As Halloween season comes to dominate our lives this week, one thing is bound to be on everybody’s mind: the arrival of a new Disney Channel Original Movie. Two weeks ago, the not-too-creatively-titled Girl vs. Monster invaded living rooms across the U.S. with its brand’s trademark combination of awful acting, moronic music and balls-to-the-wall cheesiness. Like every other Disney Channel film to assault the small screen since 1997, the movie ultimately won me over with its silly sentimentality and its unintentional humor. In honor of this recent ghastly guilty pleasure, A & E has decided to count down the five greatest contributions to the Disney Channel Original Movie world.
In spot number five we have 2002’s Cadet Kelly, the story of an entitled brat (played by a Lizzie McGuire-era Hilary Duff) who’s sent off to military school when her free-spirited mother shacks up with a stern brigadier general (Pineapple Express’ Gary Cole). Duff’s character, Kelly, is one of the most annoying in television history. Watching Cadet Captain Stone (Christy Carlson Romano) chew her out again and again makes for a sadistically joyful experience. Between Duff’s criminal overacting and Romano’s bizarre pronunciation of the word “maggot,” the film provides its fair share of “so bad it’s good” moments. The movie’s only real casualty is Cole, who plays a stereotypical military father with a level of poise and grace no Disney Channel production could ever deserve.
Cole’s services might have been a better fit for 2004’s Pixel Perfect, which compensates for its inane plot line and monotonous songs with a surprisingly able cast of youngsters. Ricky Ullman shines in the lead as Roscoe, a tech geek with a soft spot for bad indie bands and beautiful women. This brainiac sets off a firestorm of emotions when he turns a cold shoulder to best friend Samantha (Leah Pipes) in favor of cooking up a holographic blonde bombshell to take on the lead vocals for his band, the stupidly named Zetta Bytes. Naturally, Samantha gets jealous and it takes about a hundred teachable moments for Roscoe to realize that a hologram, however gorgeous, is no substitute for a flesh-and-blood human being. Although the “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” theme is about as overdone as they come, nothing beats a sweet sci-fi love story with the star of Phil of the Future at its helm.
Ullman’s performance in Pixel Perfect doesn’t come close to matching the bravura acting on display in The Cheetah Girls. The film’s stand-out soundtrack alone would win it a place on this list. When Disney Channel attempts to showcase diversity, the result is rarely successful, and this monstrosity of a movie is no exception. The plot centers around four girls of varying ethnicities and backgrounds, all of whom attend the same Manhattan performing arts high school. Together, these young ladies make up the Cheetah Girls, a musical group of questionable talent and even more questionable clothing taste. Plagued by a conniving producer, inter-ensemble drama and a lost dog, the Girls must learn to embrace their art — as well as one another — to overcome some of life’s toughest challenges. This movie amounts to a captivating trainwreck, heavy on the sass and light on the subtlety.
Far more impressive are 1999’s The Thirteenth Year and 2001’s The Luck of the Irish, which tie for the number-two spot. Both films focus on the struggles faced by junior high athletes who find themselves transforming physically in ways that go beyond the typical trials of puberty. Whereas The Thirteenth Year’s Cody (Chez Starbuck) sprouts gills and fins whenever he enters the water, The Luck of the Irish’s Kyle (Ryan Merriman) begins to take the shape of a leprechaun. These minute plot differences are ultimately irrelevant, since both movies succeed largely on account of the attractiveness of their protagonists; 12-year-old girls across America likely swooned when they encountered these strapping young gents for the first time.
When it comes to strapping gents, no one can beat High School Musical 2-era Zac Efron, who won my heart back in 2007 despite his apparent lack of acting ability. It’s a testament to the greatness of HSM 2, the Channel’s number-one movie, that Efron’s looks aren’t even the film’s biggest highlight. Much more enticing are the catchy songs, the summery atmosphere and the wonderfully inept performances. It’s a total mess of a movie, and it epitomizes everything that makes the Disney Channel Original Movie series so terrific. We can only hope more instant classics will join the ranks in the near future. HSM 5, anyone?