Friday, August 2, 2013

Jenn's Pick: Top 15 DCOMs (Disney Channel Original Movies)

As I sat sipping on my morning coffee, I was thrown into a tidal wave of nostalgia. Chelsea’s daily #top3 on Twitter yesterday centered around our choice of the top three best DCOMs, or Disney Channel Original Movies. Scrolling through Wikipedia, I realized something: between the years of 1997 and 2010, I watched every single DCOM that was available to watch (and I do, in fact, still remember clearly watching Under Wraps as a child).

I was born in 1989, which meant that I grew up in the 90s and early 2000s and that was Disney’s prime for movies and television shows. I idolized Lizzie McGuire and Ren Stevens. I longed to go to camp like the kids on Bug Juice. I had a crush on Shawn Ashmore long before he was ever in X-Men or The Following because of Cadet Kelly. I remember when Lindsay Lohan was an adorable teenager and the period for a few years where Brenda Song starred in nearly every DCOM.

Up until the time I was in seventh grade, I was convinced that I wanted to travel the world, studying plants and animals as a naturalist. I grew up watching Going Wild With Jeff Corwin, you see, and wanted to do exactly what he did. It was only when I began taking a Writing class in seventh grade that I desired to become a writer and not a naturalist. (I guess I also didn’t really think about the fact that becoming a naturalist would require me to do well in science and… yeah, that just wasn’t going to happen.)

Disney Channel was an impactful force in my childhood, and DCOMs were just as influential. Having seen, as I said, nearly every DCOM that was made over the span of thirteen years, it was difficult to narrow my favorites down to a list of fifteen. But, alas, as my friend Kim has always advised me, sometimes you have to be decisive and make some cuts. And so, below this cut, you will find a list of my top 15 DCOMs.

So hold onto your nostalgia, folks, and prepare your feels because we’re about to kick it old school. ;)

15. Halloweentown (1998)

What it’s about: Marnie Piper loves Halloween. Her mom does NOT, and prevents Marnie from attending a Halloween party that all of her friends will be attending. There’s only one problem for Marnie’s mom: HER mother, Aggie, comes into town and encourages Marnie, as well as her siblings Dylan and Sophie, to become more involved in Halloween activities. Marnie and her siblings soon discover a truth: their grandmother is a witch, and as Marnie is rapidly approaching her 13th Halloween, Aggie is interested in training her. The children as whisked away to Halloweentown, where everyone has magical abilities, including the mayor of the town named Kalibar. But when dark forces begin to threaten the town, can Marnie and her siblings save the townspeople and Aggie before it’s too late?

Why I love it: DCOM’s Halloween pride and joy is this series. The network very rarely ever made holiday-themed DCOMs (with the exception of ‘Twas the Night and The Ultimate Christmas Present), but the Halloweentown series is one exception, and the only specifically Halloween-themed movie franchise to grace Disney. It had just about everything: humor, heart, and a pretty fantastic cast of female leads. In fact, I WILL say that DCOMs were always fairly good at portraying females (i.e. Marnie, Aggie, Gwen) as take-charge heroines, rather than helpless damsels in distress. Marnie took charge, took care of her siblings, and saved both her mother and grandmother in this movie. It’s a fun, exciting thing to watch children save adults. And truly, since DCOMs are made for children and young teenagers, it’s great to see movies where the heroes of the story are characters these children can relate to.

Plus, Halloweentown is just a great movie.

14. High School Musical (2006)

What it’s about: Troy Bolton is a basketball player, and that’s what his father has always encouraged. But one New Year’s Eve, while on a family vacation, Troy meets Gabriella and the two sing karaoke together and realize their mutual attraction. After vacation, Troy sees Gabriella at school, who explains that she just transferred there. But Troy is a jock, Gabriella an academic, so their social circles separate them. Troy and Gabriella both struggle with the fact that they enjoy singing more than basketball and science, respectively, and end up accidentally getting callbacks for the school musical. Will their different cliques prevent them from each other and doing what they love?

Why I love it: Long before Zefron blossomed into a Hollywood heartthrob, he was an adorable kid playing a basketball star in High School Musical. I don’t think Disney Channel expected the movie to skyrocket to fame, but it did, seemingly overnight (7.7 million viewers tuned in, making it #10 on the list of highest-rated DCOM premieres), spawning two more sequels (one of which is my guilty pleasure) and launching the HSM cast into fame.

High School Musical is a fun, fluff-tastic movie that also has some great heart. It’s perhaps one of the rare recent DCOMs in which parents play such a crucial role in their children’s lives. The movie provides a realistic portrayal of what it’s like when your passion doesn’t coincide with your family’s expectations of you, and how that dichotomy affects your relationship with them. I won’t pretend that HSM goes any deeper than that – it really doesn’t – but it IS a fun movie and I know all of the songs.

Yeah. I do.

13. Get a Clue (2002)

What it’s about: Lexy is an entitled young girl who is enthralled with fashion, wealth, and the gossip column that she runs. But when an article and photograph that she takes of one of the school’s teachers, Mr. Walker, is published in the city’s paper, the teacher soon goes missing. After his car is found in the East River, Lexy is convinced that something is terribly wrong and that her photograph caused it. With the help of the school newspaper editor, Jack, her best friend Jennifer, and schoolmate Gabe, Lexy and her friends embark on a crazy spy adventure that throws them clues and more revelations at every turn.

Why I love it: Nowadays, Lindsay Lohan is known for… well, her trainwrecked life, Brenda Song has moved onto New Girl and The Social Network, and you’re likely more familiar with Ian Gomez as Andy on Cougar Town than you are with him in this movie. But back in the day, I had a huge crush on Bug Hall in this film, and I really enjoyed the spy-themed shenanigans that the kids got themselves into.

Again, it’s not a superficial movie, but it’s certainly not as deep as a lot of other DCOMs out there. At its most significant emotional moments, Get a Clue is all about the reprucussions that can occur because of self-centered actions. Lexy does learn and grow throughout the course of the movie, becoming a lot less self-absorbed once she realizes that it’s her very selfishness and disregard for consequences that lead to Mr. Walker’s disappearance in the first place. While Lexy learns to cast aside her preconceived notions and her superiority complex, Jack also learns to respect Lexy as a person, rather than the entitled young woman he believed her to be.

It’s a cute, fun movie that throws a lot of twists and turns at the audience (especially for a DCOM).

12. Quints (2000)

What it’s about: Jaime is an only child, and while most people would love to be the center of their parents’ attention, for Jaime… it’s getting pretty old. She wishes for another sibling and her wish comes true, five-fold. Her mother and father give birth to quintuplets Adam, Becky, Charlie, Debbie, and Eddie. Suddenly, the Grovers are the talk of the town and nation and the parents spend all of their time focusing on the babies rather than Jaime.

Why I love it: This is the DCOM that broke the fourth wall in half, and I absolutely LOVED it because of that. I think that the fact that Jaime was speaking directly to the audience the entire time really worked in favor of this movie – we feel what she feels, see what she sees, and understand her better. The fantastical elements she throws in (like her school being a giant party), really aided into understanding the mind of this girl who is so imaginative and fun, but also pretty lonely. It’d be easy to make Jaime the villain of the story – the selfish child who, now that her parents have five other children, wants all of the attention – but we feel more empathy for her than anything else, I think.

Quints is a really great movie about family, and one of the most powerful moments for me is when Adam becomes deathly sick and is placed in the hospital. You really get a sense of who Jaime is as a person when the reality that the babies she wished would be out of her life actually had the potential to be. It was an extremely touching moment for an adorable, fun, and quirky DCOM.

11. Gotta Kick It Up! (2002)

What it’s about: A Biology teacher named Ms. Bartlett agrees to take on the role as coach for a dance team at her new middle school. The team is a mix of young women who all come from different familial and econimic backgrounds but are all passionate about dancing. While they initially struggle in competitions, eventually the squad – led by the energetic student Daisy – overcomes and places third in competition. But when they return to the school, they’re greeted by the dancers’ parents, all of whom are disappointed, worried, and forbid their daughters to continue sneaking around to dance practices. When it seems like the team is about to quit, Ms. Bartlett and Daisy come together to reunite the squad with a new motto: “si, se puede” which means “Yes, we can.” With that, the dancers are more motivated than ever to prove to themselves, their parents, and their city that they CAN achieve whatever they set out to accomplish.

Why I love it: Gotta Kick It Up! is another one of those DCOMs that strives to explore familial relationships and the struggles that teenagers and pre-teens often have in regards to their dreams. Similar to High School Musical, this movie examines parents’ concerns over the girls joining the dance squad and competing, heavily leaning on their overprotective nature and desire for success for their children. Moreover, Gotta Kick It Up! is one of the few DCOMs that openly explores how ethnicity affects middle school students, their relationships with friends, family, and faculty. Overall, it’s a really solid film, especially for a DCOM.

10. Camp Rock/Camp Rock 2 (2008/2010)

What it’s about: Mitchie Torres desires to attend a musical camp called “Camp Rock,” but because of her family’s lack of funds, the only way to afford attendance is if her mom works in the kitchen as a caterer. Elsewhere, a spoiled pop star named Shane Gray arrives at Camp Rock. He’s a part of the boy band Connect 3 (the real-life Jonas Brothers, by the way) and falls in love with a girl’s singing voice on the first day, though he never sees who is singing. Will Shane ever find the girl with the voice? Can Mitchie find the confidence that she needs to succeed?

In the sequel, meanwhile, Mitchie returns to Camp Rock where a rival camp called Camp Star has set up across the lake. The swanky new summer camp lures a good number of Camp Rock’s attendants away, leaving Mitchie, Shane, and the remaining teenagers to run the camp and save it from closing down.

Why I love it: Camp Rock and its sequel has exactly three things that I love: 1) Great music, 2) Demi Lovato, and 3) the Jonas Brothers.

Really, that’s all you need to know. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, there’s wonderful music (listen to “Wouldn’t Change a Thing” from Camp Rock 2, would you?) and a good story to back it all up. It’s a classic DCOM that’ll be remembered for years to come.

9. Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie (2009)

What it’s about: Piggybacking off the hit series on Disney Channel, the Wizards of Waverly Place movie follows the Russo family as they head to the Caribbean for a relaxing vacation. After an argument resulting from her parents banning her from using magic for months, Alex wishes that her mother and father had never met. Alex, Justin, and Max remember one another and band together to find out how to reverse the spell and get their parents back, heading on a quest to find the Stone of Dreams. Eventually, Justin and Alex must compete against one another to become full-wizard in order to reverse the spell. As time wears on, Justin begins to remember who Alex is less and less. Will Alex be able to reverse the spell and get her family back or risk losing them forever?

Why I love it: In spite of her poor taste in a boyfriend (sorry, Selena), I really do love Selena Gomez as an actress and adored her as the snarky, lazy, self-absorbed Alex Russo on Wizards of Waverly Place. Her character in the series is intelligent and witty; she’s fun and loyal, and she’s a good sibling to Justin and Max, when it all boils down to it. The movie was fun, albeit a bit tropey in parts, and comedic.

But the real power came near the end of the film where Justin loses all memory of Alex as his sister. Selena Gomez brings an AMAZING performance as she sobs out:

“I’m Alex, I’m your little sister! I taunt you and I tease you and I make your life miserable, but you love me anyway. You’re everything that I ever wanted to be. I’m jealous of how, how smart you are and how kind and how nice. Please don’t leave me here!”

(And then I started sobbing. Because a really great DCOM moment will make you do that, let’s be honest.)

8. Rip Girls (2000)

What it’s about: Sydney and her father return to her home state of Hawaii after Sydney’s mother passes away in attempt to grow their relationship together. While there, Sydney learns to surf, finds a passion for photography, and grows closer to the island and friends in the process. However, Sydney soon learns the real reason that her father decided to return to Hawaii – with her mother’s passing, she has inherited a large portion of the land. But the young woman is forced to make a decision: does she sell the land so that hotel chains can be built on it, or does she keep the land?

Why I love it: Rip Girls is another one of those family-oriented films. Rather, though, than provide a representation of a complete family unit, the power of decision-making shifts from adult to child in this movie, and Rip Girls is a DCOM that deals a lot with the subject of grief and discovering who you truly are in that time. It’s a great film and one that I definitely need to re-watch in the near future!

7. Pixel Perfect (2004)

What it’s about: A sixteen-year old boy named Roscoe is trying to help his best friend Samantha’s (Sam) struggling girl band. Despite her talented vocals and guitar-playing, venues and talent scouts want the young woman to also be able to dance. As a favor, Roscoe utilizes his father’s holographic equipment to create a female hologram that can dance in Sam’s band for her. Soon, however, Sam becomes jealous of Loretta – the female, perfect hologram – and Roscoe’s growing affection for her. But Loretta begins to reveal that she’s not just a computer; she has emotions, desires, and anger just like Sam. So what happens when holograms and real, living human beings are forced to co-exist?

Why I love it: Pixel Perfect is a seemingly insignificant movie on the surface. But the movie itself is probably one of the deepest, most impactful DCOMs that has ever been made. Roscoe is so focused and concerned with the idea of perfection – this notion that if there’s something about Loretta he doesn’t like, he can change it. Loretta is a hologram throughout the entirety of the movie, but she has emotions and feelings – she gets angry with Roscoe and with Sam, longs to actually FEEL, to have a body, and detests the notion of “perfection.” And Sam? Sam struggles with comparing herself to someone who is flawless, as someone who is flawed. (And she actually sinks into a depression that Loretta relieves her from near the end of the film.) But Loretta tells Sam that: “You get to be the dreamer, but all I’ll ever be is the dream.” At the end of the film, Roscoe confessses to Loretta that he’s in love with Sam, and the exchange is as follows:

Loretta Modern: Are you saying you love her because of her imperfections?
Roscoe: Yes! Because of everything she is, and because of everything she's not.

I mean… this is DEEP STUFF for a DCOM. And it’s hard-hitting and beautiful and sad and everything about this movie is just amazing. Go watch it. Now.

6. Brink! (1998)

What it’s about: Andy “Brink” Brinker is a soul-skater – he participates in in-line skating competitions with his friends for fun, not for money. The soul-skaters consistently clash with another group of skaters, called “Team X-Bladz” who are aggressive and competitive, but sponsored. Brink learns that his family is in financial trouble and secretly joins Team X-Bladz in order to get paid weekly. His skater friends find out about Brink’s betrayal and are not happy about it and are especially not happy with him. Can Brink win his friends over or will he be lured into Team X-Bladz permanently?

Why I love it: Erik von Detten was one of those 90s heartthrobs, and I absolutely loved him in Brink! It’s not a monumental DCOM by any means, but it’s one that contains a lot of heart, the core of friendship, and an element of self-sacrifice. After all, Brink takes the job with Team X-Bladz not because he wants to work with Val, but because he feels responsibility to help his family financially. It’s a great movie, enjoyable to watch, and also full of great messages regarding compromising your beliefs and discovering who your true friends are.

Plus, Brink’s team is named Team Pup ‘n Suds, so.

5. Stuck in the Suburbs (2004)

What it’s about: Brittany, like every other teenage girl, is obsessed with pop star Jordan Cahill. She, along with her new (cool) friend Natasha have the chance to become extras in his music video, which is the most exciting thing to happen to her suburban town in a long time (perhaps ever). A literal run-in between Brittany and Eddie, Jordan’s assistant, leads to the phones of Brittany and Jordan getting switched after the shoot. When the girls realize whose phone they are in possession of, Natasha suggests that they mess with Eddie and subsequently Jordan, rather than give it back. Jordan, meanwhile, is seeking to break free from his traditional pop star image and hesitantly welcomes the change of scenery (and a change of hairstyle and cut) as a chance to reinvent himself. Will Jordan ever get his phone back? Will he ever be able to write for himself?

Why I love it: I first fell in love with Taran Killam WAY back in the day (we’re talking The Amanda Show days), but Stuck in the Suburbs was the movie that really caused him to shine. And then, of course, he became an actor on SNL and the rest is history. I love Danielle Panabaker and Brenda Song, who are absolutely hilarious in this movie. Its witty and hilarious dialogue, character development, and sweet resolution make it one of those go-to DCOMs. Truthfully, it’s one movie I loved from start to finish and will need to make an effort to find and watch again soon. 

C’mon guys. It’s TARAN KILLAM.

4.  Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century (1999)

What it’s about: Zenon Kar lives on a space station with her family and has fun goofing off with her friends… until that fun lands her in deep trouble. Her parents end up grounding her – literally – to live with her Aunt Judy on Earth. Zenon has difficulty fitting in with the kids who grew up on Earth, but ends up making a few friends. But when Zenon learns of a plot that will take down her space station home’s computers and the station itself with her family, friends, and countless others on board, it’s up to this teenager, her friends, and her favorite pop idol to save the day.

Why I love it: As an aside, here’s a little known fact: the first day of History class my sophomore year of high school, our teacher – Mr. Storms – introduced himself to us through a PowerPoint presentation. He informed us that he was actually the half-brother of Kirsten Storms, who plays Zenon in this movie franchise (and who now currently stars on a soap opera, but that’s irrelevant), which I have always found to be pretty cool. Zenon is one of my favorite DCOMs because of how fun and energetic it is, but also poignant. Once again, it is the KIDS that put together plans of action to save the ADULTS. They’re the ones who are fearless, dedicated, and intelligent. Zenon and Nebula are just such fun, wonderful, and bright (literally and figuratively) characters.

Also, there’s a great song from the fake pop star Protozoa called “Supernova Girl” which you all should listen to. Like… now.

3. The Color of Friendship (2000)

What it’s about: Mahree is a white woman living in South Africa with her family during the 1970s – a time of racial segregation in her country. She becomes an exchange student in America and looks forward to living with her host white family… until she realizes she’ll be living with an African-American family. Similarly, Piper – the daughter of Congressman Ron Dellums – was anticipating hosting an African exchange student that would be black. Mahree initially detests everything about staying with Piper and her family, going so far as to lock herself in Piper’s bedroom and refusing to emerge. Eventually, Piper confronts Mahree about her behavior and the young woman begins to grow more and more accepting of her host family, learning more about different races and backgrounds including current political events. The Dellums become like family to Mahree, protecting her and educating her, and Mahree learns more about her country, herself, and racial issues because of them.

Why I love it: It’s no secret that The Color of Friendship is one of the best DCOMs ever made. It… won an Emmy, you guys, so it HAS to be good. What’s so great about this film is that it’s one that – unlike the DCOM I just noted above – flashes back, rather than forward in time. Though the movie was released in 2000, it was set in the 70s: an era in which the children who were watching it did not grow up, but their PARENTS did. What’s really wonderful about this film, aside from the fantastic acting, hard-hitting and relevant topic, and touching friendships, is that it is meant to facilitated dialogue between parents and children. Watching the movie, children (like me) growing up in the 2000s weren’t aware of the kind of racial issues that took place in the 1970s. Viewing this DCOM with their children allowed parents to explain these kinds of issues to their own children, providing them with the same kind of education and awareness that Mahree received in the film. The story in The Color of Friendship is beautiful, and it taught children growing up that it didn’t matter what color your skin was or where you lived – love and friendship transcended all of those things and more.

I wish more DCOMs (and films in general) provided such positive, uplifting messages to children these days.

2. Cadet Kelly (2002)

What it’s about: Kelly Collins is a free-spirited teenager whose mother re-marries the Commandant of a military school. Kelly, therefore, is forced to transfer from her arts school and her friends and enroll in the military school. There, she struggles to fit in and clashes with Cadet Captain Jennifer Stone. The older girl torments Kelly and Kelly soon enacts vengeance which lands her in Cadet Court, where she is forced to shine equipment for the drill team as punishment. Kelly, with the assistance of the attractive Cadet Major Brad Rigby, actually joins the drill team and begins practicing a routine for regionals with Captain Jennifer Stone. Can Kelly manage to find a way to connect with her new stepdad and Jennifer before regionals?

Why I love it: Hilary Duff was the Disney princess of the early 2000s. I idolized her as Lizzie on Lizzie McGuire growing up, and really, she was a talented comedic actress and someone who actually WAS a good role model for the network. (I honestly think that she is one of the few stars on the network who had no scandals surrounding her.) What I love so much about Cadet Kelly, apart from the fact that it stars Hilary Duff, Christy Carlson Romano, and Shawn Ashmore is this: it is perhaps the first DCOM to ever teach that girls can be stereotypically “girly” but also tough without having to change who they are.

Kelly, in the film, is a girly girl: she likes ribbons and jewelry, pink clothing and sparkly things. She wears make-up and enjoys dressing fashionably. She’s an artist and a free spirit. But when she enrolls in military school, she’s taught that she needs to act a certain way, talk a certain way, and think a certain way. She’s essentially stripped of her individuality while there, and that crushes her to the point where she nearly quits. But rather than encourage young girls to become someone that they are not, Cadet Kelly makes a point: you can love pink, “girly” things and also be strong. You can learn how to climb obstacle courses and join the drill team. Just because you are in a uniform doesn’t mean you have to lose everything that makes you who you are. DCOMs, up until this point, featured a lot of great female role models for kids, but they also presented “tough” women as being more tomboys (Brink!, Motocrossed, Double Teamed, etc.) than “girly” girls. And there’s nothing wrong with presenting those women – each woman in the movies I listed was an awesome role model for girls in regards following your dreams and achieving your goals.

But Cadet Kelly featured Kelly as a young woman who – from start to finish – was stereotypically “girly” and still strong, independent, and intelligent. And that’s something I really admire.

1. Tru Confessions (2002)

What it’s about: Trudy, or “Tru” Walker is a typical teenage girl who dreams of having her own television show someday. She has a rather normal family life, with one exception: her twin brother Eddie is mentally handicapped, which often leads to family fights and frustrations. When Tru gets the opportunity to submit a video to a contest, the winner of which will receive their own television show, she is ecstatic. There’s only one problem: she has no idea what to use for her video. As she struggles to find a subject, she realizes that she needs to find something personal and true to her life in order to make the video memorable and exciting. Tru, then, chooses to center her video around her brother, Eddie, and what it is like for her and her family living with someone who has a developmental disability. Along the way, Tru finds healing in her relationship with her mother, gains a new respect and love for her brother, and ultimately realizes that Eddie’s disability is the best thing to ever happen to her life.

Why I love it: If this isn’t your favorite DCOM, then I understand. If you don’t believe, objectively, that this is the BEST DCOM… then you’re just wrong. Tru Confessions is and has always been a stand-out DCOM for me, even though it hasn’t received the recognition it deserves for being so touching and outstanding. Centering a film around a child with a developmental disability was a risky maneuver. The film could have easily dove into oversentimentality or ridiculousness. Instead, Tru Confessions provided a realistic portrayal of what it is like, day-to-day, for a family where one child is normal and one is mentally challenged. Shia LaBeouf, for all of his faults now, was ASTOUNDING as Eddie. He truly gave one of the best performances I have ever seen in a DCOM and made that character feel believable and so beautiful. Similarly, Clara Bryant was fantastic as Tru. We felt her frustrations, not only in her relationship with Eddie, but with her mother, and also those around her who could not understand Eddie or his disability. 

There’s a powerful story in Tru Confessions – this is a DCOM that makes kids re-think how they treat those who have developmental disabilities, of course, but it’s more than that. This story is about loving the people in your life that you find difficult to love, whether they are friends or family. It’s about growing up and realizing that the “normal” way of viewing the world isn’t always the best way (there’s a scene where Tru wants to destroy a spider’s web because it’s gross, but Eddie says: “No. It’s perfect and beautiful and strong.”), and that sometimes taking a step back is really what we need.

Also, this movie made me sob really hard and I think it’s the only DCOM to ever have that impact on me.

(As another aside, if you don’t cry during the library scene in this movie, you’re a robot.)

Honorable Mentions: Don’t Look Under the Bed (1999); A Ring of Endless Light (2002)

So there you have it, folks! I have watched a LOT of DCOMs in my day and it’s difficult to narrow them down to my top 15, but I managed to do it. Do you agree with my list? What Disney Channel movies would make YOUR cut? Did you grow up watching DCOMs every month, or was this post like reading a foreign language to you?

Hit the comments below and let me know your thoughts. Until next time, folks! :)  


  1. This list is amazing, Jenn! Don't be embarrassed for knowing all the HSM songs, I still remember some of the choreography. Also, Supernova Girl is my jam.

    I do need to point out 2 notable snubs in this list. First, Cheetah Girls 2 is amazing. It's the best music by far (that I still regularly listen to), its filled with gorgeous shots of Barcelona throughout the film, and it has the adorable romance between Dorinda and cute ballroom dancer Juaquin (their tango still makes me swoon). Second, anyone in our age bracket is lying if they said they hadn't wished at least once that they lived in the Smart House. That movie is both touching and really awesome.