March 2002. The Zoog Disney era of Disney Channel was in its final year. Hilary Duff and Christy Carlson Romano ruled the network with their roles on Lizzie McGuire and Even Stevens, respectively. It made sense to put these two in one Disney Channel Original Movie where they could finally interact on screen. And let’s not forget that we got this awesome online game out of it:
The DCOM brand had been in operation for almost five years, and Cadet Kelly (directed by Larry Shaw) followed a lineup of timeless hits — Smart House, the first two Zenon films, Motocrossed, Double Teamed, and so many others. Military school had been a peripheral topic in just one DCOM up to that point: Hounded. The Tahj Mowry film included an older brother who was home from military school, and Tahj’s character was not interested in following in his brother’s footsteps.
But Cadet Kelly was the first (and so far, only) DCOM to take its characters to military school and make that the primary setting. Hilary Duff is Kelly Collins, the last person you’d expect to see in army fatigues. Kelly is an arts school kid who is accustomed to colorful ribbon streamers, free-flowing friendships, and flexible learning initiatives, set to the tune of “One Girl Revolution.” But when her mother marries the commandant of George Washington Military Academy, Kelly is forced to not only attend his school, but board there! I enjoy all the pre-military school scenes quite a bit. We get to see Kelly’s family dynamics. Dad is a free spirit, mom is cool but a little spacey (honestly though, she can’t be that cool for forcing her kid to go to military school). And of course, inherited stepdad Joe/Sir (Gary Cole) is the stoic commandant. After the wedding, the family moves upstate, with Kelly going home on the weekends and dealing with Captain Stone all week at school.
I’ll admit, I’ve wondered why exactly Kelly had to go to GWMA. Are there no other schools close by? Does her mother really think she needs that kind of discipline? Are her mom and stepdad just trying to get Kelly out of their way? But alas, this movie wouldn’t be the same if Kelly wasn’t required to immerse herself in a new, very structured, environment. She is a fish out of water, a bubbly blonde losing her bracelets and scarves in a sea of uniformity. Thankfully, Kelly makes one close friend, Carla (Andrea Lewis). Carla agrees to show Kelly the ropes and keep her in line.
Christy Carlson Romano is Captain Jennifer Stone, Kelly’s domineering overlord. Stone is the crusher of rainbow blankets… and dreams. For almost a decade, the Internet has known about the plausible queer theory behind Jennifer Stone and Kelly Collins’ relationship. I never noticed it when I was younger, especially with the distraction of Brad the hunk (Shawn Ashmore, fresh off his one-season Disney Channel show, In a Heartbeat). But the queer interpretation makes a lot more sense to me now that I’ve read Grace Perry’s The 2000s Made Me Gay. I highly recommend her “Disney Channel Presents” chapter, where she notes, “Captain Stone and Kelly spend at least 50 percent of the film within six inches of each other’s faces, lower lips trembling, both seething in adolescent passion.” Perry also points out that DCOMs like Cadet Kelly and Motocrossed “seem queer in hindsight, but at the time merely existed in the girl-power worldview.” She delves further into the absence of openly gay characters, washed over by the abundance of said girl power.
If you watched this movie as much as I did growing up, you probably haven’t forgotten Kelly’s struggle to complete the obstacle course; Stone viciously ripping Kelly’s rainbow blanket; Kelly retaliating by painting Stone’s hair in her sleep; Kelly’s rise from troubled drill team equipment manager to fierce competitor — and her practice dance-off with Stone (Disney+, please restore that Macy Gray song to its former glory). When it’s finally Kelly’s time to shine on the drill team, her father is in trouble. She and stepdad Joe go rescue him from the mountains of the Hudson River. Kelly has a father-daughter moment with both her dad and stepdad. Joe reminds her that not only can she have two dads; she can also have two best friends. Earlier, Kelly hurt Carla’s feelings by calling Amanda her “best and truest friend.” They make up by the end, but I think the difficulty of adolescent friendships is something many of us can relate to and remember. Finally, Kelly returns to the drill team competition to dance with Captain Stone. “One Girl Revolution” is reprised, ribbons fly everywhere, and the team takes silver.
This movie has successfully survived all the whims of our nostalgia for two decades. It’s lived on in blogs, BuzzFeed lists, books, and sweet memories. I personally remember awaiting the premiere, and recording the movie on videotape to rewatch until the tape probably wore out. But now, I’m turning it over to some Internet friends. Here’s what you’ve been saying about Cadet Kelly:
“Possibly my favorite DCOM of all time. I was a huge Hilary Duff fan when it was released and it quickly became my favorite Christy Carlson Romano role. When I watch it now, I love it just as much as I did when I was a kid. It feels like wrapping myself up in a warm blanket. Not to mention I love the different routines throughout the movie. The characters are excellent and really give the movie its heart. I have so many favorite lines by Kelly, my favorite changes all the time. I know that when I watch it 20 years from now, it’ll still hold up.” –@sitcomsraisedme on Twitter
“Gary Cole is a legend and makes the perfect perfect strict step father! The only other actor that can hold a candle to him is Dennis Quaid in Yours, Mine and Ours.” –@thebasiccineph1 on Twitter
“One of my favorite DCOMs! I watched it on repeat. It was so refreshing to see a movie with two strong female leads.” –@INSP_Megan on Twitter
“It was a fun DCOM that I saw many times as a kid and have fond memories of.” –@kevinthecritic on Twitter
“Cadet Kelly to me is symbolization of coming together in freedom in America because the movie came out in a time where we weren’t so sure about where the future is going to go especially after September 11. I really connected to the film as someone from New York who has family members in the military; gives you a glimpse on what the military really is like and it brings awareness to military life.” –Tylia from @stomping_on_cp_with_tylia on Instagram
“a badass military iconic movie” — @sparklinq.avaaa on Instagram
“It was the first movie where we really saw Hilary Duff play a character outside of Lizzie!” — @disneychannelchat on Instagram
This is a favorite DCOM for so many of you, and it’s still one of my favorites, two decades after watching it for the first time with my family. Kelly definitely turned “olive drab into totally fab,” as the promo told us. Now, grab your snack of choice and your comfiest blanket, and go watch Cadet Kelly! HD and CCR spent four hours a day training so that we could enjoy this today. 😉