROONEY!

      • allie

        love it!

    • Remy

      YES!

      • Lola

        I miss the old disney original movies they had more sense u can say. I don’t know what they have on now !! I loved the proud family lizzie mcguire and boy meets world and even stevens. Disney should have a channel just dedicated our “Golden Era”!!!

    • caligirl2337

      Phantom of the Megaplex is a favorite. Old Disney, come back to us!

  • Marty

    Yeah go back to the days of Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea and i’d be with ya!

    • Ems

      Those were both Canadian Broadcasting Co. Films… the Avonlea series was disney channel

    • Meg

      Or even slightly before that! Back in the late 80s they made great, quality movies like Goodbye Miss Fourth of July. They were Hallmark Hall of Fame (not Hallmark Channel) types but for younger people.

  • Jessica

    I am totally on board with Wish Upon a Star, Brink and Alley Cats Strike! I might own Alley Cats Strike on VHS. And by might, I mean I do.

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