10 DCOMs on Disney+ We Need to Talk About
These are the Disney Channel Original Movies that need to be seen to be believed—for better or worse.
Alongside the major blockbusters and family favorites, the recent launch of Disney+ has given millennials like myself access to hours and hours of nostalgia material. We can now binge Hannah Montana and the Cheetah Girls movies to our hearts’ content without even having to remember to program the TiVo.
But the real coup, for a turn-of-the-millennium kid culture completist, is the dozens of DCOMs (Disney Channel Original Movies, briefly programmed as “Zoog Movies”) that have heretofore been pretty hard to find. Big hits like Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century and Cadet Kelly would sometimes make it to VHS or DVD, but all of those random, one-off movies about, like, a kid who plays one sport but has to learn another, or someone with a precocious younger sibling who just happens to live next to a mad scientist, got lost in the shuffle. Especially if the star of the movie never got their own Disney show or Hollywood Records album, DCOMs would only air for a few years, and then they were just gone. But now that we, the millennials, have summarily demanded to relive our entire childhoods through endless nostalgia content, it’s all back—for better or worse. And believe me, there is some worse. When a network releases five made-for-television movies every year for a decade, there are bound to be some flops. Not everything can be The Cheetah Girls.
While it wouldn’t be technically impossible to rank and review every single DCOM now available on Disney+, it would take much longer than I’m willing to spend on such a project and frankly, it would be overkill. Browsing the list of available titles, the question on my mind was, “Are these as good as I remember them…wait, are these any good at all?” Surely I don’t need to revisit every single one to answer that question. Focusing on 1998-2002, when I was old enough to sit through a ninety-minute movie but still young enough to think a thirteen-year-old was, like, an adult, I made a note of every movie with a title that sounded familiar. I eliminated anything that was part of a series (including the classic Johnny Tsunami) and all the “female jock” movies (Motocrossed, Double Teamed) because, having gone to an all-girls K-8 school, I truly got my fill of Girl Power when I needed it most. And then I eliminated some more movies to get the list down to ten because, like, I have stuff to do.
Now, having watched this semi-random sampling of turn-of-the-millennium DCOMs, I can confidently report that yes, they were pretty good! I do not believe that they rotted my brain, and despite being almost uniformly about affluent white kids in the suburbs, the messaging has aged pretty well. If you’re kind and true to yourself and your family, you will win your state championship and/or make peace with your precocious annoying younger sibling and/or rescue your small town from the clutches of the mad scientist hell-bent on its destruction! Still, some are considerably better than others, and in the interest of streaming only the highest-quality nostalgia-bait, I took notes on what’s still fun and what’s not worth revisiting…
Brink! (1998): Stream It
Friendship really is the raddest course of all, brah. Brink! played so often that most people my age will probably remember the basic storyline: Andy Brinker (Erik von Detten) leads the ragtag Soul Skaters in an epic in-line skating battle against the corporate sellout X-Bladz, who suck and we hate them. It’s a pretty typical sports rivalry story with some of the better-developed DCOM parents; Brinker’s construction foreman dad is on disability after an injury and, despite balking at the idea of “talking” to his “son” about “feelings,” gives Andy pretty solid advice when he says that what you do is not who you are. Don’t be a capitalist pig, says this DCOM!
The truly fantastic element here is the relationship between Andy and his rival Val, the snarky, pouty, cheating leader of the X-Bladz. These two young dudes are deeply in love.
But the truly fantastic element here is the relationship between Andy and his rival Val, the snarky, pouty, cheating leader of the X-Bladz. These two young dudes are deeply in love. There’s a dearth of queer storytelling for young people, so it’s become common for fans to decide themselves, for instance, that Shego and Kim Possible should be a couple. Even so, I personally resist adding anything sexual or romantic to a storyline about minors unless it’s really obvious. But I’m telling you, Andy and Val are star-crossed lovers with matching lesbian haircuts, the Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy of the skatepark, gazing longingly into one another’s eyes for like the whole movie. Also, the soundtrack is kickin.’
Alley Cats Strike (2000): Skip It
Unless you’re a huge fan of Big Bang Theory star Kaley Cuoco and just have to see what she was up to pre-8 Simple Rules, Alley Cats is kind of a gutter ball. The premise is a little convoluted: Two small towns have a rivalry over high school sports, and to break the tie between the number of championships each school has won, they need an extra sport—bowling. So the hotshot athlete from the basketball team ends up joining the bowling squad, a group of friends who love bowling and listening to swing music and dressing like it’s the fifties. Really, this whole thing would make a lot more sense if it were just set in the fifties. I mean, East Appleton and West Appleton competing for The Apple Cup? That’s some fifties shit right there. The whole joke is that bowling isn’t nearly as athletic or exciting as “normal” sports, but now it’s the focal point of everyone’s competitive energy. But the problem is that bowling truly is not athletic or exciting. Ultimately the final showdown is as thrilling as…watching kids bowling. Meh.
Gotta Kick It Up! (2002): Stream It
Naive white teacher who went to Juilliard for ballet joins faculty of majority-Latin middle school in poor area and helps young girls learn valuable life skills through dance. Sounds corny and problematic, and maybe it is, but it’s also interesting and great for a few reasons. It’s based on a true story and stars Susan Egan, an actual Broadway star, as the dance team coach. She takes the position because her students have a genuine passion for dance, and eventually they incorporate ballet and jazz and salsa and hip-hop (you can probably picture it if you’ve seen Save the Last Dance). Premiering a few months before Real Women Have Curves, it’s the movie that introduced the world to a young America Ferrera. And her talent is matched by Camille Guaty, giving a genuinely great performance as Daisy, the hot-headed diva with the right moves and the wrong attitude. Plus all the dance scenes are super fun. If you don’t know Spanish but do know what “si se puede” means, it’s because of Gotta Kick It Up.
Don’t Look Under the Bed (1999): Skip It
This Nightmare on Elm Street knockoff was terrifying to me as a child and it’s terrifying now. What the hell is this movie? It’s about how your imaginary friend from childhood eventually becomes the boogie monster who ruins your social life during adolescence. It’s about how there’s a Beetlejuice-esque underworld beneath your bed and all your friends hate you and no one will believe you when you tell them you didn’t do anything wrong. Like, it might actually just be too good of a horror movie to be a good DCOM. Fine if you want an evening of spooky and disturbing frights, but if you’re just looking to relax and remember the good times, no, no, absolutely not. Ty Hodges (Larry from Even Stevens) is very good, though.
Smart House (1999): Stream It
Caution: this is a film more horrific than Don’t Look Under the Bed or any other terrifying tale you can think of. Still traumatized by the death of his mother, a young boy arranges for his family to live inside a computer-operated house, letting an AI observe their every move and tend to their every issue so that his father will never need to remarry. This robot house is a woman who does chores and makes food without complaining, eliminating the need for genuine human interaction. Creepy. Sexist. Strange. And that is before the young boy disables the house’s built-in safety functions and teaches it to behave like an overbearing mother from a 1950s sitcom. Eventually, the house, “PAT,” locks the family inside against their will. This is not Siri For Your Fridge. This is HAL 9000 For Your Whole Life. This is a terrifying glimpse into our rapidly-approaching technocrat future, where genetic tests and app-based lifestyle decisions conspire to keep us beholden to computers forever. Smart House is going to happen, mark my words.
The Thirteenth Year (1999): Skip It
Cody (played by Chez Starbuck, what a name!!!) is a healthy average teenage boy whose biggest goal in life is to help his swim team make it to the state championships. But then puberty hits and his life goes haywire and he discovers that his birth parents were mermaids, so that’s why he’s growing scales. Cody’s adoptive father is played by Dave Coulier, so, that’s awesome, and overall this movie isn’t bad, but two years later it was rendered unnecessary by the similar and superior…
The Luck of the Irish (2001): Stream It
Kyle (Ryan Merriman) is a healthy average teenage boy whose biggest goal in life is to help his basketball team make it to the state championships. But then puberty hits and his life goes haywire and he discovers that his mom’s side of the family is Irish and a lucky coin he wore around his neck was the only thing stopping him from turning into a leprechaun. While The Thirteenth Year sort of tried to be mystical and respectful about mer-culture, The Luck of the Irish leans into full-on ridiculousness, and as a result is possibly one of the most entertaining DCOMs ever made. There’s old men who do magic. There’s Irish step-dancing. There’s meats and potatoes and accents and a whole bit about why people should make their own shoes.
It’s a metaphor for white cishet male privilege! I’m telling you, I screamed re-watching this. Kyle discovers that the reason his life is so easy is because he’s a rich Irish boy.
And apart from all the leprechaun bits, there’s also a kind of radically woke story about a young man discovering his heritage. At the start of the movie, Kyle is happy to accept his parents’ explanation that he’s simply “American,” but a classmate (who is, not coincidentally, Latina) pushes him to discover his heritage. He learns about the real discrimination that Irish immigrants faced in the early 1900s. He also learns that his luck, his ability to always score the game-winning shot or randomly guess the correct answers on a test, is because of this golden coin from his family. He’s used to finding cash on the ground, but without the coin, there’s no free money. It’s a metaphor for white cishet male privilege! I’m telling you, I screamed re-watching this. Kyle discovers that the reason his life is so easy is because he’s a rich Irish boy. And only once he understands his identity, and embraces all facets of it, can he use his luck to power his community. This movie is so woke, I can’t.
Tru Confessions (2002): Skip It
Tru Walker has a big house and a brain surgeon father and a stay-at-home mother and a twin brother who loves her. But actually, her life so totally sucks because her dad is never home and when he is, he’s short-tempered, and her brother is developmentally disabled and so their mom lets him get away with everything. Granted, I’m sure it’s horribly difficult to be a young girl and have your brother’s erratic behavior get in the way of your friendships and a stable home life. I’m sure I, too, would retreat into an elaborate fantasy world in which I am the star of a sitcom about how my life is perfect. But if there were only a way to depict all of this without quite so much angst! The setting and the score are both weirdly reminiscent of American Beauty, as is Tru’s tendency to record everything on a small handheld video camera. Shia LaBeouf is shockingly good as Eddie, and I don’t mean to roll my eyes at a well-intentioned morality tale for young people, but even as a kid I remember thinking, “Yeah, duh, be nice and have patience, what else is new.” It’s the DCOM equivalent of an after-school special about the kids in special ed. And those kids deserve a more interesting movie.
Rip Girls (2000): Skip It
It’s like, fine. Sydney (Camilla Belle, from those Vera Wang Princess ads and also from that rude song Taylor Swift wrote about her) is a thirteen-year-old girl who lost her mother so now her dad is super protective of her and they go to Hawaii and Sydney learns to surf even though her father thinks it’s dangerous and also, Sydney inherited some land in Hawaii that she is going to sell to a developer but then she learns about culture and the earth and mostly how you can meet cute boys surfing and she decides not to sell it to the developer, and also, there’s a cat on the island and she learns to take risks. Eh! I was confused by the fact that Sydney’s “overprotective” father lets her explore pretty much wherever she wants, completely unsupervised, all day long. And then gets mad at her when she does things he told her not to do. Be there! Spend time with your kids! Then maybe this movie wouldn’t be so boring!
Stepsister from Planet Weird (2000): Stream It
There are only so many sports for underdogs to play and eventually Disney had to find some other material to fill the time, and what it found was a YA novel by Francess Lin Lantz it could adapt into this tale of…do you really not remember? A teen windsurfer’s divorced mother becomes engaged to a single dad who is quite literally an alien from another world, a world where everyone is a pink bubble. So this chick has to make peace with her new stepsister-to-be, who longs for her bubble boyfriend back home, the son of the evil emperor who—look, you can look it up or you can watch it, it’s literally too weird to explain. The final battle involves hair dryers. At one point a man dressed as a cowboy is doing a ventriloquist act in a pizza parlor. The dummy is also dressed as a cowboy. I don’t know who was smoking what when this movie got made, but it’s delightful and bizarre from beginning to end. It also, strangely, captures the very real teen experience of feeling isolated not because you’re weird but because everyone else is, or seems to be. And it’s funny! If you want to really, truly feel like a kid again, you can do no better than to confuse and confound your brain with Stepsister from Planet Weird. FL