Northern Lights (1997)

Northern Lights (1997)

I can’t tell you how much of a thrill it was for me just to type the words “northern lights.” I have been searching for this movie for a couple of years now. I didn’t want to buy a questionable $30 VHS tape online, so I waited it out, hoping that a generous ’90s Disney Channel fan would upload the film… because, ya know, it’s not on Disney+.

A bit of background, which you may already be familiar with if you’ve read this blog: Some people say Northern Lights was the first DCOM. Other people say Under Wraps was the first DCOM (actually, Disney Channel says that). I made a little video about it last year. In the commercial footage I found, Northern Lights is specifically called a Disney Channel Original Movie, not a Disney Channel Premiere Film (the DCOM brand’s predecessor). However, the movie was made by outside production companies. The end credits don’t even say “in association with the Disney Channel” or anything like that, at least not on the copy I watched.

Diane Keaton and Joseph Cross in Northern Lights

That brings me to another important point. I’ve read a few online recaps of this movie and was surprised that none of the reviewers mentioned how rare Northern Lights actually is. I was relieved that this quandary was acknowledged on the Disney Channel Tipsy Panel podcast. As the hosts said, you really cannot watch this movie legally. I’m thrilled that I’ve finally gotten access to Northern Lights, but I also kind of understand why Disney Channel has practically disappeared this DCOM…or, not DCOM?

The disappearance was noticed during the 2016 Disney Channel Original Movie summer marathon, when, according to people on Twitter, Northern Lights was not included in the schedule. I watched a lot of DCOMs when I was a kid, and I don’t remember Northern Lights airing even one time back in the early 2000s. However, I did see the ’90s classics Wish Upon a Star and The Paper Brigade, proving that some older Disney Channel movies were up to snuff for reruns.

Here’s why the physical and virtual disappearance of Northern Lights is not surprising: This is an adult movie. Disney Channel Original Movies are not about adults. Sure, adults can play important roles in certain DCOM stories. But at its heart, the DCOM brand is about kids, tweens, teenagers, and the coming-of-age experience. DCOMs have often been adapted from books, but they’re sometimes 100% original ideas. In the case of Northern Lights, the work was initially a one-man stage play written and performed by John Hoffman, according to the Los Angeles Times. He and Kevin Kane adapted it into a screenplay. Linda Yellen directed the film. Hoffman’s first Disney Channel connection was Adventures in Wonderland, where he played the Mad Hatter. He’s also familiar with Selena Gomez, since he is a co-creator, writer, and director of Only Murders in the Building. Meg Ryan is credited as a producer on Northern Lights. Yeah, that Meg Ryan.

The best way for me to explain this movie is to compare it to Life as We Know It, a sad 2010 film starring Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel. Heigl and Duhamel’s characters can’t stand each other, but they come together to raise their deceased mutual friends’ baby. Northern Lights puts Diane Keaton’s Roberta Blumstein in a comparable situation, with a few major differences. She is called on to raise her orphaned elementary-aged nephew, Jack (Joseph Cross from Jack Frost) — who she’s never heard of.

Roberta is an independent, cigarette-smoking, suit-wearing, child-averse woman who works as a Broadway booking agent in New York City. She and her brother Frank used to do a cabaret act, but then Frank was drawn to the country. Roberta was not. The two haven’t been close in years. In the beginning of the movie, Frank is rescuing a cat from the top of a telephone pole when he dies. Roberta mishears the word “kitty” on the fateful phone call and says “titty.” Never again did that happen in a DCOM. Whereas the baby’s guardians are acquaintances who fall in love in Life as We Know It, Frank chooses two strangers (who don’t fall in love) to care for his son. In addition to Roberta, he bequeaths Jack to a former co-worker named Ben Rubadue (Maury Chaykin), who lives in Ohio.

At the funeral ceremony, the country flavor of the town of Bright River is on full display. A choir appears, not to sing, but to whistle the Christian hymn “Abide with Me.” Immediately after the service, the pastor and his wife have a really long make-out session in front of their many children.

Roberta is beside herself about her surprise nephew, so she and Mr. Rubadue step away from the burial to speak with a townsperson named Joe Scarlotti. Scarlotti, played by Northern Lights writer John Hoffman, delivers the ins and outs of Frank’s will. Roberta wants no part in raising Jack, and Mr. Rubadue doesn’t really want the responsibility, either. Fittingly, Roberta is swept into her cabaret past at a local club when she sings Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” It was really Diane Keaton singing.

Diane Keaton as Roberta, talking to her nephew Jack

The question is, where is Jack’s mother? Margaret the missing mom finally appears at Frank’s wake. Margaret knows that Jack is her son, but she is mentally ill and unfit to care for him. It’s a tragic scene: Jack wants mom to hear him play piano with the town orchestra. When he performs “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” mom gets up and starts dancing. She prances all the way into the river before onlookers pull her out and take her back to her institution. So no, she will not be Jack’s new guardian.

It’s easy to guess that Roberta will have a change of heart and choose to care for her nephew. It seems like she’s trying to bond with Jack, but until the bitter end, she is adamant about leaving him behind and returning to New York. It is Ben Rubadue, the cherubic friend from Ohio, who wants to accept guardianship. After the mom’s episode, he and Jack shared a sweet scene on a swingset, turning upside down the way Frank taught them. There’s a side plot in which the divorced Rubadue has a flirtation with a local lady named Daphne. It seems like he is sticking around in Bright River, both for his new romance and to take care of Jack.

Roberta leaves the hotel and is waiting on her train to NYC when she turns and sees Jack falling off the roof, crying for help. She finally accepts her auntly duties, rescues and hugs the boy profusely, and agrees to give up life as she knows it in order to be his guardian. Joseph Cross gives a great performance as Jack throughout and was even nominated for a Young Artist Award.

The final scene shows everyone in Halloween costumes delivering video birthday greetings to Jack, which they play for him during his party. Diane Keaton is dressed in a prison uniform with antenna boppers on her head. She says her costume is “an illegal alien.” YIKES. That’s not even the worst of her lines, but we won’t get into all those. As for all the smoking and innuendo, I’d expect that from the odd Uncle Buck or Blank Check rerun as a kid, but not from a DCOM! What if the channel had gone in a different direction and every movie had titties and chain smoking? I don’t even want to think about it.

Edit: Almost forgot to mention the actual Northern Lights! They are referenced in the very beginning and the very end of the movie. Young Jack learns from his dad that they’re a special “phenomenon.” When his dad is gone and he’s in his aunt’s care at the end, Jack finally sees the lights.

If you’re interested in watching Northern Lights but don’t have access to it, please get in touch with me by email or social media (@AMcClainMerrill). If you have seen this movie, let’s chat!

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