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?