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
The Thirteenth Year (1999)
I will never forget The Thirteenth Year. It’s actually pretty bonkers that this film got made in the first place — the logline, “Boy turns 13 and realizes he’s turning into a merman, scales and all,” feels like something out of a fever dream, or a Twilight Zone episode. Of course, it’s an intriguing metaphor for boyhood, coming of age, and honoring who you are above all else.
But The Thirteenth Year is also decidedly creepy — there’s some real body horror happening as we witness protagonist Cody’s skin turning into scales, his feet turning into flippers, his body drying out in the film’s latter half. Twenty-two years later, Disney and Pixar helmed Turning Red, a similar story of a middle school girl who becomes a giant red panda, and it’s filled with much more specificity and nuance than The Thirteenth Year — but as a coming-of-age prototype, The Thirteenth Year laid some fascinating ground work. — P. Ragusa
Zenon and Sequels (1999-2004)
Zenon Kar had an unbelievably cool life: She lived on a space station, got to hear her favorite artist sing her favorite song IRL, and was best friends with Raven Symone. The outfits were everything, and the set design transported young minds to a silly and sleek Y2K vision of the future, where a space station could be a teenager’s playground. My sisters and I legitimately waited all summer for the first film to air, crossing our fingers each week when Disney Channel rolled out the schedule for the week.
The first Zenon film is easily the best and most memorable — “Zoom zoom zoom, you make my heart go boom boom/ My supernova girl,” indeed — but the success of the first spawned two sequels that brought viewers deeper into Zenon’s spaced-out world of the distant future. For anyone who has forgotten how much fun these adventures were, all three are currently on Disney+. — Mary Siroky
The Phantom of the Megaplex (2000)
The Phantom of the Megaplex is not quite a children’s adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, but it does contain a fair amount of drama. The film follows a 17-year-old movie theater employee as he solves the central mystery: On the night of a major horror film premiere, an unseen “phantom” terrorizes patrons, employees, and the theater in general.
It’s the logical pinnacle of Disney Channel’s horror-adjacent fare, not nearly as terrifying as 1999’s Don’t Look Under the Bed, and not as campy as Halloweentown. Instead, it’s a slightly stylized ode to the magic of the movies, and its bright colors and neon tones match a very particular aesthetic from the ’90s and early oughts. — P. Ragusa
Cadet Kelly (2002)
For this story of a happy-go-lucky girl being shipped off to military school, Disney Channel secured talent from two of their strongest projects at the time: Even Stevens and Lizzie McGuire. Christy Carlson Romano and Hilary Duff were two huge names for the network when the film went into production in 2001, and the result is a fun “fish out of water” story that offered a Disney-fied version of military school. Gary Cole, known for his roles on The West Wing, Veep, and The Good Wife, shows up as the tough stepfather set on teaching Duff’s Kelly some hard lessons; Romano is on hand as the quintessential “rival turned friend due to forced proximity” female foil.
While not as upbeat as the ensemble dance DCOM Gotta Kick It Up or anywhere close to the theatrical success of Duff’s Lizzie McGuire Movie, Cadet Kelly is representative of what so many of these films were doing at the time: grabbing their brightest talent for stories with gentle lessons on hard work, friendship, and perseverance. — M. Siroky
The Cheetah Girls and The Cheetah Girls 2 (2003-2006)
The fact that Whitney Houston was an executive producer for these musical odes to female friendship should tell you everything you need to know about The Cheetah Girls and The Cheetah Girls 2. (For the purposes of this list, we are only looking at the first two installments where all four Cheetah Girls are present, because let’s be real: Galleria would never have dropped the group to go to college.)
The foundation of intersectional feminism for many young viewers around the country, this story of a New York-based girl group singing and dancing their way to the top was a smash: The film’s soundtrack was certified Double Platinum after selling more than 2 million copies in the US alone. Galleria, Chanel, Aqua, and Dorinda’s story was enough of a success that Disney followed it up with the equally memorable Cheetah Girls 2, which sent the girls to Barcelona, Spain to — ahem — really strut their stuff. — M. Siroky
High School Musical and Sequels (2006-2008)
High School Musical was, to put it lightly, a phenomenon: 7.7 million viewers tuned in for the premiere, a new record that was immediately smashed the following year by High School Musical 2, which earned 17 million viewers on initial broadcast. The soundtrack was a legitimate hit — “Breaking Free” hit No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, people!
The High School Musical franchise, directed with genuine enthusiasm by Kenny Ortega, made stars out of its leads, particularly the impeccably cast Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens. Rounded out by plenty of talent in Ashley Tisdale, Corbin Bleu, Lucas Grabeel, and Monique Coleman, the trilogy holds up ridiculously well — it’s hard to watch any of these films, followed by Hairspray and The Greatest Showman, and not realize that Efron was simply born to be in musicals. What other made-for-TV film has grown into a force so strong that it could then make the jump to a theatrical release for its third installment — and then set the biggest opening day for a musical film to date? (The record has since been broken, but it took the Oscar-nominated Les Miserables to knock the Wildcats out of the top spot.)
They’re campy, they’re fun, and the music rules. The chances of Efron and Hudgens reconnecting someday are low but never zero. Corbin Bleu is a legitimately incredible dancer, and Sharpay is a hero to theater girls everywhere who have worked their whole lives for the lead, only to be shafted at the last minute. There’s not a star in heaven we can’t reach with this essential DCOM milestone. — M. Siroky