With The Little Mermaid arriving this week, Consequence is looking back at the Disney Renaissance and how it shaped our culture. Today, we’re taking a look at Disney Channel Original Movies, hand-picking our essential selections throughout the channel’s history. Watch some of these classics on Disney+.
If you were a child in a home with a television at any point in the last 30 years, you’re likely very familiar with Disney Channel Original Movies, or DCOM. The tradition began with Disney Channel’s launch as a premium cable channel in 1983, for which Disney reserved some of their family-oriented movies as “Disney Channel Premiere Films.” These early live-action films, which often aired on Sunday nights, were not necessarily smashing successes, but when Disney Channel transitioned to basic cable in 1997, everything changed.
The Disney “Renaissance” throughout the mid-1990s led to heavily-viewed TV premieres of those films on Disney Channel, and a new generation of content for millennial children began to take shape. Disney rebranded the channel, changed the name of these premiere films to “Disney Channel Original Movies,” and thus began the DCOM era that many of us know and love.
From the years 1999 to 2002, Disney Channel premiered a new original film nearly every month, introducing and expanding franchises like Halloweentown, Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, and Johnny Tsunami. From 2002 to 2010, Disney scaled back in terms of volume, but they didn’t slow down with their marquee releases, and the biggest DCOM in the channel’s history arrived in 2006 with a little movie called High School Musical. Its success was so overwhelming that it left an indelible impact on pop culture and the trilogy’s conclusion became the only DCOM franchise to transition from a television premiere to the big screen.
As Disney Channel continued to put more stock in their current series and franchises — Hannah Montana, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, The Cheetah Girls, and The Wizards of Waverly Place, for example — they began to gradually scale back the DCOM. From 2013 to today, there’s been a significant decline in volume due to the streaming era and the loss of basic cable viewership. These films and their premieres were once family-friendly movie nights tied to a specific time, but now, the direct-to-Disney+ strategy is likely the only way to get people to keep watching.
It’s endlessly fascinating to look back on these earlier films and see how they were connected to larger cultural moments. Spanning over 40 years, there have been many eras of the DCOM — so here’s a journey through the most notable ones in the history of Disney Channel.
— Paolo Ragusa
The Parent Trap II (1986)
Prior to the establishment of the DCOM brand, Disney Channel original films were a motley assortment of cheaply-made cable films, though one enduring Disney tradition runs through them: An interest in pre-established series and properties. In the mix during these years was a Heidi miniseries, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, and multiple riffs on Mark Twain’s work; the network even aired Anne of Avonlea: The Continuing Story of Anne of Green Gables, the critically acclaimed Canadian adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s books.
But for the purposes of discussing this era, let’s look back at 1986’s The Parent Trap II, a sequel to the original 1961 film featuring the return of Hayley Mills as now-grown-up twins Susan and Sharon, one of whom has a young daughter determined to set up a parent trap of her own. Thanks to the Internet Archive, you can actually watch The Parent Trap II in its entirety today, though it hasn’t aged well, especially in comparison to the original — what counted as cable-worthy in the 1980s was very different then, with flat cinematography and no-budget production design. What stands out about the film is how it represents a nascent loyalty to the almighty I.P., before Disney Channel discovered that it didn’t need the mothership to develop unique franchises of its very own. — Liz Shannon Miller
Halloweentown and Sequels (1998-2004)
Halloweentown is not just the first DCOM to have its own franchise, it’s one of the more durable films in Disney Channel’s catalog. It went beyond the concept of “what if there was a world where it was Halloween every day!” and became a fantastical coming-of-age adventure.
It’s difficult to think of something more appealing to a kid than learning you’re a witch (or warlock) on your 13th birthday, finding a secret portal to another world, defeating that world’s shady mayor, and then going back home with magical powers in tow — so it’s a treat to live vicariously through Marnie and her younger brother, Dylan. Halloweentown II: Kalabar’s Revenge was arguably more spooky and dramatic than its predecessor, but equally fun. (Sidenote: did you know that Kimberly J. Brown, who played Marnie, is now engaged to her antagonist co-star Daniel Kountz, who played Kal?) — P. Ragusa
Around the dawn of the new millennium, many an American teen found themselves muttering the words, “Whatever brah. Let’s blade.” Brink! was the beginning of Disney’s series of attempts to broach the extreme sports world with human stories for a rowdy, fast-moving audience. Only the third film under the DCOM banner, it followed a young man named Andy who attempts to win an inline skating competition to help with his family’s financial difficulties. Like other early Disney channel films, Brink! was less about star power and more about story, with a series of characters and conflicts that hold a surprising amount of nuance for a TV movie. Its success spawned a new generation of sports DCOMs such as Johnny Tsunami, Motocrossed, Luck of the Irish, and Right on Track. — André Heizer
Smart House (1999)
Smart House is proto-Black Mirror for a generation that was just beginning to take advantage of technology’s ground-breaking possibilities. In retrospect, it’s a remarkably relatable and prescient idea: With automation, artificial intelligence, and virtual assistant technology now an ever-present part of our daily lives, it’s a worthy effort to explore exactly what these services are replacing. In protagonist Ben’s case, it’s his late mother; as he rails against the idea of his father dating again, he programs the house’s virtual assistant PAT to become his family’s maternal figure, but quickly realizes he can’t control the extent of PAT’s omniscient powers in the house.
The emotion of the film is palpable (dead parents are always given a sensitive honor in Disney films), and the horror in the film’s latter half is genuinely exciting. It’s deeply frightening to imagine your own house trying to kill you, or even just control you — but Smart House (which, fun fact, is directed by Star Trek’s Lavar Burton) executes this idea in a kid and adult-friendly way. — P. Ragusa