The Ten Best Disney Channel Original Movies

This may be the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. These might be the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make.To sift through the canon of masterworks Disney Channel put out every month for close to two decades. How does one do that? How can you pick between parts of yourself? Petty minds argue over the official dates that represented their classic period, or “golden age.” I assert it started on August 29, 1998 with Brink!, and ended January 14, 2005 with Now You See It, starring Oscar nominee Frank Langella. True, the channel’s greatest ratings came later with offerings like The Cheetah Girls 2 (eye-roll), Camp Rock, and High School Musical 2, but this is a typical case of mass appeal versus quality. Disney Channel executives sold their soul, and then gave us Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam. Whoever watched that should be deeply ashamed of themselves. I don’t care how old you were. Anyways, back to Sophie’s Choice times ten. Back to The Godfather versus The Godfather part II.What are the ten best Disney Channel Original films? After heavy thought, deliberation, and prayer, I’ve come up with this:

10. Quints    August 18, 2000

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A controversial opener, I know. Oft forgotten, this was a marquee film for Disney Channel for a solid three years. Starring A-list Mickey-Mouse talent like Kimberly J. Brown as Jamie Grover, a teenager coping with the birth of quintuplet siblings, Quints was first rate coupling of smiles and tears, à la James L. Brooks in his heyday. Likely inspired later comedy hit Knocked Up, starring Seth Rogen.

9. Mom’s Got a Date with a Vampire    October 13, 2000

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Anyone who came up during the golden era will remember waiting on the October movie like it’s a separate Christmas. Children like to be scared, and Disney knew how to supply the thrills in controlled doses. Case in point, the Hitchcockian Mom’s Got a Date with a Vampire. In it, Adam and Chelsea Hansen have their plans foiled once they’re grounded by their tough single mother (Caroline Rhea of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch). They scheme to set their mom up on a date with suave foreigner, Dimitri Denatos (Charles Shaughnessy), but problems arise when their younger brother, Taylor, realizes that Dimitri is a vampire. Textbook horror. Plays with our innate fear of not being believed.

8. Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century    January 23,1999

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Zoom, zoom, zoom. That’s all I have to say.

7. The Luck of the Irish     March 9,2001

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By 2001, Disney Channel star Ryan Merriman was a seasoned veteran, and it showed in his performance in The Luck of the Irish. He played high school basketball star, Kyle Johnson, whose life is turned upside down when he discovers that all Irish people are leprechauns, and watches some bizarre changes take hold, like meeting his 200 year-old grandpa, Reilly O’Reilly (Henry Gibson), and an evil leprechaun, Seamus (played by Timothy Omundson, who’d go on to great successes like Psych, Deadwood, and Galavant). This is just a terrific film, filled to the brim with excitement, excellently choreographed basketball sequences, and nonstop visual inventiveness. Sidenote: Disney  tested the waters on interracial couples in this film, and, after being satisfied with the audience reaction, finally gave the okay to Rey and Finn in the Star Wars reboot.

6. The Other Me     September 8, 2000

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I’m just going to say it. Andy Lawrence was the most talented of the Lawrence brothers. Evidence, you ask for? How about turn of the millennium sci-fi mind-bender, The Other Me? He plays underachiever Will Browning, who accidentally clones himself, and, after ignoring the billion dollar potential of such a discovery, toils through high school passing his clone off as his cousin. What puts this film over the top is its cutting edge soundtrack featuring the likes of an in-his-prime Aaron Carter. Released 18 years ago, it still feels as fresh as ever. The movie also boasts strong supporting work by Alison Pill and Sarah Gadon.

5. Johnny Tsunami    July 24, 1999

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Disney went ethnic, and the results were dazzling. Johnny Kapahaala, a Hawaiian cool kid, has to move to Vermont once his dad gets a new job. Surprisingly, he does not fit in to his new surroundings, and a struggle between remaining true to his self, and conforming ensues. After the success of Brink! with rollerblading, Johnny Tsunami elevated the profile of skiing and snowboarding, which were, at the time, considered to be sports for Caucasians.

4. The Thirteenth Year       May 15, 1999

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“With great power, comes great responsibility.” That great line may be from Spiderman, but it relates even better to early superhero favorite The Thirteenth Year. Cody Griffin, unbeknownst to him, is a mermaid. Raised by adoptive parents who found him as a baby, and sheltered all his life, only after his thirteenth birthday does his true form begin to take shape. He was always a strong swimmer, but now he can climb walls, you know, like mermaids do. How often is this film brought into the conversation when discussing great superhero movies? Many don’t even consider it a part of the genre, but watch it again, and you tell me. I’m honestly willing to say M. Night Shyamalan flat out stole his idea for Unbreakable from The Thirteenth Year.

3. Halloweentown  October 17, 1998

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You’ll notice how many of these films deal with self-discovery. That theme continues here when Marnie Piper (Kimberly J. Brown again) discovers that her mother is a witch, from a town creatively named Halloweentown. She meets her grandmother Aggie (played by late-great Debbie Reynolds), also a witch, who shows her the ways of their people. The golden standard for October Disney Channel movies, thanks to a shocking twist ending.

2. Don’t Look Under the Bed     October 9, 1999

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Remember when you thought that Halloweentown could never be beat? And then the very next year, they drop Don’t Look Under the Bed. Talk about twist endings, but, I’m getting ahead of myself. Frances, a high school girl, is much too serious. Once strange things start happening all over her small town, she’s forced to turn to her brother’s imaginary friend, Larry, since all the evidence points to her being the culprit. Larry tells her that she’s being framed by the boogeyman, and they must work together to take the boogeyman down. I really don’t even have anything insightful to say. This is just an amazing movie.

The Phantom of the Megaplex       Novemeber 10, 2000

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You already knew. How could it be anything else? Mickey Rooney is in this movie. It perfectly combines my two favorite things: the whodunnit and the movie theater. Taylor Handley plays Pete Riley, the overworked assistant theater manager, trying to keep everything together for the special premier going down, but someone keeps sabotaging the megaplex, and that someone feels the need to wear a costume. The main suspect: Mickey Rooney, of course, mainly because he’s old, and somehow, inexplicably, he lives at the theater. But the finale is more surprising than that. Perfect mystery thriller.

Honorable mentions? How about every single other movie they made between 1998 and 2004? Except for True Confessions. That was a little too indie for me. And Fullcourt Miracle, where the Jewish kids won the big basketball game, because I wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief, even at 11.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

 

A Live-Action Princess and the Frog

Former Pixar and Disney Animation titan, John Lasseter had this to say about the midling success of The Princess and the Frog back in 2009, “I was determined to bring back [hand-drawn animation] because I felt it was such a heritage of the Disney studio, and I love the art form … I was stunned that Princess didn’t do better. We dug into it and did a lot of research and focus groups. It was viewed as old-fashioned by the audience.” The film, as mentioned in the quote, was a return to the hand-drawn style of animation used during Disney’s hey-day and all the way through until about the mid-2000s when computer animation took over. Was the style the problem? Has 2-D animation really become so antiquated that audiences were unwilling to turn up for a film of that type. Pretty much every single  other Disney Princess movie has made a boatload of money. The directors of Princess and the Frog had previously made Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, and have since made Moana. All of which raked in the dough. I’m just not sure Princess and the Frog’s limited commercial success can be attributed to the art style, and I’m not ready to bring race into the picture, since Moana (Pacific Islander), Aladdin (Arabic), and Mulan (Chinese) all did very well at the box office. Another titan believed it had more to do with marketing, saying that putting princess in the title led people to believe that the film was only for girls. Whatever the case may be, does Princess and the Frog stand any chance of a live-action reworking?

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I, personally, would rather see live-action remakes of films Disney didn’t get 100% right (reference my Black Cauldron article) than a remake of Aladdin (I remain highly skeptical). Why not take a chance and see if you can’t remedy your earlier mistakes with a remake? I’d also consider making Prince Naveen black since that was one of the main complaints people had regarding the movie. There’s never been a black prince. Granted the animation and special effects would have to take over since most of the film is centered on talking frogs and an alligator. Hmm?

-Walter Howard-

The Plot of Jurassic World 3

*Spoilers*

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom just hit theaters. I was disappointed. In it the characters debated whether or not to save the remaining dinosaurs from an imminent volcanic eruption, or let the die off, once again. In the end, the dinosaurs are saved, of course, and the main characters, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) drive away to an uncertain future with Maisie, a newly orphaned girl. Dinosaurs now exist in the world outside of Jurassic Park.

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Now for third entry in the reboot series. As disappointing as the second one was (I mean, it was fine), it sets up what could be a truly epic and exciting third film. Why not jump ahead several years? To a post-apocalyptic future, where dinosaurs outnumber humans ten to one. Human civilization has largely died out. They’ve reverted back to clans and tribes. A brilliant mad scientist has discovered a way for mass cloning which could put humans back in power over the dinosaurs. He enlists Owen Grady and his family/tribe to bring the solution across the country, which leads to a long and dangerous journey.

-Walter Tyrone-

Redoing Pixar’s Brave

A movie with gorgeous, state-of-the-art animation, inspired voice acting, and a princess should be a lock for great film. In 2012, Disney Pixar’s Brave released, and showed that, no, in fact, a film needs more. As far as I’m concerned, Pixar layed an egg with Brave. Set in Medieval Scotland, when the land was still divided by clans, we meet Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald). She’s a princess with a mother, the Queen (voiced by Emma Thompson), who puts a lot of pressure on her, but Merida is much more interested in being the greatest archer than with being a princess. Alright, to this point, I was firmly invested in the movie and intrigued. Moving on, young men from the surrounding clans arrive to compete for Merida’s hand in marriage. We meet the brawny candidates, along with one comically diminutive and whelpish clansmen competing. Again, all good so far. Later, Merida runs away, and meets a local witch, and it’s at this point in Brave, just as it seemed like it was going to get really good, that it started to sag. The rest of the film basically plays out in their castle with the Queen transformed into a bear by Merida’s encounter with the witch. Completely uninteresting. No love interest, no villain. Don’t try to sell me that bear as a compelling villain.

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Brave won Best Animated Feature at that year’s weak Oscar showing, but it was plagued by production struggles. The original writer/director was fired, Brenda Chapman (she would have been the first woman to direct a Pixar film). I feel like the struggles never fully resolved themselves. They show in the final product. Here’s what I would have liked to see:

The witch puts some kind of curse on Merida’s family castle which sees her going on a quest to restore it to order. The diminutive, timid suitor becomes a heroic sidekick on her quest, as well as a love interest. A terrifying, imposing villain be provided and the ultimate logjam in Merida’s quest. Finally, one or two comic relief characters join her, her mother, and her suitor on their quest.

-Walter Howard-

 

23: Frankly, My Dear

Gone With the Wind (1939)

Oh, the power of storytelling. There may be no stronger example of it than here, in this white-washed, racist, mistaken classic. Gone With the Wind is a film that portrays black slaves as the best friends of their white masters. That gives the black background actors lines that make them seem dumb as hell, and yet I can’t help but get swept up in Scarlett O’Hara’s story. Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara is a manipulative, selfish woman throughout the film’s nearly four hour run time.  So when her husband, the roguishly handsome Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) finally puts her in her place with the immortal line, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” and leaves, a classic scene is born, and an unforgettable ending.

-Walter Howard-

24: Batman Loses

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Halfway through Christopher Nolan’s daunting superhero epic, Batman squares up against his newest supervillain: Bane. Unlike The Joker or even Ra’s al Ghul. Bane represents a physical challenge to Batman. Bane is, in fact, stronger than Batman. This scene, their first face to face encounter, underneath Bruce Wayne’s armory is a beautiful rush of adrenaline. It’s strength against strength. A remarkably choreographed bout, and one that results in Batman having his back broken by Bane. This sets up the best story arc in all of Nolan’s trilogy. It’s one that’s been done before in other films, but never seems to grow old or ineffective. The hero loses to his nemesis, only to come back and win in the end. Think The Hustler. Think The Karate Kid. It’s my favorite scene in the series, and the main reason, going against the grain, I believe The Dark Knight Rises is the best in the trilogy.

-Walter Howard

25: Leatherface’s Temper Tantrum

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

For my money, the scariest film ever made. Relentless and brutal, with evil lurking in every frame, and a heroine (one of the earliest examples of “the survivor girl,” in fact, maybe the earliest) who gradually shows her toughness and ingenuity, making us root for her. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre follows a group of young adults taking an ill-advised trip through what looks like West Texas, stumbling upon a deranged family of cannibalistic butchers. The most famous among the family, Leatherface, stalks and kills all of the members of the group except Sally who spends the thrilling last half of the movie just trying to survive the most horrific and traumatic experiences before the film reaches its brilliant crescendo with this scene, this brisk ending, of Leatherface sulking in the glorious sun. Like all of the film, shot in an ultra-low budget fashion that only increases its effectiveness (making it feel authentic), this ending is raw. It ends, and I’m at first surprised that that’s it, but then come to see it as oddly faultless.

-Walter Howard-