This may be the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do: 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
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 the 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
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 a 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
Zoom, zoom, zoom. That’s all I have to say.
7. The Luck of the Irish March 9,2001
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. True story.
6. The Other Me September 8, 2000
I’m just going to say it. Andy Lawrence was the most talented of the Lawrence brothers. Evidence, you ask for? How about the 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
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 into 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
“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
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
Remember when you thought that Halloweentown could never be beaten? 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.
1. The Phantom of the Megaplex November 10, 2000
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-