Freaky Friday (2018)

Freaky Friday (2018)

I have seen every version of Freaky Friday (that I know of). I grew up with the Lindsay Lohan/Jamie Lee Curtis 2003 remake, and I saw the original Jodie Foster-Barbara Harris ‘70s movie at a young age. Earlier in the pandemic, I watched the ‘90s movie with Shelley Long and Gaby Hoffman. And now, I’ve seen the 2018 musical DCOM version.

Freaky Friday family photo

The film was based on an actual stage musical, which itself is based on the other Disney movies and Mary Rodgers’ book that started it all. Heidi Blickenstaff was the first to play the role of the mom, Katherine, onstage, and she was cast for the DCOM. Her daughter Ellie is played by Cozi Zuehlsdorff in the film. 

The more recent Freaky Fridays require the classic mother-daughter body switch element, with the added twist that the mom is getting remarried and needs to get switched back ASAP. In this movie, Ellie’s soon-to-be stepdad Mike is played by Alex Desért (Eli Williams from Boy Meets World!). Her little brother Fletcher is Jason Maybaum from Raven’s Home. The family scene is set at the beginning of the movie, with chaos before the kids leave for school. Katherine is catering her own wedding and has an argument with Ellie that turns into the song “Just One Day.” This is where mom and daughter wish the other would change. They switch bodies when they hang onto an hour glass that was a gift from Ellie’s late father.

Mom and daughter switching bodies in Freaky Friday

As in all Freaky Fridays, mom has to be a teenager again, and daughter must try to function as an adult (and a parent). If Ellie can’t pull off her mom’s homemade wedding, it will be detrimental to the family’s finances. Katherine doesn’t have as much to lose in Ellie’s body, but she does contend with a typical over-the-top DCOM mean girl.

To get myself hyped for this modern musical, I listened to Podcast from Planet Weird’s episode about it. They had me on the lookout for a couple of strange songs. “Oh, Biology” takes place while Katherine (in Ellie’s body) is at high school on dissection day. She can’t control her attraction to a teenage boy and sings, “Oh biology! What have you done to me? Why can’t my grown-up brain control my teenage parts?” Yeah, Disney Channel said “parts.”

The other song I was waiting for was “Parents Lie,” one that Ellie sings to her brother Fletcher while in Katherine’s body. Of course, Fletcher thinks his mother is singing this song to him, all about how parents lie to their kids and tell them they’re special when they aren’t. Ouch!

One other note I completely agree with from the Podcast from Planet Weird episode relates to the fact that before the body-switching, Ellie asks her mom to let her miss the wedding rehearsal dinner. In the 2003 Freaky Friday, Lindsay Lohan’s character wants to skip the dinner to perform with her band at the House of Blues. In this movie, Ellie wants to join her school friends in a tradition with the somewhat cringey name “The Hunt.” A scavenger hunt doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to miss your mother’s rehearsal dinner.

Ellie and her friends at The Hunt

However, Katherine has to participate in The Hunt while in Ellie’s body — the key to switching back is to get the family’s second hourglass, which Katherine had previously sold. With the help of Ellie’s two friends, Katherine gets the glass and switches bodies with her mom just in time. I never thought too much about the actual process of body-switching in movies. In this film, the point is made that one’s body is sacred. Removing a soul from a body and having it inhabit another would be rather uncomfortable. Disney Channel utilized body switching a few times, but this instance of it might be the most thought-provoking.

I will admit that it took me some time to get into this movie, but I think that’s because there were already three great Freaky Friday films, and I was initially skeptical of a musical version. But I am glad I watched this. It was a nice pre-Halloween movie because of some light foliage, too. 

Quints (2000)

Quints (2000)

I watched Quints over the summer with my grandmother and was reminded of how much I really love this DCOM. Kimberly J. Brown starred in this film between Halloweentown and Halloweentown II, and I think her work as Jamie Grover is just as wonderful as her Marnie Piper portrayals. In Quints, Jamie is an eighth grader who is frustrated by the constant attention of her parents. Her father works in a hardware store, her mother is a local journalist, and Jamie is an only child. Kimberly J. Brown breaks the fourth wall to tell us all about Jamie’s life and her parents’ wishes for her to excel in her studies and attend a magnet school.

Quints poster featuring Kimberly J. Brown

Jamie’s life is turned upside down when her mother becomes pregnant with quintuplets. The family focuses on preparations for the babies, many of which play out over a lovely montage, set to Britney Spears singing “Soda Pop.” Though I’ve seen this DCOM many times, I still feel badly for Jamie after the quints are born — her formerly attentive parents are focused solely on the babies. The saddest part is that they completely forget about Jamie’s art show when they are honored as Parents of the Year at a Governor’s Dinner on the same night. Art is Jamie’s outlet and escape from a boisterous baby zone, and her teacher, Mr. Blackmer, continually encourages her. Her best friends, Brad and Zoe (Shadia Simmons), are also very patient with Jamie as she adjusts to a new family structure. Even the Grovers’ nanny, Fiona, becomes so overwhelmed by the babies that she quits the job.

One of the best family moments in the film is after the Grovers have hired a handler for the babies’ media appearances (Albert, played by Vince Corazza of Jackal Johnson fame). One of the quints, Adam, becomes very sick. While he is recovering, Jamie’s parents finally realize that Albert wants Jamie out of the picture, and they stand up for her by firing Albert. For the first time in months, Jamie seems like part of the family. Albert’s stunt offering Jamie a role in the family commercial — where she would play a giant diaper — didn’t count.

I think one purpose of DCOMs back in the day was to show kids stories and circumstances that differed from their own. Many of us can’t relate to having five quintuplet brothers and sisters, but Jamie’s struggle is still compelling. I’m always relieved when her parents realize they are missing the art show (and even take Don Knotts to see it with them). I’m always angry for her when she feels neglected; I’m likewise satisfied when the family figures out how to work together and support one another. This is a one-of-a-kind DCOM with a true star in the lead role, and I hope you’ll check it out or revisit it!

Tiger Cruise (2004)

Tiger Cruise (2004)

Directed by Duwayne Dunham and written by Anna Sandor and Bruce Graham, Tiger Cruise is a DCOM that moves me today and made an impression on me as a child. Tiger Cruise is Disney’s only 9/11 DCOM (technically), the only DCOM starring Hayden Panettiere and Bill Pullman, and the only DCOM with Jennette McCurdy (watch for her at the beginning). I say it’s technically the only DCOM about September 11th because I think the argument can be made that Cadet Kelly offers a taste of post-9/11 patriotism. However, Tiger Cruise is the only Disney Channel Original Movie that recounts the events of the terrorist attacks, particularly through the eyes of adolescents.

Tiger Cruise poster, featuring Maddie and her dad

My husband and I periodically discuss what we remember from the tragedy and its aftermath. Both of us were seven years old then. Every memory I have relates to my own little world and the childlike questions I had at the time. I was a 10-year-old I was when Tiger Cruise came out. I’d say this movie was pretty formative to me and perhaps to others. It was the first piece of media I viewed that attempted to reenact the events of September 11th, 2001 in any way. The action begins a couple days pre-9/11 on a tiger cruise, wherein family members board a naval ship to spend time with their loved ones who are at sea. Hayden Panettiere’s character, Maddie Dolan, is ready for her dad, Commander Gary Dolan (Bill Pullman), to come home. She has a bad attitude about being on the tiger cruise because of this; she also finds her navy-obsessed bunkmate, Tina, annoying. Tina calls Maddie a Navy brat, and Maddie detests being classified as a brat.

There are a few other key characters, but two that stand out are Anthony, a teen from New York visiting his brother, and Chuck, a middle-aged man whose son is a chef on the ship. On 9/11, Chuck is understandably distraught because his brother works in the Pentagon — and news eventually comes that his brother didn’t survive. Meanwhile, Anthony is obviously upset watching his hometown on the news, knowing that his loved ones are still there. Maddie shows great strength when her father asks her to help with the tigers for the rest of the week, as all their remaining activities are suspended. Small children turn to Maddie for comfort, and she has a change of heart about her dad’s job.

I became very emotional watching this movie and following the stories of the kids (and adults) on the ship. I know the characters are fictional, but zeroing in on them and their experiences of loss and uncertainty really hit me, especially seeing Chuck after his brother is confirmed dead. Hayden Panettiere’s song “My Hero Is You” is also very moving; it seems to be sung from the perspective of her character, Maddie, with the obvious “hero” being Maddie’s father. I’m glad this DCOM was made. As Variety noted, Tiger Cruise was “based loosely on the true story of the Navy aircraft carrier U.S.S. Constellation, which made naval history for being the first ship to go on full combat alert with hundreds of civilians aboard,” including children, on 9/11. I appreciate that Disney Channel chose to acknowledge and grapple with an event that changed the lives of its young audience. The channel has basically moved away from these kinds of films, but perhaps there’s still something to be said for a few carefully-planned historical fiction projects for kids.

The Spirit of Nostalgia with Whitt Laxson

The Spirit of Nostalgia with Whitt Laxson

In the pantheon of truly great nostalgia podcasts, Whitt Laxson’s Duff Enough has been a ray of sunshine streaming into my life. There’s no doubt that Whitt is the perfect person to host a podcast about Hilary Duff’s life and career. Whitt is a TV producer based in Tampa. He reported on Disney’s 2019 D23 Expo, where Hilary first announced the Lizzie McGuire reboot we still hope for. He met Haylie Duff recently – watch the interview segment Whitt produced here! Whitt’s amount of love for the Duff sisters is matched by his level of expertise. On his podcast, he has carefully analyzed everything from Lizzie McGuire episodes to Hilary Duff’s film and music catalogue, to her more recent TV roles in Younger and How I Met Your Father.

After discovering Duff Enough at the beginning of the pandemic, I eagerly awaited new episodes of this “ultimate Hilary Duff fan podcast.” As I’ve gotten to know Whitt over the past two years, I’ve noticed that we have a lot in common – a love of Disney and Disney Channel media, a strong memory of television moments that shaped us, a fondness for pop music. Whitt grew up in Tennessee, not far from where I visit my family. He and I even share the same birth year and are just over two weeks apart! While we’ve not yet met in person, we have virtually discussed the bittersweet nuances of nostalgia.

I talked with Whitt about the many ways we experience nostalgia, from vibrant Disney Channel memories to mental snapshots of upbeat Christian concerts. We also touched on the “forward” part of Past Foot Forward, discussing the complex meaning of inspiration in our lives today.

Whitt Laxson/Instagram

Whitt Laxson has been watching Disney Channel Original Movies since 1997 – when he was only three years old. He remembers Under Wraps, and a year later, he enjoyed another spooky movie: “When I watch Halloweentown now, I still get the same feeling, especially when the movie first starts and the music starts. I get the same feeling that I felt watching it in 1998 for the first time. That one was a little scary for me at that time. Kalabar, a little scary,” he told me. Like many of us, Whitt says he was “hooked on Zenon” as a child, too. “It was an early favorite. Definitely in my top, God-tier DCOMs.” That’s high praise, as Whitt knows a lot of good DCOMs.

Pre-DCOM era, there were Disney Channel Premiere Films, including the 1996 Katherine Heigl classic Wish Upon a Star. This movie would never be shown on Disney Channel today (nor would its neighbor, Susie Q), but it was such an electric part of being a ‘90s baby. Bringing up another great glimmer of nostalgia, Whitt said, “The big thing I remember was The Magical World of Disney and the opening where it goes through the castle.” That’s one of my earliest Disney Channel memories, too! The sequence took us riding on a magic carpet, with beautiful tapestries of Disney feature films that were shown on Disney Channel when we were young.

In those days, there was a decent amount of synergy between family programming on Disney Channel and on ABC. Whitt and I both love ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney classic, Model Behavior, a movie featuring Justin Timberlake and Maggie Lawson that frequently reran on the Disney Channel. I remember how much I enjoyed the film’s intro music, “Here We Go” by *NSYNC.

When we talked about one of my favorite subjects, the “Zoog Disney” era of Disney Channel, Whitt shared, “I would almost say that is the most nostalgic because there’s that innocence and that special, happy time when I was a carefree kid.” He added that he feels nostalgia for Disney Channel’s Wand IDs and DCOM intros, but when it comes to Zoog Disney, “That takes me to another place. It’s like, ‘Whoa!’ That is somewhere in the back of my mind, that memory.” An example is Hilary Duff appearing in character as Lizzie McGuire, answering “fan emails” on Disney Channel.

Whitt captured the emotional depth of his continued Hilary Duff fandom. “When I see Hilary when I watch How I Met Your Father, there is this spark, there’s this magic that you feel about seeing her because that deep connection is there,” Whitt said. He added, “That best friend who has always been in my head is grown up with me. She’s grown up now, I’m grown up now, and there she is. There she still is. And to see her thriving and doing so many great things, being a mom, having a great career and making a positive impact still to this day, you know, it warms the heart.”

Even though Whitt is known for hosting an incredible Hilary Duff podcast, Lizzie McGuire was hardly the first show he saw on Disney Channel. The Jersey, The Famous Jett Jackson, and So Weird are a few he remembers from before Lizzie’s time. Whitt didn’t gloss over the programming on Playhouse Disney, either. “I really attribute a lot of my creativity as a person, as a content creator, as a TV producer, which is my profession, to Out of the Box. That show was so special to me; I think I would watch it every Saturday morning.” Whitt watched PB&J Otter and Bear in the Big Blue House, as well. As if those weren’t enough, his family had the Toon Disney channel and Whitt could watch its programming frequently.

It’s amazing to me that our memories of watching television and movies are so deeply related to who we are. Like Whitt, I’ll sometimes watch shows or films from childhood and feel strongly connected to the times when I watched them decades ago. In a way, Disney Channel has directly impacted the work we both do – analyzing nostalgic films, TV shows, and music. As Whitt works in production, another Disney series truly inspired his career path: Movie Surfers. This long-running show featured cohorts of teen interviewers who went behind the scenes to reveal the making of Disney feature films. “I wanted to be a Movie Surfer. Even in elementary school, I was on the school newspaper staff and would interview people… I wanted to interview behind the scenes of movies, but we weren’t quite doing that in elementary school. I really think that Movie Surfers had that big of an impact that it influenced interests of mine for the career that I chose, the field of study that I chose in college. I consider myself to be more of an entertainment journalist than anything,” Whitt said. He was inspired by Disney 411/Disney 365 and Mike’s Super Short Show, too.

If you follow Whitt, you know that he loves many aspects of Disney entertainment. He explained, “I’ve appreciated Disney’s storytelling for as long as I can remember. I still get just as excited now about new Disney movies as I did when I was a kid… How do you explain that, other than there was just this seed planted as a child?” Whitt recalled a moving experience from his early adulthood: “When I was in college, I remember starting to get emotional about things. Specifically, I remember when, I think it was the 25th anniversary of Beauty and the Beast, and Angela Lansbury sang ‘Beauty and the Beast’ at an event in New York or something. It brought tears to my eyes, and that was one of the first times that had happened for me, that I was like, ‘Whoa, I really got emotional about this.’ And I’ll get emotional watching Disney movies and being at the Disney parks now. Usually I get a little emotional every time I walk down Main Street or first see the castle, there’s just this overwhelming feeling that I get.”

But Whitt is also a smart consumer. “Disney knows,” he said. “Disney knows that they have this generation who grew up on all those ’90s movies, and they’re catering to us in a big way, especially when they do D23 Expo and all these big announcements. … They’re catering to the adults who still hold Disney in a very special place, which is why I think that they’re remaking all of these movies.” Whitt noted that the company is also giving classics more modern, appropriate updates for new generations. He’s honestly the Movie Surfer we all need today.

I’ve been thinking about the idea that nostalgia can be a very spiritual concept. To delve into the deepest memories we have, or to appreciate their connection to our present selves, brings me a sense of peace. In a podcast interview with Psychology Today, Dr. Krystine Batcho said, “Nostalgia is an emotional experience that unifies. One example of this is it helps to unite our sense of who we are, our self, our identity over time.” Batcho highlights the social aspects of nostalgia, as well. She notes that, as many of us have discovered, nostalgia unites us with other human beings.

In addition to our poppin’ afternoons and weekends with the Disney Channel, Whitt and I had other similarities growing up that we recently discovered, including our religious backgrounds. We had an interesting discussion on the interwoven identities forged from mainstream media and simultaneous involvement in evangelical Christian subcultures during childhood. Not only did we get Disney Channel, PBS Kids, Nickelodeon, and other cable classics – we got videotapes starring Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato.

“Definitely had Veggie Tales and some other, probably random, memories of Christian artists,” Whitt recalled. Along with Veggie Tales, young Whitt and I attended Vacation Bible School, also known by its famous acronym: VBS. Many Christian churches host VBS for one week every summer for preschool to upper elementary age children. “The memories about VBS are mostly on the sweet side, like, a highlight of the summer. Loved going, just had a great time. Great memories,” Whitt said. Vacation Bible School has an annual theme. For example, “Saddle Ridge Ranch” was a cowboy theme, “Arctic Edge” was an Alaskan adventure, “Ocean Odyssey” was under-the-sea, “The Great Kingdom Caper” was a British mystery, “Amazon Outfitters” was an “Expedition with the One True God,” the list goes on.

Youth groups are often invited to assist adult teachers with Bible lessons, arts and crafts, snacks, recreation, missions, and music. Whitt remembers, “The music was the main thing for me. And I would want to learn all the songs and all the dance moves.” Those moves would be displayed in front of the whole church with a daily Worship Rally, complete with skits and games. We both helped with music in our churches once we got older, and being the expert producer that he is, Whitt spent several years working media and tech.

The VBS songs that stick with me are the annual reminders of the “ABCs,” an evangelical understanding of salvation: “Admit to God that you’re a sinner. Believe that Jesus is God’s only son. Confess your faith in Jesus as your Savior and Lord.” Other songs would usually address trusting God, following Jesus, living your faith, etc.

I wondered about the long-term impact of church experiences like Vacation Bible School. Whitt answered with what feels like the heartbeat of nostalgia: “Those songs are just core memories in a way. Not that I hear them anywhere, but I can just think about them and know the lyrics and everything.” Reminding me how strongly some things stay with us, Whitt added, “Those were just very nice nostalgic childhood memories – try to block anything that wasn’t so great about that experience, or in the long-term, the trauma that was caused by some things.”

By middle school, Whitt had found his way to Christian pop groups without always realizing they were faith-based, like Jump5, who frequently collaborated with Disney. “Another small Christian group was PureNRG [pronounced Pure Energy] that I was really into in middle school, ” Whitt recalled. He first heard them sing a cover of “Footloose” and followed the group for years, all the way to their final concert. The trio “kind of came at the perfect time,” Whitt said, “because I wasn’t really ready to grow up in terms of my interests. A lot of kids had moved on from Disney Channel and they were kind of more into MTV by the time we got to middle school, and that wasn’t where I was at. I was still Disney Channel. My parents wouldn’t have allowed MTV.” He added, “I wasn’t maturing as fast, which I think is fine. So PureNRG coming out was just this perfect entertainment for me…at that age, based on the Christian beliefs that I had.”

Whitt was raised going to Gospel music camp and was steeped in Christian hymnody at a young age – he even had Gospel musicians in his family. As the contemporary Christian genre was on the rise, he noted, “I still had an appreciation for hymns. But I certainly had taken an interest and found a love for contemporary Christian music,” CCM. Starting in the late ‘60s, CCM originated as “Jesus Music” from the countercultural Jesus Movement. Today, there’s Christian pop, rap, rock, R&B, and many other genres. There were formerly entire bookstores promoting what we call the evangelical Christian subculture: a realm full of Christian books, decorations, CDs, movies, and merch. For any item in the “secular world,” you could probably find a copycat that was supposedly Christian.

Whitt explained, “To me, that was just as normal as going to a Barnes & Noble… ‘Let’s just go look around, let’s just shop, we’re out shopping today. We’re going to stop at Lifeway or Family Christian bookstore.'” On these typical outings, it was easy to get lost in shelves of inspirational music (or perhaps Bible studies, or Christian romance novels).

Whitt bought his share of CDs and merch at these stores. “They always try to have some sort of equivalent to something mainstream,” he commented. “And I feel like PureNRG was the equivalent to High School Musical… so I’d be going to Lifeway and buying whatever PureNRG merch they had there because that was where you went to get your PureNRG merch. Just like most kids could have gone to a Walmart and gotten their High School Musical merchandise at that time.”

Neither Whitt nor I were ever limited strictly to religious media, thankfully. “I was still as immersed in what was happening in the mainstream of pop for kids. I had the best of both worlds!” Whitt said with a smile. I can relate. My parents cared that I had a social life, kept up with current trends, and experienced what I loved about pop culture, especially my favorite music. Rarely did I test the waters of content beyond a Disney Channel level of “appropriateness,” although Whitt and I joked about getting older and discovering more risqué ABC Family TV series. What’s fascinating is, there was a decent amount of crossover between the Christian subculture and Disney Channel pop culture – Disney had soundtrack collaborations with Jump5; Aly & AJ’s debut album sold in Christian stores; Superchick’s “One Girl Revolution” blared throughout the DCOM Cadet Kelly. And in terms of mainstream pop, Whitt mentioned Amy Grant, “the crossover queen,” and Lauren Daigle, whose “Rescue” blew up not necessarily because it’s about God, but probably because it was featured on Grey’s Anatomy.

By high school, Whitt was also a huge fan of recording artist Francesca Battistelli, who got started in the girl group Bella when she was a teenager. She broke through in the Christian market as a soloist in the late 2000s with a K-LOVE radio hit we couldn’t resist: “I got a couple dents in my fender/Got a couple rips in my jeans/Trying to put the pieces together/But perfection is my enemy/On my own, I’m so clumsy/But on your shoulders I can see/I’m free to be me.” Whitt mentioned a TikTok where “Free to Be Me” is playing and the caption reads, “The childhood trauma was worth it for this song.”

“And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I agree with that,'” he joked. Whitt interviewed Francesca Battistelli several years back for his witfromwhitt radio show. He told me, “That’s a very deep thing because I kind of gravitated toward her in the same way that I gravitated towards Britney Spears or Hilary Duff, that was where she was for me.” Whitt noted that Christian artists were sometimes more accessible than mainstream acts. “It’s its own culture… So, Francesca, yeah, I was so into her music. I related to her music. I loved the sound; it was very Sara Bareilles, she’s kind of the equivalent.” Whitt won a fan contest where he got to be a “director” of Francesca Battistelli’s live music video for “This is the Stuff.” Catch his name in lights on YouTube.

“There’s a nostalgia there, and a love and an appreciation for what her music and what PureNRG, what all that content meant to me at that time. For a kid who was 13, hearing those songs, it was very inspiring to me… inspiring to just be happy and be a joyful person.” Being 13 is rough, but it’s nice to feel that someone is rooting for you through music.

Collage of both Christian and mainstream albums: Jump5 All the Time in the World, Britney Spears Baby One More Time, Hannah Montana, Pure NRG, Hilary Duff Metamorphosis, Lizzie McGuire Movie, Francesca Battistelli, High School Musical, Amy Grant

My thoughts about modern evangelical Christianity are far too broad and still-expanding to put them in a nutshell. I will say that at times, the movement seems like the opposite of how Jesus treated people. As I process my faith today and aim to practice it in more inclusive ways, I can’t help but wonder how inspirational music might be salvaged for a greater good. I said to Whitt, “I would love to see some of this music be meaningful to more people and include people, you know?”

Whitt thoughtfully answered, “I can’t think of other mainstream artists who are making songs, making music that is as inspirational, I guess… I don’t know, it’s tricky because you try to think of an equivalent of who makes inspirational music and it’s like, there’s Lizzo. Lizzo is inspiring us to, you know, love ourselves, but that’s not the same. That’s still not the same as what I would get from a Francesca Battistelli song.”

Proving his own point, when I took a short water break on our Zoom call, Whitt started singing a PureNRG song called “Pray.” The chorus goes, “On my knees, flying through the blue sky, miles away, I see clearly every single time I close my eyes and pray.” Hearing that chorus transports me; the song is meant to guide the listener to a “heart-to-heart long-distance call” of prayer. Even if you’re not praying much these days, it’s a sweet song brimming with emotion that, for me, feels comforting and deeply nostalgic. Inspirational, hopeful.

I’m so grateful to Whitt for being my guest in this space, where all kinds of nostalgia are worth studying. Whitt makes me feel less alone on this backwards and forwards journey of memory. It truly is a process. After all, we both spent our formative years with Lizzie McGuire, for whom it was written: “We get one step closer each and every day. We’ll figure it out on the way.” You now can listen to all Duff Enough episodes on multiple platforms, and I hope you will! Follow Whitt Laxson on Instagram and Twitter for all his updates! This is Past Foot Forward, which you can follow on Instagram, run by Allison McClain Merrill.

Camp Rock & Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam (2008, 2010)

Camp Rock & Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam (2008, 2010)

I’ve let this question roll around in my head for some time: is Camp Rock (directed by Matthew Diamond) a musical “proper?” The second film (directed by Paul Hoen) definitely is. Characters often let the music speak for them in the sequel, as with the powerful competition track “Can’t Back Down” and the showdown between rival camps “It’s On.” The hopeful camp kickoff song “Brand New Day” starts with a few lyrics from Mitchie and evolves into a more expansive musical number. Similarly, “Wouldn’t Change a Thing” (one of my favorites) begins simply with Shane (Joe Jonas) strumming his guitar, and it builds into a duet where he is no longer playing the instrument. He and Mitchie (Demi Lovato) sing passionately but separately, walking through the woods until they glimpse one another at the end.

The first movie primarily utilizes musical numbers as intentional performances. These help tell the story, but they aren’t delivered in the movie-musical style we’ve come to know from Disney Channel. “Play My Music,” “Too Cool,” “2 Stars,” “Hasta La Vista,” “Here I Am,” and “We Rock” are all onstage numbers; many of them are delivered at the camp’s various “jams.” “What It Takes” is performed in the mess hall. Peggy’s song “Here I Am” reveals a dedicated singer ready to stand confidently on her own. I’m not sure there’s a song that fits a character better than “Too Cool” for Tess: “You think you’re hot but I’m sorry; you’re not exactly who you think you are,” she declares in her sequined gold dress.

“Who Will I Be” is an upbeat track Mitchie has recorded that she listens to while getting ready for school early in the first film. I watched a behind-the-scenes clip in which the director explains the significance of Mitchie opening the movie asking, “Who will I be?” and ending it saying, “This is me.” Mitchie initially sings “This is Me” at the piano, which moves Shane to separately sing “Gotta Find You” in pursuit of this mystery voice. “Start the Party” acts as a dance number before becoming an accidental audition piece for Shane to find his girl. But as always, everything makes sense when Shane and Mitchie finally sing together. In between all those moments, she isn’t happy with who she really is and decides to create a fake backstory for herself. Of course, the truth comes out that Mitchie’s mom is the camp cook (who is perfectly played by Maria Canals-Barrera from Wizards).

Disney Channel fans have mixed feelings about the strength of both stories. I always thought that Tess framing Mitchie for stealing her bracelet in the first film was a little silly. And it’s frustrating that Brown lets Tess get away with that. However, I do miss Tess in the second film, since she has a smaller role as a Camp Star participant. The girl power crew in the sequel is made up of Mitchie, Caitlyn, Peggy, and Ella. Establishing those friendships in the first film makes it easier to see everyone grow up a bit more and take on camp counselor roles in the second movie. Mitchie is so invested in saving Camp Rock that she loses sight of the fun and freetime campers need so much while learning performing arts skills. Frankie Jonas is so cute in the sequel, and I like the richer storylines for Kevin and Nick Jonas — Kevin’s character Jason works with the junior campers, and Nick’s Nate falls for the daughter of the Camp Star owner.

Of course, the second film has songs intended for performances, too, not strictly narrative musical numbers. “Fire” and “Tear It Down” are performed by Camp Star members (mostly Luke and Tess); “Heart and Soul” and “What We Came Here For” belong to the Camp Rockers. Perhaps the sweetest song out of either film is the campfire anthem “This is Our Song” in Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam. It strips away the major musical format and shows us the campers in their purest form. The song makes me want to roast marshmallows over a fire and make s’mores. How simple and beautiful sing to about summer memories and express joy in them.

Even though the first movie doesn’t launch into the same kinds of elaborate musical numbers seen in the second, it was obviously a big deal to watch it on Disney Channel in 2008. By the end of the premiere, 9.8 million people had tuned in. Demi Lovato, the Jonas Brothers, Alyson Stoner, Ana Maria Perez de Tagle, Jasmine Richards, Meaghan Martin, Jordan Francis, Roshon Fegan — all these teens made the magic happen and returned for the second film. Camp Rock 2 was slightly down at around 8 million viewers, but still strong for a 2010 DCOM.

As summer officially draws to a close, I’m grateful for the opportunity to contemplate Disney Channel musicals/music-driven films a bit more. At this point in my DCOM journey, I’ve rewatched music-filled DCOMs including High School Musical 1 and 2, Camp Rock 1 and 2, the Cheetah Girls trilogy, Lemonade Mouth, and more recent films from the ZOMBIES franchise (I’m saving Descendants rewatches for Halloween time). HSM, The Cheetah Girls, and the Camp Rock films were a big part of my youth, and they’re still fun to watch at age 28.

The Cheetah Girls Trilogy (2003-2008)

The Cheetah Girls Trilogy (2003-2008)

Which Cheetah Girls movie is your favorite? They’re all quite different. The first one, set in New York, isn’t so much a musical as it is a music-driven DCOM. All the music takes place during rehearsals, performances, or other intentional singing moments. This film was directed by Oz Scott and adapted by Alison Taylor from Deborah Gregory’s books. The Cheetah Girls 2 was directed by Kenny Ortega; Alison Taylor and Bethesda Brown are credited as writers, along with author Deborah Gregory. The Cheetah Girls: One World was directed by Paul Hoen, with a screenplay by Dan Berendsen. Debra Martin Chase executive produced all three movies, and her late producing partner Whitney Houston joined her on the first two.

Cheetah Girls movie poster

Before Miley Cyrus became Hannah Montana, The Cheetah Girls went from fictional characters to a real performing act. Deborah Gregory, a Fashion Institute of Technology graduate and seasoned journalist, was approached by Disney’s Hyperion Books in 1998 to write a series for a diverse young audience. Hollywood reportedly learned about the Cheetahs quickly. By 2001, the author was signing a contract to grant Disney film and television rights to her books. After the first movie (starring Raven-Symoné, Kiely Williams, Sabrina Bryan, and Adrienne Bailon) and its accompanying soundtrack were released in 2003, Adrienne, Kiely, and Sabrina were featured on the 2005 Disneymania 3 album as The Cheetah Girls.

Sabrina Bryan told the International Business Times, “We were kind of becoming a real music group… We did a Christmas album. And then they’re like, ‘This is so good. We want to do a Christmas tour, would you guys be interested?’ We were like, ‘Okay,’ and we went on a Christmas tour.” The Cheetah-licious Christmas album was followed by a highly-anticipated sequel DCOM, The Cheetah Girls 2, with a new soundtrack in 2006. Raven told the Orange County Register at the time, “I think Cheetah Girls started the whole musical situation, and High School Musical really blew it out of the water. So I wanted to come back and really show that we were kind of the first ones to do it.” Set and filmed in Barcelona, the movie was a full-fledged musical with stunning vocals and dance numbers. It was also Raven’s final film and music project with the group. Raven has since shared more details on what happened behind the scenes — she told Kiely Williams that she felt “ostracized” on the set of The Cheetah Girls 2.

What happened next for the remaining three singers was The Cheetah Girls’ 2006-2007 The Party’s Just Begun Tour across the United States. (While the first Cheetah Girls movie soundtrack reportedly sold 2 million copies by 2007, the second album had sold 1.3 million by that time.) I was in the audience in Jacksonville, Florida when Miley Cyrus opened for The Cheetah Girls as Hannah Montana. It’s incredible to think about that concert now — two separate acts, both featuring real pop stars who were created from fictional ones. While on tour, Kiely Williams told the Los Angeles Times, “I think girls like us because we’re different — you know, our backgrounds, our cultures, the texture of our hair, the things we like — and that’s like them and their friends. That’s the way it is today, and they like seeing that in us.”

Cheetah Girls: One World poster

In a move that reminds me of The Pussycat Dolls, The Cheetah Girls released an album titled TCG in 2007. Disney Channel frequently played the music video for their single “Fuego.” TCG was the group’s last studio album separate from the movie franchise. 2008 was the final year of the Cheetahs as we knew them. Sabrina, Adrienne, and Kiely performed their best Bollywood dance moves for one more DCOM, The Cheetah Girls: One World. Like the second movie, this colorful, musical installment came with a full soundtrack album. Where movie #2 gives us the energizing and empowering “Strut,” movie #3 similarly reminds us to “Dig a Little Deeper.” Barcelona’s spicy, romantic “Dance with Me” duet between Dorinda and the Count (sung by Drew Seeley) is followed by Mumbai’s “Dance Me if You Can” — a competitive throwdown between an Indian choreographer and Dorinda and the Cheetahs. Both films also display the girls singing through tough decisions, as led by Galleria in “Over,” then with Chanel in “What If.” Every Cheetah movie gets a big finish: “Cheetah Sisters” in the first, “Amigas Cheetahs” in the second, and “One World” in the third.

These DCOMs and their music connected to fans deeply. While we weren’t all competing for recording contracts or starring roles, many of us were young women eager to achieve dreams of our own. We saw the Cheetahs deliver an incredible five-year run. By 2009, Adrienne Bailon confirmed to Just Jared Jr., “I think that the brand has now come to an end.” She also said her favorite Cheetah song was “No Place Like Us,” from the third movie. Who knows whether or not a Cheetah reunion is in the future? As long as the growl power legacy is honored with a cheetah-licious story, I’d love to see it!

Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie (2009)

Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie (2009)

What a moment. Hannah Montana: The Movie (in theaters), Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie, and Princess Protection Program all in one year. Was this the peak of Miley, Selena, and Demi’s reign on the Disney Channel? Perhaps. 11.4 million people watched the Emmy-winning Wizards movie, directed by Lev L. Spiro, written by creator Todd J. Greenwald and prolific DCOM writer Dan Berendsen. Wizards of Waverly Place, which premiered in 2007, would air new episodes through 2012, mirroring Hannah Montana’s five-year run (2006-2011). As fans remember, the Russos reunited in 2013 for the special Wizards Return: Alex vs. Alex.

Wizards of Waverly Place movie poster featuring Russo family on the beach

Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie was filmed throughout Puerto Rico for the setting of a tropical family vacation. Unlike a few other summer DCOMs, there’s no elaborate plot for the family to be stranded on an island. Instead, Wizards meets Back to the Future. The film opens at the classic Waverly sub station. As I think I’ve said before, it’s always a little strange to see multi-cam Disney Channel TV sets converted to a single-cam movie look. However, Mark Hofeling’s production design in DCOMs is always top-notch. We’re only at the sub shop for a few minutes, and this is where we glimpse Harper, who isn’t in the rest of the movie. She and Alex take an unexpected subway ride.

I appreciate the mother-daughter connection explored at the beginning and end of this movie. Alex clearly does not want to go on this vacation or wear matching outfits with her fam. She’s 16 and expects to make all her own decisions. Theresa is very firm with her daughter, expecting Alex to participate in all the family activities without using any magic. The fateful moment is, of course, when Theresa learns that Alex is secretly using magic. The Russo ladies fight for a few moments before Alex bellows, “I wish you and Dad had never even met!” Boom. Back to the Future, wizard style. Alex, Justin, and Max spend the movie trying to put their parents — who are now total strangers — back together.

Alex and Justin preparing to do the Wizard competition, with Jerry's help

Max is the first sibling to completely forget who his family is. Since he’s now living his pre-kids life, Jerry is a full wizard and is able to facilitate an early wizard competition so Alex or Justin can gain full power and bring back Max. Alex wins, but she chooses to erase the competition when given the Stone of Dreams, allowing her to wish everything was back to normal, thereby restoring her parents’ marriage and family.

It was fun to see Steve Valentine, who is usually a villain in DCOMs (Don’t Look Under the Bed, Avalon High, Teen Beach Movie). His character in the Wizards movie, Archie, is kind of a bad guy — Archie wants to use the Stone of Dreams to turn his parrot girlfriend into a human again. It turns out that she’s terrible as both a woman and a bird. Archie makes the right decision and gives the Russos the Stone in the end.

Jumping Ship (2001)

Jumping Ship (2001)

I love to sing the praises of the Lawrence brothers. This is not the only DCOM all three of them are in; Matt made a cameo in Horse Sense (1999, coming in November to this website). However, it’s the only DCOM where they all interact for proper lengths of time together. Set and filmed in Australia, Jumping Ship was directed by Michael Lange and written by Chad and Carey Hayes. It is the rare action-adventure DCOM, though the beginning feels more like a continuation of Horse Sense. Michael (Joey Lawrence) and his cousin Tommy (Andy Lawrence) are closer than ever after their previous summer saving Tommy’s ranch. The cousins have planned an epic and luxurious vacation Down Under.

It’s a bit bothersome that Michael hasn’t changed much since his ranching days in Horse Sense. His dad is harping on him about finding a job, which isn’t too unreasonable to ask of a 20something. Apparently, Michael has dawdled all summer by the pool, which negatively impacts his vacation with Tommy. But before the boys can charter what they expect to be a top-tier yacht, The Tiffany, Michael is pickpocketed. Then, this charming yacht turns out to be a run-down boat, steered by Captain Jake (Matt Lawrence, of course). The rest of the movie turns into a race for the Lawrence bros’ lives. The pickpocket was part of a trio of pirates, bent on looting Michael for all he’s worth and leaving him, Tommy, and Jake for dead.

Against the backdrop of the beautiful ocean, our three amigos are trying to outrun the pirates — first by scuttling The Tiffany and then by hiding out on a deserted island. There are all kinds of creepy crawlies and so many feelings. (DCOMs are supposed to be about feelings, I say!) Tommy feels guilty that he actually likes the man his mom has been seeing, Mark. He doesn’t want to replace his father in any way. Michael is upset that he’s never really had anything to work for in his life. Jake is troubled that he’s hanging on to an old boat and can’t connect with his deceased father through it. All this plays out on the island. Michael isolates himself from the group for a time, but he and Tommy have a touching conversation about Tommy’s dad. Michael reminds Tommy that no one can replace his father. Jake also helps Tommy by encouraging him to open a gift rescued from his suitcase: a hand-carved frame Mark made to house a picture of Tommy and his dad.

Those more emotional moments have a serious but loving tone. Overall, this movie has a bit less levity sprinkled throughout than Horse Sense did, although it’s humorous to watch Michael battle the tropical animals. The crocodile showdown with Jake and Tommy is not humorous, but Michael saves their butts. By the end of the film, he’s leading pirates through a cave to try to trap them. Quick thinking, and maybe some luck, makes the thieves surrender. All’s well that ends well, the boys are safe, the pirates are apprehended, and Michael and Jake go into business together with the charter boat. How about a third installment, guys?

The Proud Family Movie (2005)

The Proud Family Movie (2005)

As an 11-year-old, I often enjoyed live-action programming on Disney Channel the most. But like most kids, I would watch animated series, too, and they were certainly a part of my childhood. When The Proud Family Movie came out in 2005, I just couldn’t get past the peanuts. Now I say, why not? DCOMs are supposed to have elements that viewers might find unique or even unusual. If you’ve never seen the movie, these peanuts I speak of are artificially intelligent creations of “Dr. Carver,” a play on George Washington Carver, an inventor who developed many products from the peanut — who is apparently the villain’s great-great-grandfather. Dr. Carver wants to create an evil peanut army. After investors reject his peanut passions, Carver overhears Oscar Proud giving his presentation on a cloning and multiplying device.

We get an Even Stevens Movie moment when Dr. Carver (in a disguise) knocks on the Proud family’s door and offers them a free tropical vacation. Trudy convinces everyone that it’s a good idea, and Penny is stuck spending her 16th birthday isolated with her parents. Oscar, Suga Mama and the fam pack up and head to Legume Island. Yep, they spread the peanuts on thick here. There are no hidden cameras like we saw with the Stevens family, but the evil genius plot does have a couple of interesting twists.

First, Dr. Carver tries to buy the secret multiplication formula from Oscar Proud. His $10 million offer is tempting, but Oscar listens to the little peanut voice in his head warning him not to sell the concoction. Since Dr. Carver is already capable of cloning, he has replicated the entire Proud family. The Proud clones are to go find that secret formula, which they learn is hidden in the Proud home inside Penny’s birthday locket. The real Prouds are imprisoned on the island. I totally forgot that Penny’s clone gets stuck on the island, while the real Penny goes home with clones she thinks are her parents, grandma, and siblings. The next surprising twist is that Dr. Carver himself is a clone. On the island, the real Prouds meet the real Dr. Carver, who explains that the peanut people were intended for good. His clone spent too much time in the sun, got very burned, and became evil. Simple as that. The real Penny was thrilled to go home because she wanted to be a background dancer at the 15 Cent concert, but a stowaway peanut tells her the truth about her parents being locked up.

Everything comes to a head when the fake Prouds meet the real Prouds back on the island. Clone Dr. Carver kicks his world domination plan into overdrive and says, “I will rule the world, after I sing my song.” Trudy’s response is hilarious: “I know this fool ain’t about to sing.” Not only does the doctor sing; his peanut minions have a twerking battle with Penny’s friends. And in the end, it is Penny who attempts to save the day with the real Dr. Carver’s peanut liquification gas. Oscar then tries to save Penny from the villain, but she triumphs and is not persuaded by the evil doctor’s fake promises of freedom. She says she knows her parents aren’t perfect, but they’re her “real family.” I guess sometimes it takes near destruction by a peanut army to realize that? Furthermore, Penny and her dad have a sweet moment where Oscar has saved Penny’s birthday necklace for her. It’s even sweeter when Penny gets to be part of 15 Cent’s big show (Oscar originally didn’t want her to after he caught her kissing the rapper). The Proud Family is the most wild ride you’ll have on a summer DCOM.

High School Musical 2 (2007)

High School Musical 2 (2007)

Fifteen years ago, something even bigger than High School Musical arrived on Disney Channel: High School Musical 2, directed by Kenny Ortega. Disney had quickly turned around a sequel with all the beloved East High Wildcats, and 8th grade me was here for it. I didn’t love that this summertime movie came out right as I was going back to school, but at least it gave us all something to talk about. I went to a private school where certain students occasionally had big birthday parties at neighborhood clubhouses and community centers. I’ll never forget going to one of these when a High School Musical 2 dance contest took place. But Disney knew this would be an even bigger phenomenon. My merchandise of choice was the “Disney Channel: Sing It” game for the Wii. My sister and I would sing our hearts out to the HSM edition. The best part was our favorite duet, “Gotta Go My Own Way.” My sister sang Gabriella’s part, and I attempted Troy’s. Then I would also mimic Troy on “Bet On It.” Sorry Zac Efron, but you were fun to reenact in 2007.

High School Musical Disney Channel logo

It’s not uncommon for fans to say that the second High School Musical movie is the best one. I think that’s a fair assessment, even though Troy is a sellout for most of the movie. The third HSM was theatrically released, so number two was the only chance to level up that DCOM magic (until Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure, I suppose).

The songs in HSM 2 fit the characters so well. Sharpay’s “Fabulous” feels like the core of her personality, more so than “Bop to the Top” or “I Want it All.” The Wildcats’ “Work This Out” is so fitting for the perky group of teens; “Everyday” isn’t my favorite, but it does make for a nice ending and a reminder to hold tight to your loved ones. As previously mentioned, Troy’s mad-at-the-world moments are golden here. I struggle to decide if “Scream” from the third movie tops “Bet On It.” I don’t think so. Gabriella always has a “this is over” or “I’m leaving” song: “When There Was Me and You” in the first movie, “Gotta Go My Own Way” in the second, and “Walk Away” in the third. The second choice is the most fantastically dramatic. Vanessa Hudgens even duetted a TikToker on “Gotta Go My Own Way” early in the pandemic.

Another musical parallel between the first and second movies lies in Kelsey’s musical compositions. HSM gave us “What I’ve Been Lookin’ For”: Kelsey’s Version and “What I’ve Been Lookin’ For”: Sharpay’s Version. Same thing in HSM 2 with “You Are the Music in Me.” I’m getting a bit emotional thinking about the movies in this way, when they were such a seamless part of my middle school life. I wasn’t even the biggest High School Musical fan that I knew, but I loved the movies and quickly incorporated their music into my little world.

Every High School Musical film somehow deals with dissonance between main characters. The second movie further explores college and career goals tearing these teenagers apart while they work at Lava Springs Country Club — well, not Sharpay and Ryan, whose parents own the club. Ryan gets to do yoga with his mom, but Troy gets to play golf in Italian leather shoes and sling free-throws with bball stars, since Sharpay’s family is bribing him so he’ll sing with her. But I’m sure most of you know all that. Maybe you were one of the 17.2 million people who watched the 2007 premiere. I will add that the Miley Cyrus cameo on “All for One” was a brilliant move, only making the Hannah Montana fans want to watch this movie even more.

paper lantern scene, principal cast

In the end of this movie, Jason, Martha, Kelsey, Zeke, Ryan, Sharpay, Troy, Gabriella, Taylor, and Chad light up the screen with their paper lanterns and their zest for life. We can’t all frolic with lanterns at country clubs, but maybe we can be inspired by the joys of youth. As Gabriella says, “I want to remember this summer, Troy.” That was one summer many of us remember to this day.