Stepsister from Planet Weird (2000)

Stepsister from Planet Weird (2000)

I finally understand Stepsister from Planet Weird… structurally, anyway. Directed by Steve Boyum and based on Francess Lin Lantz’s 1996 book, the film is told from the perspective of soon-to-be stepsisters. Megan Larson (Courtnee Draper) narrates the opening portion of the film, beginning with a dream sequence that reveals her windsurfing near her family and her crush, Cutter (Tom Wright, also Orion in Zenon: The Zequel). Megan wants Cutter to be her boyfriend, she wants to be part of the popular group, and she wants her divorced parents to get back together. In a mental flashback, Megan explains that her father was always on the phone and even sat in the car working while the family was having a beach day. Megan shares why she’s not in the populars’ good graces — she lied about being Jewel’s cousin. The school’s queen bee is Heather Hartman, played by Lauren Maltby (Zenon’s Margie!).

Stepsister from Planet Weird cover art

Megan’s mom, Kathy, starts dating a man named Cosmo Cola, whose daughter Ariel “fears the wind.” Megan thinks she’s super weird, but the feeling is mutual. As Ariel picks up and narrates her side of the story, we learn that she is an alien from the planet Zircalon. Cosmo is a freedom fighter who has been forced to flee the emperor’s tyranny. Ariel despises her human form and would much rather be a gaseous bubble. Over dinner at the Larsons’ house, Cosmo and Kathy announce their engagement to Ariel, Megan, and her brother Trevor (Myles Jeffrey from Mom’s Got a Date with a Vampire). Trevor loves Cosmo, but Megan is furious about her mom’s upcoming nuptials. She is tasked with showing Ariel around school, and Ariel bikes to campus wearing a football helmet on her first day. All the students are enamored with her offbeat personality. Why is she wearing so many layers, they ask? “To protect my essence,” she answers.

Megan and Ariel take turns recounting their school experiences, and they finally come up with a solution they can agree on: sabotage their parents’ engagement. Their plan works for a while, but the adults eventually realize what’s going on and decide to go through with their wedding. At the end of the movie, Megan can finally confirm her suspicions that Ariel and Cosmo are aliens. The evil emperor has come to wreak destruction. Megan helps Ariel sweet-talk the emperor’s son, Fanuul, so that Cosmo can still marry Kathy. Cutter joins the conversation and tries to make a case for freedom of choice…about potato chips and dates. Fanuul is sold.

Unsurprisingly, the emperor is afraid of wind, so Trevor’s leafblower defeats him.

Trevor using leafblower to drive away the emperor

It’s funny. I didn’t watch this DCOM much growing up and haven’t spent too much time with it since Disney+ launched three years ago. This rewatching experience made the most sense to me. Stepsister from Planet Weird is supposed to be weird, obviously. But it has all the DCOM elements of growing up and working out problems. Single-parent DCOMs were still a growing genre in 2000, and Stepsister really dives into Megan and Ariel’s respective feelings. Neither of them want to bring the two families together, but they somehow look past the weirdness and bond through their otherworldly experiences. If I had to compare this movie to anything, I’d say it neighbors the Zenon camp, and not only because the films share actors. Until ZOMBIES, Zenon: The Zequel and Can of Worms were the only DCOMs to feature aliens. It’s interesting to see varying depictions of alien life forms. Also, Kirsten Storms and Courtnee Draper both blend emotional range, analytical characteristics, and everyday tween-ness quite well. I’m glad both of them were DCOM fixtures in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

Read It & Weep (2006)

Read It & Weep (2006)

If Zenon and Smart House were the beloved gems discovered by elementary school Allison, Read It & Weep was a shiny jewel that kept me hooked in middle school. This was a crucial time for Disney Channel to keep my attention (and yours, probably?). With six total DCOMs in 2006, Read It & Weep followed High School Musical, Cow Belles, and Wendy Wu, Homecoming Warrior. It was succeeded by The Cheetah Girls 2 and … wait for it … Return to Halloweentown. On the series side, Hannah Montana was already a runaway hit. This slate skewed toward girly, and I was not complaining at all. I loved the compelling female leads of ’06, including Kay and Danielle Panabaker. In Read It & Weep, Kay plays Jamie Bartlett, and her real-life sister Danielle plays Jamie’s alter-ego, Is. The movie was based on the adolescent novel How My Private, Personal Journal Became a Bestseller by Julia DeVillers.

Kay and Danielle Panabaker in the DCOM poster for Read It and Weep

Just like the book title says, Jamie accidentally turns her journal into a bestselling novel. While watching a soap opera with her friends, she mistakenly uploads her digital diary and sends it to the printer in lieu of a school paper. Into the teacher’s bin it goes, and Jamie’s private thoughts earn her the admiration of her instructor, her peers, her family, and her community. You see, the journal is written like a novel, with most of Jamie’s schoolmates disguised under character names. The mean girl, Sawyer, is called Myrna. Jamie’s best girlfriends are known as “the coolest kids in the kingdom.” However, Jamie keeps the same surname for her crush: Marco. Overnight, Jamie’s life goes from low-profile to over-scheduled, so much so that she works with a handler for all her book publicity appearances. Her friends, Lindsay, Harmony, and Connor (baby Jason Dolley), start to see Jamie change into a more self-centered person who can’t keep her commitments.

Jamie putting her boot on Connor in Read It & Weep

Connor is especially hurt, as he’s been doing chores to get his brother to drive Jamie and the friend group to an upcoming school dance. He finally works up the courage to ask Jamie out, but she literally sticks her boot on his body to shut him up so that Marco can ask her out first. It’s such a tragic scene, especially knowing that Marco has been passing off Connor’s poems for Jamie as his own. Jamie’s parents truly depend on her book’s success to keep their struggling pizzeria alive. Her girlfriends depend on her to make an appearance at their animal rights rally. But Jamie becomes more and more like the “Is” she created in her journal. Eventually, Jamie snaps on live television, and her perfect authorly world begins to unravel. But there’s no one to clean up the damage.

The most heartbreaking scene in the movie, for me, is when Jamie gets fired up after talking to Is. She goes to her brother Lenny’s room to complain about the volume of his guitar playing and says, “You call that noise music?” From one depressed person to another, I get Lenny. Jamie’s comments do not help him any, and it’s not until the end of the DCOM that he recovers enough to deliver an absolute bop, “I Will Be Around,” at the school dance. Jamie publicly apologizes, seaweed descends from the big sparkly whale her friends designed, and this unlikely pizza topping saves her dad’s restaurant. What I remember just as much as the DCOM is the sweet behind-the-scenes promotional material. Sister acts were popular in 2006: first Aly & AJ in Cow Belles, then the Panabaker sisters for Read It & Weep. (Not on Disney Channel, but in theaters, Hilary and Haylie Duff also made a movie together… Material Girls). The commercials with Kay and Danielle were so cute. I remember Kay smiling and dancing. I remember Danielle talking about saving a flower from a walk she took with her mom. Those little “kids just like you” moments meant a lot to an impressionable middle schooler. Also, I was very into writing short stories during this time, so the movie itself was a good fit. And Jordan Pruitt’s “Outside Looking In” — that’s a song I could really feel. I’d imagine that at some point, we all could, whether we were popular (and then not so popular) like Jamie, or we felt let down by someone like her.

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!

A Ring of Endless Light (2002)

A Ring of Endless Light (2002)

Watching A Ring of Endless Light on the film’s 20th anniversary was such a sweet nostalgic gift. I remember enjoying the depth of this DCOM. Going into the third grade at the time of its release, Madeleine L’Engle was certainly on my radar. She wrote A Ring of Endless Light and A Wrinkle in Time; I vividly remember reading the latter.

This DCOM was adapted for the screen by Marita Giovanni and Bruce Graham, and directed by Greg Beeman (Under Wraps, Brink!, Horse Sense, and more). It occured to me that of all Disney Channel Original Movies, this one feels most like an episode of a teen drama. No surprise! We’ve got Mischa Barton, who was about to embark on The O.C., in the starring role of 16-year-old Vicky Austin. There’s Jared Padalecki, who was firmly into his role as Dean on Gilmore Girls. And of course, Disney Channel heartthrob Ryan Merriman, who would later appear in Pretty Little Liars. Additionally, this DCOM has so. much. kissing. Here’s why: Vicky Austin is torn between two romances: Adam Eddington (Merriman) and Zachary Gray (Padalecki). She encounters these boys when she and her siblings are staying with their grandfather (James Whitmore) for the summer.

A ring of Endless Light movie poster with Mischa Barton, dolphin, and Ryan Merriman

There’s no easy way to say this because it is absolutely heartbreaking: Grandfather doesn’t tell his family that he is dying of leukemia, and he passes away at the end of the film. Until then, he and Vicky share the sweetest scenes, where he is supportive of her poetry and reads her one of his favorites — “The World” by Henry Vaughan. “I saw Eternity the other night/Like a great ring of pure and endless light.” DCOMs don’t usually get very religious, but this titular poem is a fitting reference for Grandfather, a retired reverend. He encourages Vicky’s writing all the way to the end, telling her, “The world needs all the beauty it can get, darling.”

Zachary and Vicky talking in A Ring of Endless Light

Vicky is contemplating the tension between art and science in her own life. This relates to her very prominent struggle between these two guys she really likes — Adam is incredibly scientific; Zachary is more laissez-faire. This one scene that really stayed with me as a child is when Vicky is talking to her tween sister Suzy about Adam and Zachary. “Adam is so confident, so sure of what he’s going to do with his life,” she says — Adam is a dolphin researcher who is drawn to Vicky’s telepathic connection with the dolphins. Conversely, she compares Zachary to “being out in a storm. Exciting and frightening at the same time.” Zachary, who is in and out of private schools and struggles to find himself after his mom has died, is the antithesis of Adam. Though the guys know they’re in competition for Vicky’s heart, they team up to help stop Zachary’s dad’s company from using illegal driftnets for fishing. If Wikipedia is correct, the entire driftnet plot was new to this movie.

Mischa Barton captures the emotional journey of her character especially well, whether she’s having deep talks with her grandpa, helping a dolphin give birth, or dancing on the beach by firelight with Ryan Merriman. Strictly in the universe of this DCOM, Vicky doesn’t necessarily end up with either of her love interests. However, the odds are in Adam’s favor when he and Vicky promise to write each other letters before she leaves the island. I learned that A Ring of Endless Light is one of five novels about Vicky and her family. Since everything I’m reading online shows that L’Engle’s original story is quite different (and fair warning, much sadder), I might read the whole series and spend more time mentally on Seven Bay Island. I’ll have to insert that incredibly poignant DCOM score by Phil Marshall into my head as I read. He also composed the score of The Thirteenth Year. Both films have ocean scenery and display their characters as mermaids (yep, Mischa Barton briefly has a tail during dream sequences), but that’s basically where the similarities end. Throw in the whimsy of The Thirteenth Year and the heartbreak of A Ring of Endless Light, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a movie night.

Heidi (1993)

Heidi (1993)

Heidi was a literary work I was familiar with, but never quite enthralled with as a child. I had a kids’ version of Johanna Spyri’s classic and knew that it had been adapted into a Shirley Temple film (I probably saw that film at least once…the details are fuzzy). Unfortunately, I came into the world one year too late to see Heidi premiere on the Disney Channel. But thanks to YouTube, I have viewed this beloved miniseries at the grand age of 28. Although it’s over three hours long, Heidi is considered a Disney Channel Premiere Film. It was directed by Michael Ray Rhodes and adapted as a screenplay by Jeanne Rosenberg, who also has a writing credit on Rip Girls!

Heidi poster, featuring Jane Seymour and Jason Robards

Spyri’s Heidi book was published in the 1880s, and the story is set in the Alps, as well as Frankfurt, Germany. The cast of Disney Channel’s version is impressive: Jason Robards as the grandfather who accidentally drives his son and daughter-in-law to their deaths (baby Heidi survives); the adorable Noley Thornton as Heidi; Jane Seymour as  Fräulein Rottenmeier (Heidi’s boss in Frankfurt); Siân Phillips as Frau Sesemann; and Patricia Neal as Heidi’s grandmother.

We learn early in the film that Heidi has been cared for by a cousin, but now the cousin has to leave for a job — I believe this is an aunt in the book. So up the mountain Heidi goes, to live with her grumpy grandpa. And talk about mountains! This was filmed in Austria, and the scenery is gorgeous. However, the beauty is initially clouded by the grandfather’s resistance toward taking in Heidi. Eventually, this kindhearted little girl softens his heart, but then she has to leave. The cousin returns to usher Heidi away to Frankfurt, where she’s meant to be the companion of a young wheelchair user named Clara Sesemann. There are some very sweet Frankfurt scenes, as Heidi and Clara bond and try not to upset their overseer, Fräulein Rottenmeier. I was struck by the fact that Heidi really misses the mountains. Clara tells her it might be possible to see them from the church, so Heidi hikes all the way up to the bell tower and is dismayed to find no mountains. At least she finds kittens. The older I get, the more I can relate to the gift of connecting with nature. Heidi grasps this at a young age.

Frankfurt becomes sadder and sadder. Even though Heidi’s accommodations are excellent, and she’s staying with a well-off family, she desperately misses her grandfather. Clara has panic attacks and can’t fathom Heidi leaving her, so Clara’s father forces Heidi to stay in Frankfurt to the point where Heidi becomes very sick. Finally, Heidi is granted a one-month recess to the mountains, provided that she return to the Sesemanns’ home afterwards. It takes her grandfather a little while to warm up to Heidi again — and they were doing so well before she left the Alps! He had given her a handmade blanket and a wood carving of the mystical woman on the mountain. Heidi’s grandmother is overjoyed to see her again, even though the woman is in her last days. The Sesemanns come to visit Heidi and breathe in the clean mountain air, intending to take her back to Frankfurt.

Heidi hugging her grandfather, mountains in the background

The hardest thing to watch for me, right up there with Heidi’s parents dying, is when a local boy named Peter angrily pushes Clara’s wheelchair and accidentally throws it down the mountain, destroying the chair. I’m not sure if this plays out the same way in the book, but by using her strength to venture back up the mountain on a homemade sled with Heidi and Peter, Clara can miraculously walk again. This plot point might be approached differently today. Thankfully, Heidi gets to stay in the Alps with her family. You can see that she’s torn; she loves Clara, but she knows she belongs with her grandfather. This is such a human reaction — to want to be in more than one place at once, especially because of the people we love.

After poking around on Disney Channel corners of the Internet and hearing word about Heidi for a while, I’m glad to have finally watched it. I honestly can’t picture something like this on Disney Channel nowadays, but I think people would really love to have it on Disney+.

Teen Beach Movie & Teen Beach 2

Teen Beach Movie & Teen Beach 2

Here’s something I had forgotten: Teen Beach Movie and Teen Beach 2 take place in the same year. Technically, the second film starts the exact same summer as the first film. So, what was going on in the world of Disney Channel in 2013? Hannah Montana, Wizards of Waverly Place, and Sonny with a Chance/So Random were over, but Jessie, ANT Farm, Shake It Up, and Good Luck Charlie were still on. Liv & Maddie appeared as a special preview right after the Teen Beach premiere. Most importantly, music-driven sitcom Austin & Ally, starring Laura Marano and Ross Lynch, was right in the middle of its run. Ross stars in Teen Beach as Brady, and Maia Mitchell (The Fosters, Good Trouble) stars as Mack.

Still on beach, choreography from Teen Beach Movie

I had just finished my freshman year of college in 2013, when Teen Beach Movie came out. I remember watching that one and being excited about the ’60s references, especially Grease (there are a lot of biker characters in Teen Beach) and the beach-blanket genre — my sister and I would watch Gidget with my mom sometimes. The first Teen Beach opens with Mack and Brady surfing, and the scene gives me some Rip Girl (2000) vibes. Mack is supposed to move away to go to a prep school, and she and Brady are spending all their summer days together. But when they get caught out in the ocean in a storm, they are transported into a 1960s beach flick, cleverly titled Wet Side Story. They spend most of Teen Beach within Wet Side Story, getting to know its characters and accidentally causing the leads, Tanner and Lela, to fall in love with Mack and Brady, respectively. So Brady and Mack try to get Lela and Tanner back with each other so that order can be restored, and so Mack and Brady can get home. The second movie flips this around, sending the Wet Side Story leads into the future — the 2010s — to see Brady and Mack. Teen Beach 2 shows Lela grappling with her 1960s life, wanting more independence and desiring to stay in the future, where she presumably can achieve whatever she wants. Kind of like the first film, the second winds down with a mission to restore normalcy. This time, Tanner and Lela must return to their movie before all its other characters disappear. But the Internet was pretty angry when Mack gave Lela permission to take charge and alter the film, thereby changing Wet Side Story to Lela: Queen of the Beach, thereby rendering former lovers Mack and Brady total strangers.

Teen Beach 2 logo featuring full cast

As confusing as those details can be, I do think both Teen Beach Movies are creative and fun to watch, especially the music. I didn’t realize how strong a showing the first had on its premiere night: 8.4 million viewers. Not bad for 2013. The cast even performed “Cruisin’ For a Bruisin'” on Good Morning America as the soundtrack debuted. My favorite song from the first movie is “Like Me,” since it reminds me of “Tell Me More” from Grease. In the second movie, I really like the reprise of “Meant to Be,” but I also enjoy anytime Ross sings. I think it’s refreshing that he commits so much to his performances.

While we’re here, a word on “Twist Your Frown Upside Down.” This feels like it’s kind of trying to be “Stick to the Status Quo” from HSM… We get the high school “anthropology shot” where cliques are siloed off during lunch. Tanner and Lela bring their perfect ’60s charm and try to get everyone to smile, but with all the close-ups, it’s clear that some of these extras at the school are way older than teenage. I would have liked to have seen Mack and Brady’s relationship at school explored a bit more, as that’s where their tension lies: Mack is Type-A to a fault, constantly running off to do calculus or organize an oceanography initiative, and Brady is a chill surfer bro. To his credit, he creates a motorized surfboard that saves Lela and Tanner at the end… (Although, saving Lela and Tanner means he can’t remember his entire romance with Mack. What an ending!) Finally, I’ll say that Garrett Clayton, who plays Tanner, is my favorite part of these movies. He’s so talented and hilarious as a walking Ken doll, and I think he should have been in more DCOMs.

Do you like the Teen Beach Movies?

Johnny Tsunami (1999) & Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board (2007)

Johnny Tsunami (1999) & Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board (2007)

DCOMs don’t get more classic than Johnny Tsunami. I was going into kindergarten and don’t remember the premiere of this one, but I watched it whenever it was on as I grew up. In case you’ve never seen it, Johnny Kapahala (Brandon Baker) is a native of Hawaii who loves surfing with his grandfather (played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, the one who’s actually called “Johnny Tsunami”). Young Johnny is crushed to move to the mainland when his dad gets a job in Vermont. He has to wear a uniform and contend with the snobby rich kids, known as the Skies, at his new private school. These students go skiing, while the teens who snowboard are called the Urchins. As you might guess, the Skies and the Urchins don’t get along. Johnny’s new best friend Sam (Lee Thompson Young) is an Urchin, and his love interest Emily (Kirsten Storms) is a Sky.

Johnny Tsunami and Johnny Kapahala

This movie rightfully has a place in the hearts of many millennials. Most great DCOMs tackle themes of fitting in and finding real friends in life. Johnny Tsunami hits those marks in so many ways. Johnny feels like an outsider culturally and athletically, as he’s pulled between skiing and snowboarding, but really misses surfing. To make matters worse, his only real friend, Sam, will be moving away since his dad’s in the military. The guys try to solve this by running away to Hawaii together, where Johnny’s grandfather greets them with compassion and calmness. His dad and grandpa have a difficult relationship, which also affects the dad’s parenting.

Director Steve Boyum, a supreme athlete himself, expertly handled the fiercely competitive Vermont snow scenes that were filmed in Utah. Hawaiian portions of the film were actually shot in Hawaii, unlike Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board.

Johnny Kapahala smiling with his boards

It’s highly unusual for DCOM sequels to occur so long after an original film’s release. But eight years after Johnny Tsunami, Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board debuted. By 2007, Disney Channel was a pretty different place. DCOMs increasingly featured musical components with the talents of rising pop stars. There are no pop stars here, though. Directed by Eric Bross, this movie is just as intense on the sports front. This time, dirtboarding is the competition of choice. Johnny Tsunami is getting married and inheriting a stepson named Chris (Jake T. Austin). The tween gets pulled into the wrong dirtboarding crowd and is influenced by a greedy manager.

In order to help the family prepare for his grandfather’s wedding, Johnny Kapahala agrees to mentor Chris and help steer him in the right direction — not an easy job. The Honolulu Star Bulletin accentuated the facts that Johnny Kapahala was filmed in New Zealand, that Johnny didn’t surf much, and that young Uncle Chris was inconsolable. As much as I like Jonathan “Lil J” McDaniel, I do miss Lee Thompson Young in the role of Sam. And Kirsten Storms’ character is replaced by a dirtboarder named Valerie, played by Rose McIver. Even so, Johnny Kapahala was a sweet callback to the early years of DCOMs, and I was happy to see it premiere 15 years ago. Fun detail: Johnny’s new step-grandmother is played by Robyn Lively, who is actually married to Bart Johnson, Coach Bolton from High School Musical.

Johnny and Valerie surfing in Back on Board

Ahead of the sequel’s premiere in ’07, Entertainment Weekly interviewed Brandon Baker about reprising his beloved role. “It’s fun to come back and play Johnny for a second time because he was definitely my favorite character — at least the closest to me as a kid. I’m a surfer, a snowboarder…more of a sports guy. I just like being active. We definitely share that,” Baker said. He added, “Being a multi-ethnic actor, it’s difficult to get roles that are close to the person you are. I would always play the funny best friend, or the orphan.” He enjoyed authentically playing a Hawaiian character who excels in board sports. Brandon Baker is one of my favorite DCOM stars, and I’d be thrilled to see another Johnny Kapahala movie!

Eddie’s Million Dollar Cook-Off (2003)

Eddie’s Million Dollar Cook-Off (2003)

Eddie’s Million Dollar Cook-Off is a Paul Hoen-directed classic, written by Dan Berendsen, Jack Jason, and Rick Bitzelberger. It’s one of my favorite sports DCOMs and one of those movies I think easily inspired the High School Musical premise. Eddie Ogden loves to cook, but his father is the coach of Eddie’s baseball team and prioritizes his son’s involvement in the sport.

Eddie's Million Dollar Cook-off, Taylor Ball and Orlando Brown in poster

Eddie’s best friends (Orlando Brown, Reiley McClendon) are all about baseball, but they won’t turn down their buddy’s famous “Eddie dogs,” hot dogs covered in chili and all the fixings. Off the field and in the school hallway, Eddie makes a big decision for himself and his friends: instead of signing them up for computer class, he puts them all in home economics. He claims he made a mistake, so as not to reveal his passion for cooking right away. The good news is, in home ec, Eddie gets to practice his cooking skills every single day.

I noticed that composer David Kitay scored a wonderfully funky theme for every time Eddie starts cooking. This reflects Eddie’s creativity and journey to finally doing what he loves. His mom is happy with Eddie’s culinary pursuits, but his dad is so discouraging – not unlike Coach Bolton in HSM with Troy’s interest in singing. Both Eddie and Troy feel that they must keep their passions hidden from their fathers. Eddie’s dad and brothers specifically think that cooking is girly.

On the flip side, Eddie’s female teammate pretends to be a cheerleader so that her mother won’t discover she’s on the baseball team. Turns out her mom doesn’t mind she’s a baseball player, but Eddie’s dad is super upset to discover that Eddie is pursuing his dreams of cooking. It’s not until the combined cook-off/tournament day (much like the Wildcats’ big basketball game/decathlon mix-up) that dad can accept his son’s dreams.

While a few other sports DCOMs have a similar basic story, Eddie’s cooking interests are so unique to this movie. I don’t recall seeing similar food aspirations until much later DCOMs in the 2010s (there’s a character who likes cooking in 2016’s Adventures in Babysitting). I remember loving Eddie’s Million Dollar Cook-Off when it premiered almost 20 years ago, and I still love to watch it for comfort now. The Bobby Flay cameo at the end (during the cook-off) is also fun to look back on, as I was watching a lot of Food Network with my mom during this time, too. That channel has a story of its own, but like Disney Channel, Food Network was building a cast of memorable stars in the 2000s.

Gotta Kick It Up! (2002)

Gotta Kick It Up! (2002)

Gotta Kick It Up! has always been one of my favorite Disney Channel Original Movies. I grew up taking dance classes of all kinds and loved seeing the dance team in action throughout the film. Writers include Meghan Cole, Nancy De Los Santos-Reza, Tom Musca, Stu Krieger, and director Ramón Menéndez. Set in Southern California, the DCOM features a predominantly Latin American cast, with Camille Guaty as Daisy and America Ferrera as Yolanda leading the group. The girls and their classmates don’t gel with their new teacher, Ms. Bartlett (Disney Broadway legend Susan Egan). She has entered the field of education because her dot-com job went under (such a 2000s detail!).

Gotta Kick It Up! poster with girls jumping.

This storyline was inspired by writer and co-producer Meghan Cole’s experiences working for Teach for America. Cole began a dance team at her Huntington Park, California, middle school. She noticed a lack of representation in the programming her students were watching on TV at the time. “I was very aware that all the characters were white kids; no one looked like them,” she explained to The New York Times. Cole was eager to avoid stereotypes and shine a positive light on Latina kids; the characters in Gotta Kick It Up! were based on her students. The Times noted that writer Nancy De Los Santos-Reza added the iconic sí se puede line, which the character Marisol shares with the whole dance team. I learned from writer Alicia Ramírez that the phrase came from civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, who advocated for farmworkers’ conditions and rights. She worked closely with Cesar Chavez, but per NPR, was hardly his sidekick. In the face of no se puede (no you can’t) in Arizona — where simply saying the words strike or boycott could land someone in prison — Huerta led the rallying cry of sí se puede (yes I can), which became an immigrant rights slogan.

Of course, this movie takes on a life of its own beyond its inspirations. Daisy Salinas matures considerably in that she discovers her passion for dance and is visibly moved by the opportunities she earns with her art. She has the chance to apply for a performing arts academy scholarship and bonds with Ms. Bartlett over the weight of life decisions. It should be acknowledged that Ms. Bartlett might have had more opportunities and resources as a young woman in the past than Daisy does in the present of the film. Ms. Bartlett had secured her spot at Julliard, and her own insecurities and unsupportive parents contributed to her not completing a degree there. However, the emotionally complicated dance teacher gradually learns the importance of lifting up her group and humbling herself. She really feels like a part of the team as the film progresses.

I spoke about this movie on the incredible Pop Capsule Podcast and discussed the dance auditions montage with co-hosts Evan and Mallory. Disney Channel is great at audition scenes, and this one was a slam dunk four years before High School Musical. Daisy doesn’t get to audition since she misbehaved and danced in class, but the other main girls display their flair and show lots of room for improvement when they try out. These auditions take place in the school’s auto shop garage, since the basketball team and coach/principal Zavala took up the gymnasium. With their music playing from a car stereo, Marisol performs a traditional dance with a lovely flowing skirt, Esmeralda pours out her heart in a lyrical number, Yolanda boogies with a few strategic movements, and Alyssa goes full-on ’50s with all the personality to match.

As the dancing improves, the girls naturally place higher in their competitions, and they build a confidence and respect for one another that truly inspires me. I have a core collection of DCOMs that fill me up with the best memories and lessons, and I hope this movie does that for you.

The Parent Trap II (1986)

The Parent Trap II (1986)

In a summer 1986 issue of The Disney Channel Magazine, a full feature on Hayley Mills revealed that subscribers couldn’t get enough of the iconic Disney star. After the channel aired one of her classics, “Pollyanna,” the fan mail kept pouring in. Hayley agreed to star in a Disney Channel Premiere Film, but not just any Disney Channel Premiere Film. Twenty-five years after her twinning performance in 1961’s The Parent Trap, she reprised her roles as Susan and Sharon for The Parent Trap II. Hayley told The Disney Channel Magazine, “The twins have grown up quite nicely, I think. Twenty-five years is a big gap and an awful lot happens to a person, but the girls are basically the same. We all stay the same inside. I think they’re quite fun.” In the 1986 sequel, the film opens with a sentimental montage of memories from the first film, reminding us of Sharon and Susan’s journey to sisterhood.

Parent Trap II movie poster with full cast

With its plot, The Parent Trap II is lovably reminiscent of the original Parent Trap format. Sharon and her daughter, Nikki Ferris, are preparing to move from Florida to New York. Nikki meets her new best friend, Mary, at summer school. These girls bond like sisters and quickly plot a scheme so that Nikki doesn’t have to move away. They call on her Aunt Susan in California to help set Sharon up with Mary’s father, Bill. Susan (who is married in this film) flies to Florida and pretends to be Sharon on dates with Bill. Of course, this leads to comical confusion when it seems like two Sharons are running around. Sharon quickly realizes what Nikki and Mary are trying to do — let’s not forget that she and Susan were clever enough to bring their own parents back together in the ’60s — so Sharon decides to outsmart the others. While Susan is masquerading as her sister on a nice date with Bill, Sharon keeps watch in the same restaurant, disguised in a large wig of black hair. The stunt is cutely revealed, leaving the characters with a lot of laughs; Bill also has a chance to get to know the real Sharon. She’s not sure about starting a new relationship until Mary and Nikki try one last plan: they get their parents on a boat together for a romantic evening. The 1998 Parent Trap with Lindsay Lohan totally stole this idea, I’d say. Sailing seals the deal, and Sharon and Bill marry.

This delightful Disney Channel movie was written by Stu Krieger and directed by Ron Maxwell. I enjoyed speaking with Stu about his work on the film. He has always been a huge fan of Hayley Mills and remains close with her today. In the ’80s, Stu saw an industry announcement about The Parent Trap II and was determined to write the film. If you’ve ever seen any of Stu’s work (including some of my favorite DCOMs), it should come as no surprise that his talent was recognized and he was hired for this film. He replaced the first writer and had a tight deadline of just six weeks to complete the script. Stu also had to leave a Hawaiian vacation early to take the job! When the writing was finished, his work was an immediate hit with Disney CEO Michael Eisner, and Stu was soon headed to the set. “I’m on the plane flying to Florida, and the entire time I’m kind of chanting to myself, ‘Oh my god. I’m finally going to meet Hayley Mills. My childhood crush since I was 10 years old,'” he shared. Of course, Stu hoped meeting his hero would be a good thing. Hayley did not disappoint him, as he recalls: “The first meeting, she just could not have been more adorable and charming.” She even told Stu how much she loved his script! The director also contributed to a great environment on set and helped everyone bond.

Hayley Mills as Susan and Sharon

More than 30 years ago, movies on the Disney Channel were cross-generational, so parents and children might watch some of them together. Part of the Parent Trap II audience would have grown up with the first film and with Hayley’s other movies, so Stu left Easter eggs by creatively naming his characters. For example, Hayley’s TV daughter in this film is “Nikki Ferris,” and Hayley herself played “Nikky Ferris” in the 1964 film “The Moon-Spinners.” “Mary Grand” is the daughter of Hayley’s date in The Parent Trap II, while Hayley had played “Mary Grant” for 1962’s “In Search of the Castaways.” There are even characters named Walter and Lillian Elias, which is apropos considering Hayley’s long career with Disney and professional relationship with Walt. Even though Hayley said in a news appearance that two Parent Traps were enough for her, she ended up starring in two more! I hope they all are added to Disney+. Cheers to this sweet film from a fascinating era of the Disney Channel!