Genius (1999)

Genius (1999)

Genius is part of a long line of great Disney movies on the ice. I don’t know why this company is so good with hockey and skating, but they are. The DCOM was directed by Rod Daniel, who also directed Alley Cats Strike. Credited writers are Jon Rieck, Jim Lincoln, and Dan Studney. Trevor Morgan plays Charlie Boyle, a boy genius who is accepted into Ivy League universities for physics. He turns down Harvard to go to “Northern University” so that he can discover gravitons and manipulate gravity with Dr. Krickstein in a lab, where ice from the hockey rink cools the particle accelerator. “Science and hockey, my two favorite things in the world are in the same building!” Charlie cutely says. His dad drives a zamboni.

Genius movie poster

I struggle with the setup of this movie because there’s just no way a 13-year-old is rolling up to a dormitory with a duffle bag and no help moving in from his parents. They never come visit him and don’t seem to have anyone supervising him. This is college, not boarding school! The kid is supposed to stay with these extras who look like they’re 30?? And they’re not nice to him for most of the movie… Rant over. Now, here’s what I like about the film.

Disney Channel shows us kids trying to figure out who they are. That is the epitome of Charlie’s life. He knows he’s smart and has great potential, but he sees a pretty girl named Claire (Emmy Rossum) and questions everything. Charlie thinks he’s not enough for her as he is, so he invents a second persona, Chaz Anthony. While Charlie studies and even teaches at the university, Chaz enrolls in middle school and makes “class clown” his biggest personality trait. Claire is noticing him for all the wrong reasons. He builds a fancy remote control to make a skeleton dance in class (with hilarious ’99 CGI), he smarts off to his teachers, he has all the guys thinking he’s the big man on campus. But then Chaz has to rush back to college to be genius Charlie. I like this interesting manifestation of the struggle many tweens face, trying to find themselves and their voice around others (often while discovering romantic feelings for the first time). Charlie here is buying his new girl a Backstreet Boys CD, but he has another life to deal with academically.

Charlie and Claire floating, about to kiss

As Charlie navigates his complicated facts of life, the two worlds are dangerously close together. Though he disguises himself when his school pals come to hear him speak at the university, Charlie can’t hide forever. Claire discovers his lie during a big hockey game at the college — her dad is the coach, and Charlie’s lab is right under the rink. Coincidentally, his experiments burst through the ice and ruin a game that Northern probably would have won. Claire is upset and says she never wants to see him again. Alas, all DCOMs must reach a happy end. The tween lovebirds get back together and kind of help the hockey team win another big game by cheating. Charlie and Claire use their gravitons to create some kind of a magnetic field that will make the opponents float above the ice and mirror their every action. After the big win, Claire and Charlie end the movie kissing while levitating. Honestly, this is a nice hint of the sci-fi flair the channel had going on back then. Cute movie, sweet moments, especially that part when Claire is talking about her mom figure-skating. Check this one out on Disney+ for a fun winter afternoon.

Geek Charming (2011)

Geek Charming (2011)

In fall 2011, when Geek Charming premiered, I was a senior in high school. As I’ve mentioned before, I wasn’t watching quite as much Disney Channel during that time. I do remember Geek Charming, though. Directed by Jeffrey Hornaday (who was nominated for a Director’s Guild Award) and based on Robin Palmer’s book, the film stars Modern Family’s Sarah Hyland and High School Musical 3’s Matt Prokop.

Geek Charming Sarah Hyland and other populars

It’s important to address the upsetting real-life circumstances that cast a shadow over this DCOM. In 2014, Sarah Hyland was granted a restraining order against Matt Prokop after he abused her physically and verbally. This is horrible, and I am not aiming to magnify Prokop’s work or presence in any way. But I do want to celebrate Sarah Hyland and the incredible career she has had. I think Geek Charming showcases her acting abilities, particularly because she is playing an over-the-top popular girl in a sea of other populars. Disney Channel leads are the underdog more often than they’re the popular kid. In fact, the cool kids are usually the antagonists. It’s unique that Hyland’s Dylan Schoenfield starts out as a sort of anti-hero. She’s bubbly and cute and has her eyes set on the Blossom Queen crown. (I love that I just watched Wish Upon a Star, where Katherine Heigl was on the ballot for Winter Festival Queen.)

Josh Rosen is the titular “geek” in this equation, and Dylan is the “charming.” He sizes her up as an appropriate subject for a documentary he hopes to enter in a student film festival. Dylan considers the film an opportunity to bolster her chances for Blossom Queen. Josh captures her in her natural habit with the other populars, including her douchebag boyfriend Asher and her fiercest queenly competitor, Nicole. In the footage, Dylan shows superiority over her friends (what “popular” Disney Channel girl doesn’t?), and she comes off as the shallow girl she presumably is. However, Josh slowly captures her losing her layers. The queen-bee look is partly an act. Dylan truly loves fashion and posh things, but the whole Blossom Queen obsession is actually her way of connecting with her deceased mother, who once held the title. Dylan shows herself to be a more laid-back person when she makes a giant ice cream sundae, and definitely when she belches loudly in front of Josh and her dad.

There are a couple of likely developments in this story. We get a standard “give the geek a makeover” scene, and Dylan becomes upset with Josh before they can be together. Both of those aspects of the plot are reminding me of Lizzie McGuire. Remember when Larry Tudgeman got a makeover so Miranda would like him? Same with Dylan dressing up Josh — she needs him to fit in with her crowd, and this new look is supposed to make him more attractive to his crush Amy (Sasha Pieterse). As for the part where Dylan becomes upset, that is because Josh’s documentary embarrasses her. Going back to Lizzie, remember when Gordo made a documentary that embarrassed practically everyone at school?

This 2010s DCOM might make an interesting study if you watch a lot of these movies. It stands out in its casting, even if a few of its threads feel familiar. Like I said, making the popular chick the protagonist is an unusual move for Disney Channel. She’s not mean in a Kate Sanders way, at least, and she does win Blossom Queen. If you check this out, as always, let me know!

Wish Upon a Star (1996)

Wish Upon a Star (1996)

Wish Upon a Star was written by Jessica Barondes and directed by Blair Treu for Leucadia Film Corporation in Utah. Disney Channel aired this movie reasonably often from 1998/1999 through August 2002, per Disney Channel Broadcast Archive. After 2002, Wish Upon a Star appears to have never aired on Disney again. This film hits a sweet spot between the (often) more serious Disney Channel Premiere Films/miniseries before it and the DCOMs that immediately followed it.

Wish Upon a Star is a true teen movie, all about well-off sisters who wish they could live each other’s lives. Alexia Wheaton (Katherine Heigl) wears fashionable miniskirts and always has a boyfriend. Hayley Wheaton (Danielle Harris) focuses on math and science and hangs out in oversized t-shirts. Their parents, Ben and Nan, read Psychology Today and seem to be either psychologists or psychiatrists. They are frustrated with Alexia’s flippant behavior and supposed lack of substance. They decided to use reverse psychology and let her do whatever she wants, hoping it will spur her on towards better choices. She is the leader of a popular posse and has created a ridiculous set of rules for the group — no tuna at lunch, no dating someone for more than three months, no stubble on your legs, apparently.

Hayley is the opposite, sticking her used bubblegum on the nearest surface and rushing Alexia out the door to get to school on time. Alexia has a handsome boyfriend named Kyle (Donnie Jeffcoat, who played a bad boy named Michael Towner on 7th Heaven). Alexia’s biggest priority is winning the crown for the Winter Festival. She also wants an academic recommendation from her stern school headmaster. Hayley desperately wants to earn a chance to compete in an upcoming science fair. After one day in their actual bodies, we see just Hayley wish on a shooting star to switch places, while Alexia is in the hot tub with Kyle. Later, we find out that Alexia wished to be her sister, too. For much of the film, Alexia and Hayley are bent on sabotaging one another via the switch, not realizing that their actions could have lasting consequences for their success in high school and beyond. In Alexia’s body, Hayley wears dirty clothes to school (for the Winter Festival court’s picture day). In Hayley’s body, Alexia chooses to dress as a dominatrix, singing and dancing on the cafeteria tables. The siblings leave some choice words for one another on the mirror in the ladies’ restroom, too (calling each other wenches).

These girls eventually comprehend that they need to be a united front if they are to switch back peacefully. Hayley helps Alexia with math; Alexia gives Hayley some fashion and dating tips. They go from making fun of one another to giggling on a blanket under the stars, and it’s very sweet. As expected with a body-swapping movie, the sisters walk a few days in each other’s literal shoes and come to appreciate one another much more. Their looks for the Winter Festival, fully restored to their own bodies, are gorgeous. If you ever liked the Moonpools & Caterpillars, definitely watch this to the end, since they’re the featured performers at the school festival. Romantically speaking, you’d thinking Hayley would be the one to end up with Kyle, since they got along so well when she was in Alexia’s body. However, Alexia encourages Hayley to give the new neighbor boy a try.

There are so many memorable moments in this movie, but I think Hayley (really Alexia) staying home from school and eating ice cream is a good one — aside from the fact that she’s not used to the ice cream because in her normal Alexia body, she goes on crash diets. I don’t like the harmful dieting in this movie; Alexia’s supposed to subsist on a “fruits and veggies only” regimen. I do love the part when Alexia (actually Hayley) throws pennies down the toilet to try to reverse the wish. I also think it’s interesting that there’s a full discussion about sex, and I’d imagine Disney Channel might have cut that part, but I don’t recall. As I remember my elementary school self watching this film, I think about how cool these girls were to me. They probably seemed so much older, too. While I can’t imagine the kind of “risque” content in this movie ever playing on Disney Channel again, it was a fun moment in time to be a ’90s baby and see a teenage Katherine Heigl with her frosty lipstick smiling back at you. It was several years after seeing Wish Upon a Star that I actually knew who she was, but I knew she was cool! There are numerous options for streaming this film to relive the magic of the shooting star. And look for Mark Hofeling, legendary DCOM designer, who also plays a teacher in the movie.

Stuck in the Suburbs (2004)

Stuck in the Suburbs (2004)

Stuck in the Suburbs was written by Wendy Engelberg, Andy Engelberg, and Dan Berendsen. The film was directed by Savage Steve Holland and features the work of amazing DCOM composer David Kitay. While Brenda Song was already a Disney Channel veteran at this point (two prior DCOMs, voiceover work, That’s So Raven episode, appearances on Phil of the Future), this was Danielle Panabaker’s first appearance on Disney Channel. Her sister Kay was also on the first season of Phil, and both siblings would star in the 2006 DCOM Read It & Weep.

Stuck in the Suburbs Danielle Panabaker and Brenda Song

As I indicated when I wrote about its soundtrack last year, Stuck in the Suburbs is easily one of the most nostalgic DCOMs for me. The music, the fashion, and the zany plot all make for a really fun time. Danielle’s character, Brittany Aarons, is stuck in suburbia. She and her three best friends are obsessed with pop star Jordan Cahill (Taran Killam). Brittany suddenly stifles her adoration for the singer when a cool new chick named Natasha (Brenda Song) comes to town. Natasha is an individual, which is exactly what Brittany aspires to be. She wants to stand out from the monotony of her neighborhood. Jordan Cahill has a parallel struggle. While standing out is no problem for the star, he isn’t satisfied with his life and wants people to see who he really is. His record label is making him sing words that are meaningless to him.

When Brittany and all her friends attend Jordan’s music video shoot, she and his assistant drop all their things and accidentally switch phones. No, this would not happen in real life. Yes, it makes for an interesting story. The assistant, Eddie, becomes angry that Brittany and Natasha have Jordan’s phone, and the girls gradually start upending Jordan’s life with the Palm Pilot-esque device. I noticed the clever camera work in some of these scenes. A hairdresser, at Natasha’s prompting, cuts off all of Jordan’s hair. She was instructed to never look him in the eye and to only feed him raisins. When Jordan sees his surprising new ‘do and freaks out, the stylist falls to her knees and offers him a raisin. Cut to Brittany’s family at dinner — the mom places a container full of raisins on the table. In another scene, we look at Brittany and Natasha from inside an open locker. They’re calling Eddie, who appears in a twin shot from the inside of a refrigerator. I appreciate these little touches.

The mom in this movie is advocating for the preservation of a historic home, and after a whole bunch of chasing around and explanations about the whole phone switchup, Jordan Cahill sings at her rally. The family in this film is cute overall. Mom feels bad that Brittany writes sad songs, Dad tries to make her cover up when she bares her midriff, older sister is a great student but a bad driver, and the little brother is always hiding in Brittany’s room, but he knows how to break into Jordan’s cell phone. And yes, Drew Seeley is working at the hotel desk when Natasha and Brittany first try to return the phone. I’m glad I revisited this film yet again, because I truly enjoyed the whole thing!

Upside-Down Magic (2020)

Upside-Down Magic (2020)

Upside-Down Magic is a book series written by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins. (I distinctly remember reading Myracle’s Eleven as a kid.) This film was directed by Joe Nussbaum, and its teleplay was written by Josh A. Cagan and Nick Pustay. Gordon Rempel won a Leo Award on this film for best editing. This was my second time seeing the DCOM, and I remembered a lot of it from last year. Although Auradon in Descendants is technically magical, Upside-Down Magic is the first Disney Channel project to send its characters to a magic training school à la Harry Potter since that stint on Wizards of Waverly Place where the Russos went to Wiz Tech.

Nory (Izabela Rose) and her BFF Reina (Siena Agudong) are moving into Sage Academy. We don’t really know where it is in relation to the rest of the world, but parents drop off their kids in a forest. I love that Kyle Howard from The Paper Brigade has a prominent role in this film. He’s the groundskeeper of Sage and promptly tells all the parents he’ll see them at Thanksgiving. The children have to test their magical abilities right away, and everybody falls into one of four categories: Fluxers, Flares, Flickers, and Fuzzies (yikes, sounds too much like Furries). Reina is a flare, meaning she can make fire. Nory is a fluxer, meaning that she can shapeshift into different animals. Nory can’t turn into just one animal, though…

Upside-Down Magic Movie poster

I’m convinced that the writers of the books/movie must know Disney’s The Wuzzles, an animated series that debuted in the ’80s on CBS. Each Wuzzle is made up of two animals, which are reflected in most of the characters’ names: Bumblelion, Butterbear, Rhinokey, Eleroo, Hoppopotamus, Moosel, Crocosaurus, Brat, Tycoon, and Flizard. In Upside-Down Magic, Nory transforms herself into similar multi-creature combos, including a dritten (dragon/kitten) — the form that ultimately enables her to save the day. Because Nory can’t practice magic in the prescribed way, Sage Academy banishes her to the woods and labels her “UDM” (Upside-Down Magic). The other three UDMs have malfunctioning magic, too, from accidentally levitating with force, to flying and not being able to come down, to making smoke instead of fire. Legend has it that a former UDM could only create fire by farting it from his butt. That student began practicing “shadow magic” and gave all UDMs a bad name, so the school tries to wean them off their magic and return them to a non-magical existence. However, the expectations are flipped on who is actually evil, and top flare student Reina is lured into shadow magic by the ghost of a former Sage Academy student. Kind of Tom Riddle-esque, if you ask me.

If I had children interested in magic movies, this would be a nice watch for them. The four UDMs train with Kyle Howard’s character, Budd Skriff, to learn how to use their wonky magic. Nory has to fight her flame-throwing best friend at the end and then save Reina’s life. With the final shadow magic book scene, the door is open for a sequel. I would watch it!

Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (2006)

Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (2006)

After portraying the smart, stylish, lovable best friend for three different DCOMs, Brenda Song was celebrated as the movie star she’s always been in Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior. She plays the titular Wendy, who is in the running for Homecoming Queen but must turn her attention to being, well, a warrior. Wendy is Chinese-American, though Brenda Song is Thai and Hmong-American. Cultural backgrounds and family history are relevant to some other DCOMs — Johnny Tsunami, Rip Girls, The Luck of the Irish, Spin!, for a few good examples. To date, Wendy Wu is the only Disney Channel Original Movie to focus on the ancestry of a Chinese-American character. The film was directed by John Laing and written by Vince Cheung, Ben Montanio, B. Mark Seabrooks, and Lydia Look. Cheung and Montanio appear to have been writing partners on Wizards of Waverly Place. Per IMDb, Brenda Song got a co-producing credit, and Ralph Farquhar of The Proud Family was the executive producer.

Wendy and Shen fighting

I have never been the most ardent fan of action movies in general, and Wendy Wu is one of Disney Channel’s few action movies. However, I like that the film is balanced with character depictions of Wendy as a high school girl — like Song’s other characters, she is fashionable and popular. Her boyfriend Austin is a tool, and her friends are just as focused on Wendy winning Homecoming Queen as she is. I also think it’s good that in the film’s setup, we are not to assume that Wendy is concerned with her culture, and neither are her parents, at first. The significance of her background for the movie’s purposes is that Wendy is a descendant of a Yin warrior. Therefore, she must defeat an evil spirit named Yan Lo, who comes back to fight every 90 years. Wendy wears a protective amulet and trains with Shen, a reincarnated Buddhist monk she passes off as her cousin. Shen arrives in Wendy’s home while she’s asleep after baking her Homecoming cupcakes. He sees that Wendy’s brother has been possessed by the spirit and proceeds to fight the brother until the trance wears off. Wendy doesn’t want anything to do with Shen initially, but she realizes the huge responsibility on her shoulders and finally accepts it. Shen enjoys hanging out and drinking cappuccinos with Wendy, so the cousin thing doesn’t really work. But at the end of Wendy’s epic fight against Yan Lo (the night of Homecoming, of course), Shen gets to keep his last life, leaving the door open for a friendship or more with Wendy. Yan Lo can take over any person’s body, so it seems apropos that he fights Wendy through Jessica, her Homecoming rival. Wendy’s grandmother is the only one who seemed to know that Wendy would be the warrior.

Brenda Song is proud of her work on Wendy Wu. She said in a Cosmopolitan video interview, “I have a black belt in martial arts, and a lot people don’t know that ‘cause I think a lot of the characters I play are super girly. This was like an opportunity to show this other side that a lot of people didn’t know.” She continued, “What I really loved was, at the time, Disney Channel was already color-blind casting and being able to tell stories about different cultures and different races… Getting to sort of send a positive message about being different, being from someplace different, eating different foods, and also getting to delve into a really fun genre that is very different from London Tipton was so fun for me.” London Tipton will always be iconic, but so will Wendy Wu. I’m a huge Brenda Song fan and am so happy she maintains a long, fulfilling relationship with the Disney Channel.

The Descendants Trilogy (2015, 2017, 2019)

The Descendants Trilogy (2015, 2017, 2019)

This year is the second that I have watched Disney Channel’s Descendants trilogy. If you’re reading this, you might at least know what the movies are about: four children of Disney villains — Maleficent’s daughter Mal, Cruella’s son Carlos, Evil Queen’s daughter Evie, and Jafar’s son Jay — are selected to attend boarding school in Auradon. The villains live on the Isle of the Lost, and Auradon is for the royal good guys. Auradon Prep is run by the Fairy Godmother, whose daughter Jane is a student there, along with Lonnie (daughter of Mulan), Doug (son of Dopey), Chad Charming (son of the prince and Cinderella), Audrey (daughter of Aurora), and Ben (son of Belle and the Beast). I noticed that there is a character in Auradon who uses a wheelchair. I’m glad she is in the films, but I wish she had a more prominent role. I’m hopeful that someday soon, Disney Channel will include main characters who have disabilities.

Descendants movie poster

These three live-action films were written by the Runaway Bride duo, Sara Parriott and Josann McGibbon. Kenny Ortega directed the DCOM trilogy, and veteran production designer Mark Hofeling and music director David Lawrence were on board. The enchanting costumes were designed by Kara Saun, and I liked that they were varied for each installment. Understandably, the first movie sets up the world of good versus evil. There is a barrier over the sea dividing the Isle from Auradon, which serves as an accessible metaphor for inclusion and exclusion, the right or wrong side of the tracks, etc. Beauty and the Beast’s son, Ben, becomes king and falls in love with Mal, first through her spell and then for real. This is one of the most mature teen romances I’ve ever seen in a DCOM, and Dove Cameron and Mitchell Hope most definitely sold me on the idea that their characters are in love. Mal and her villain cronies have told us that they’re “Rotten to the Core,” evoking the imagery of the Evil Queen’s apple for Snow White. Mal is meant to retrieve Fairy Godmother’s wand for Maleficent, but she has a change of heart and ultimately turns her mother into a lizard instead. I have a choral background and enjoyed the music at the coronation. A choir sings “Laudamus Te” from the Vivaldi Gloria, which is unexpected for Disney Channel, but lovely.

The second movie continues Mal’s struggle between good and evil within herself, and the other villain kids develop romances with Auradon characters. Jay flirts with Lonnie, Carlos and Jane become closer, and Evie and Doug have feelings for each other. Ben dislikes Mal’s use of spells to do nice things for him. Hey, if I could conjure up a gourmet picnic with a spell book, I probably would, too. Most importantly, Descendants 2 introduces Uma, daughter of Ursula ( we don’t see Ursula, but she is voiced by Whoopi Goldberg). China Anne McClain establishes Uma as a venerable force and a foil for Mal. Uma casts a spell on King Ben so that he thinks he is in love with her. On a party yacht for the big Auradon Prep dance, Ben’s love for Mal wins him over, and Mal must transform into a dragon to fight Uma’s octopus form. Another big development is that the villain kids and King Ben want to bring more children from the Isle to Auradon. I enjoy the additional screen time for Lonnie in this movie, as she travels with the VKs and Ben to search for Mal over at the Isle. It’s too bad she wasn’t in the third. It’s also too bad Gil and Harry’s kiss was cut entirely.

Descendants villain kids with King Ben in the third movie

There’s so much of Descendants 3 that makes it highly engaging. The music is electric, the characters are so well-established, and Audrey’s turn from Aurora’s “good” daughter to dangerous villain is a great twist. Audrey is jealous because she used to be with Ben, and he’s marrying Mal now. Evie, Jay, Carlos, and Mal are able to grant space in Auradon to four villain kids, so we meet Dr. Facilier’s daughter Celia, Drizella’s daughter Dizzy, and the twin sons of Smee. Uma and Mal must overcome their differences to work together and protect everyone from Audrey. Kind of like the portal to Halloweentown, there’s some discussion over the safety of Auradon with the barrier being opened. I like that the romantic developments continue between Carlos and Jane, and Evie and Doug — the latter two have an entire kissing song, which Sofia Carson does a great job with. Oh, the big reveal of this movie is that Mal’s father is Hades, and his ember is the only thing that can save Audrey after she tries to destroy everyone. Just like the first two films, the third ends with a dance party song. It’s even more celebratory this time, since the barrier is permanently opened. Tragically, Cameron Boyce passed away before the film’s premiere on Disney Channel. Cameron, Dove, Sofia, and Booboo Stewart made a perfect team. I can’t imagine how hard they worked learning all those dance moves and executing them in such a theoretical headspace. Fantasy films are sometimes harder for me to dive into, but it makes sense to explore the storytelling potential of Disney’s classic royal characters and their villainous counterparts.

Note: A previous version of this post stated that Mozart’s “Laudamus Te” from the C minor mass was in the first film. I mixed up my movements! Corrected to say that the music is from the Vivaldi Gloria. 🙂

Phantom of the Megaplex (2000)

Phantom of the Megaplex (2000)

Phantom of the Megaplex is one of those Disney Channel Original Movies that will always stir up excitement. Three siblings in a movie theater try to figure out who’s responsible for all the spooky glitches throughout the building. Like the Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom of the Megaplex wears a black cloak and disguises himself with a mask. This DCOM was written by Stu Krieger (our fave) and directed by Blair Treu (who also directed The Paper Brigade and Wish Upon a Star). The three principal characters were nominated for Young Artist awards: Taylor Handley as eldest brother Pete Riley, Caitlin Wachs as his sister Karen, and Jacob Smith as little brother Brian.

Phantom of the Megaplex movie poster

This movie has the perfect set-up for things to go bump in the night. Pete is the hard-working assistant manager of the megaplex, and his brother and sister are supposed to visit him while they view a children’s movie about a farmer. Karen plans to ditch Brian so that she can watch University of Death with her friends instead. It’s a busy night for the theater, as its owner will be arriving with A-List guests for a big movie premiere later in the evening. Pete narrates the opening of the DCOM to introduce us to his co-workers, and one of the sweetest is Movie Mason, played by Mickey Rooney. Mason isn’t on the payroll, but he dutifully shows up and gives the manager, Shawn MacGibbon, his daily schedule. MacGibbon displays his callous nature early on when he throws Mason’s schedule in the trash. Movie Mason is a possible suspect for the Phantom; MacGibbon asked him to leave the theater because his commentary and film opinions were slowing down his volunteer work as a ticket-taker. Perhaps Mason is upset enough to mess with rolls of film, turn a high-powered fan on full blast to simulate a hurricane, and even set off an alarm to douse patrons with sprinklers? Nope. Mickey Rooney would never do that.

There’s so much to love about this film, including its charming sibling characters. Pete is a 17-year-old who loves his job but also wants his crush to notice him, so he invites her to the big movie premiere. In the end, she sees that he’s so much better than the bully who competes for her attention. Karen is the perfect sneaky DCOM tween girl. She wants to be cool and have independence, but she learns that leaving her little brother alone in a big theater is not the smartest decision. Brian is more enthusiastic than anyone about catching the Phantom. “The Phantom of the Megaplex strikes again!” he says. Brian and Karen reunite and chase the Phantom downstairs. When they find Movie Mason’s secret hideout, Mason assures them that he wouldn’t taint the moviegoing process in any way. He loves cinema too much to ruin it. The real Phantom is the rude manager, Mr. MacGibbon. This is a serious villain! He throws a sheet over these kids and ties them up. You can’t say early DCOMs aren’t daring.

I love what happens with the mom (Corinne Bohrer from Under Wraps) and her boyfriend in this movie. DCOMs account for numerous family structures, and stepparents are sometimes difficult for the kid characters to adjust to. In Phantom, the children all seem happy that their mother is dating someone she really likes. She is ready to move forward and get engaged but has a practical discussion with her fiancé about the challenges of becoming a blended family. He finally pops the question at the end. It’s such a sweet subplot (with plant analogies, since the mom loves gardening) that I really liked.

Mickey Rooney with the kids in Phantom of the Megaplex

When I got back on Twitter about a year ago, I had a lovely exchange with @Erikakamoviefan about Mason. Erik shared his appreciation for Mason’s “Magic at the Movies” speech, which reads: “Children, when we arrive in this world, magic is all around us. You simply have to see a baby discover a butterfly, or a toddler splash in the bath for the first time. Yet, as years pass, simple pleasures aren’t quite so simple to find. Myths, legends fall away. Santa’s secrets are revealed. Card tricks lose their fascination. True wonder is harder to come by, but there’s always magic at the movies. Pirate ships, bicycles that fly, angels earn their wings, beautiful women marry handsome men. And we all learn, ‘There’s no place like home.'” I love the Santa part, since Mickey Rooney was the voice of my favorite Rankin/Bass Santa Claus. The entire speech is such a treasure, as was the actor who gave it.

I hope you’ll enjoy a fun night in with Phantom of the Megaplex. While it can certainly be a Halloween movie, it was released in November, and the story takes place during the summer. So you can truly enjoy it any time of the year. While you’re at it, go follow our friend @stukrieger on Instagram, where he shares facts and stories about writing the beloved DCOMs of your childhood.

Susie Q (1996)

Susie Q (1996)

I have no youthful memories of watching Susie Q, and that might be a good thing. I like the film, but it’s a lot to digest. A teenage girl in 1955 (Susie Q, played by Amy Jo Johnson) dies in a tragic car accident on the way to her prom within the first few minutes of the film. She then haunts her town in the ’90s because she left something very important behind. Before he died, Susie’s grandfather wanted her to make sure her mother received papers pertaining to the ownership of their family home. She didn’t remember until after she left for the dance, and she and her date died trying to turn around for those papers. In 1955, a teen boy named Zach (Justin Whalin) moves into Susie’s old home in Willow Valley with his mom (Shelley Long) and adorable sister Teri (Andrea Libman). Since he found her bracelet, Zach is the only person who can see Susie Q, and she eventually convinces him to help her.

adorable photo of Zach and Susie Q high-fiving

The kids learn that Susie’s grandfather owned the old house and a ton of the surrounding land. However, he died before he could produce the deed. Susie’s parents were forced to move into a trailer, but they’re about to be run out of there due to new development. There was a 40-year window for grandpa’s home ownership to be proven before the executors (the bank) permanently seize the land. Zach, Susie, and Teri have until Friday night at midnight to produce the papers. After they find them, Zach and Teri are pulled over by a cop who is in cahoots with the evil banker. They escape jail by pretending Teri has supernatural abilities. Susie’s parents get their papers just in time. A couple other aspects of the movie I thought were very good: Shelley Long is her wonderful movie mom self here. Her husband (Zach’s dad) passed away the year before, and she’s working hard as a reporter at the local news station. Before the family moved, Zach’s dad died on his way to see Zach play basketball. In that sense, he has something of a connection to Susie Q, besides living in her house. His father’s death has kept Zach from playing basketball, but after his adventure with Susie, he is encouraged to join the high school team. Garwin Sanford, the coach, was also in Life-Size and a couple episodes of So Weird.

I’d say most of us Disney Channel scholars have classified Susie Q as a Disney Channel Premiere Film since it premiered before the development of the DCOM brand. However, I’m not sure we can even it call it a DCPF. When asked about the film years ago, the late Disney archivist Dave Smith said, “Susie Q, starring Shelley Long, Justin Whalin, and Amy Jo Johnson, was not a Disney movie, even though it aired several times on Disney Channel in the 1990s. It has never been released on DVD.” The film is original to Super RTL, a German channel — which is why it is actually subtitled “Engel (angel) in Pink.” I’ve always read that the Disney Channel stopped airing Susie Q in the early 2000s, and Disney Channel Broadcast Archive identifies February 2, 2002 as the final date the film aired on Disney in the US.

Justin Whalin, Shelley Long, Amy Jo Johnson posing for Susie Q

After Amy Jo Johnson had done 152 episodes of Power Rangers, she was ready for a change. The actress told the No Pink Spandex show, “I was really good friends with Shuki Levy, who was one of the owners, him and Haim [Saban] … I just went to him and, as a friend, said, ‘I think I’m done. I think I’m ready to go try to do something else.’ And he said, ‘Awesome. Great. Here — I wrote this little movie called Susie Q.'” Levy, an award-winning composer, musician, and producer, asked her to finish her Power Rangers season and star in his movie, and Amy Jo agreed. He wrote the film with Douglas Sloan, his Power Rangers colleague. Sloan wrote Johnny Tsunami (with Ann Austen) and produced several other DCOMs. John Blizek directed Susie Q. Amy Jo Johnson told the “Sharing the Details” blog in 2014, “Susie Q was my first real lead in a film and all my hopes and dreams were as big as the universe. I cherish that feeling and that time on that set.” She’s also tweeted that she’d love for her daughter to see the film, which fans truly wish Disney+ would add. If you have a chance to watch it, enjoy all the doo-wop music, including the title track and “My Angel Lover.”

I think Susie Q is fascinating, not only because of its non-DCOM status, but also because it dives right into death and grief. Susie’s parents clearly miss her, but as a ghost, she can see them and obviously misses them, too. You can see how much it pains her not to be with them anymore. Zach grieves the loss of his father, and here he is, connecting with another soul who left earth too soon. Zach can’t have Susie Q — she returns to the afterlife to reunite with her prom date and her grandfather. But in a very sweet final scene, Zach meets a student at his school named Maggie (also played by Amy Jo Johnson), who looks exactly like Susie. Though this movie has a graphic depiction of death in the beginning, the story gives the viewer a gift in Susie Q, the girl in the pink prom dress with a beautiful heart to match her smile.

Invisible Sister (2015), The Swap (2016)

Invisible Sister (2015), The Swap (2016)

As I mentioned after watching the 2018 Freaky Friday DCOM, I’ve seen all four of Disney’s Freaky Friday films — 1976, 1995, 2003, and 2018. There are other body-swapping DCOMs. Then there are DCOMs without body-swapping where a character still has to physically step into someone else’s life. The latter scenario is the premise for Invisible Sister, which already gets bonus points because it opens with a Superchick song (“This is the Time”). The film was directed by Paul Hoen and was inspired by My Invisible Sister, a book by Beatrice Colin and Sara Pinto. Sisters Cleo (Rowan Blanchard) and Molly (Paris Berelc) are very different. Cleo is obviously the invisible sister in the beginning of the film. Her opening monologue reads, in part: “Those bright shiny objects, they soak up all the attention. While at the same time, the invisible objects right under our noses don’t. That’s just the way things are. We can’t change it, no matter how much we might want to. At least that’s what I thought.”

invisible sister movie poster

While Cleo wears a goth-chic look and is only noticed when people make fun of her, Molly dons a preppy pink sweater and hangs with the cool kids to get fro-yo. She tries to include her sister by telling her the fro-yo outing will be “awesome city” and “the bomb.” Cleo likes to do her own thing. Her science teacher Mr. Perkins (Alex Désert) is the catalyst for a role reversal in the film. He doesn’t think Cleo is applying herself, so he makes her turn gunk into a crystal for her science experiment and tells her it will count for half her grade. I’m not sure why the other kids are allowed to coast by and she can’t, but that’s the way it is, apparently.

Karan Brar plays Cleo’s best friend George. His character reminds me a little bit of Cyrus from Andi Mack. Cleo and Molly’s parents appear briefly before they go out of town for Halloween weekend. This movie is low-key Halloween, by the way. Production designer Mark Hofeling has the most gorgeous fall decorations everywhere. Uniquely, this DCOM was both set and filmed in New Orleans. The upcoming Halloween dance is appropriately called “Romp the Swamp.” Before the parents leave their daughters, the mom says there can have protein shakes “if you run out of food.” Protein shakes? If you run out of food? What??? These protein-loving parents obviously favor Molly, a lacrosse star, and barely even notice Cleo. While working on her science experiment, Cleo accidentally creates an invisibility potion for a moth. The moth flies away but returns and flies into Molly’s drink, turning her into the invisible sister. So the role reversal does not involve Cleo or Molly actually switching bodies.

Instead, Molly says she cannot be absent from school due to lacrosse. Remembering that it’s Halloween, she has Cleo pretend to be her, wearing a Dorothy costume from The Wizard of Oz and a mask to cover her face. Now Cleo has to go to school as her popular sister. (This is not totally believable. Even as “Mardi Gras Dorothy,” Rowan Blanchard still looks like Rowan Blanchard.) Invisible Molly comes to school anyway. While her boyfriend is pooping, Molly steals his giant bear costume and wears that so that she can pretend to be Cleo in front of her sister’s crush. This actually helps Cleo in the end. There is danger of Molly’s invisibility becoming permanent, unless the kids can find an antidote for the moth juice before midnight. Yep, midnight on Halloween. Classic Disney Channel. While chasing down the moth that started this whole thing, Molly gets mad at Cleo for her science experiment and for being sarcastic and judgmental. Cleo apologizes and says, “It’s just not easy being your sister. You’ve got this thing, this light. Everyone is drawn to you, and it’s hard sometimes ‘cause the truth is, that I’ve always wanted to have that. And when I didn’t, it was much easier to blame you for feeling invisible. So I pushed you away, and everything away. I should have come for froyo.” The sisters reconcile, and Molly catches the moth. Eventually, during the Halloween dance, Cleo is able to make Molly visible. Cleo’s teacher invites her to give a presentation at the New Orleans Association of Applied Scientists. That one really requires suspension of disbelief.

Jacob Bertrand and Peyton List in The Swap

A couple weeks after watching Invisible Sister, I viewed Peyton List and Jacob Bertrand in The Swap. This film was promoted as part of “Monstober” in 2016, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Halloween. It’s still a nice fall movie, with ice hockey being a somewhat important part of the story. Like Invisible Sister, The Swap is really about relationships between family members. Ellie O’Brien (List) has been ignored by her father since he left her and her mom. Jack Malloy (Bertrand) has dealt with a harsh, emotionally unavailable dad since his mother died. Jack’s father is also the high school hockey coach and is extremely strict with his son’s practice schedule. Ellie is on the school’s rhythmic gymnastics team and has lots of support from her spirulina-loving hot yoga-teaching mom. While at the nurse’s office complaining about their lives, Ellie and Jack wish via text that they could switch places, and it happens. Guess who the school nurse is. It’s the mom from Full-Court Miracle and Cadet Kelly!!! There’s also a fun foe-turned-friend named Porter, who starts out as a bully but finds his calling in STEM club.

This film, directed by Jay Karas, was based on an eponymous book by Megan Shull. It’s very 2010s. Lots of texting bubbles on the screen. “Totes,” “amazeballs,” and a couple phrases I’ve never heard of, including “dude-a-lude” and “dung brains.” Ellie and Jack somehow put all their inner power into their cell phones and must use those to switch back. Ellie, in Jack’s body, ultimately gets Jack’s dad and brothers to open up about losing his mom. His dad finally listens when Jack says he feels like dad doesn’t love him. Yeah coach, pretty rough to hear your dad tell you that “boys don’t cry” anytime you get upset. Jack, in Ellie’s body, learns that Ellie has been using her dad’s old flip phone, and he is about to disconnect her because he wants a plan with his new family. That’s sad. While dealing with all these emotions and trying to help each other through the swap, Jack and Ellie become good friends, teaching each other their respective sports and trying to better understand the other friends they hang out with.

In addition to the stuff with her dad, Ellie is dealing with her BFF no longer wanting to be friends. “You’re just not the kind of friend that’s bestie for me anymore,” this girl says. Rude! Ellie handles it well. She finds a new, better friend and cordially tells the old one that they’ve had a good run and it’s okay to move on. That would have been nice to know in high school. Another surprisingly real moment is when the high school boys sit around and rate girls. I’m surprised to find this in a 2016 DCOM. As Jack, Ellie discourages the guys from reducing women to numbers. In another homage to Cadet Kelly, Jack (in Ellie’s body) puts paint in a mean girl’s hair, since this chick stole her BFF. Jack (as Ellie) also teaches her peers a cool new dance at a party. Intentional or not, it’s a nice throwback to Twoie from The Other Me. One of the saddest moments in the whole movie is when the boys’ hockey team honors Jack’s deceased mom with a plaque on a chair in the stadium: “Linda Malloy, Heaven’s #1 hockey mom.” Of course, Ellie and Jack are able to switch back, and this whole swap has helped them open up about how they feel. Their parents get together at the end. DCOMs contain multitudes, and I’m glad I watched this one.