Words by: Ernest Baker
These days, the same shit happens every month. There’s rent, paychecks with which you’ll pay that rent, and that’s pretty much the extent of it. 15 years ago, life was a little different. It was Disney Channel Original Movies that we had to look forward to on a regular basis.
DCOMs have been around since the early ‘80s and the network's still making them now, but only a handful truly matter, and by some incredible stroke of luck, they all came out around the same time. It was a golden era for television if I've ever seen one. Disney was on fire and I don't think the channel's run from the late '90s to the early 2000s gets enough recognition.
It was crazy when Disney Channel took over. The channel was notoriously boring for a while and Nickelodeon was running shit on such a ridiculous level that it never seemed like another channel would be able to compete. Seriously, you never had turn off Nick. Rugrats, Doug, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Hey Arnold, All That, Keenan & Kel, Legend of the Hidden Temple, Rocket Power, Ren & Stimpy, Global Guts, Wild & Crazy Kids, The Secret World of Alex Mack, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Clarissa Explains It All, SpongeBob SquarePants, Salute Your Shorts, and Rocko’s Modern Life were all bonafide top tier shows, and that's still only a portion of the hits Nickelodeon aired. Their programming in the ‘90s was Michael Jordan, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Industrial Revolution level greatness.
But by the end of the decade, and especially at the start of the new millennium, Disney stepped it up and really started to make their presence felt. Their shows got better. Lizzie McGuire and Even Stevens and Bug Juice and The Famous Jett Jackson were all bangers, and a major part of what shifted our attention to the channel, but their films were the gamechanger.
The rise of Disney Channel Original Movies was slow and unsuspecting, but the signs were there when you think about it. During the mid-'90s, Disney had memorable flicks like Susie Q, which starred the pink Power Ranger, Amy Jo Johnson. Wish Upon A Star was quality, and so was The Paper Brigade with that dude named Gunther, but all of those came out before the station really hit its stride. Technically, Disney Channel Original Movies didn't even exist yet; the network's original film productions were still branded as PremEARS.
1997 marked the shift when it became apparent that Disney was serious about owning the children’s television market. The films became officially branded as Disney Channel Original Movies, the marketing got tighter, and the releases got more consistent. Campy mummy flick Under Wraps was the first hit of the new era, but the next year, Brink!, really put the new initiative into motion. At that age, most of us wanted a pair of rollerblades, then there just happened to be this epic movie on TV about these guys doing sick tricks on skates mixed in with petty teenage drama. Brink! was wild relatable and when Disney followed it up with Halloweentown a couple months later, it was clear that they were on to something.
The best part about that first wave of DCOMs was that you felt like you were in on some incredible secret. But Brink! got a lot of play on re-runs and quickly became a classic to everyone, so by 1999 the secret was out. Not that it was a bad thing. Higher expectations led to better output, and seven out of the eight movies Disney dropped that year were certified classics. If you think of Disney Channel Original Movies in terms of Jay Z’s career, 1999 was their Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life. Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century had the “zetus lapetus” slang, the Proto Zoa band, and all the trappings of a futuristic lifestyle. The Thirteenth Year had every dude wanting to be a “merman” on the low. Horse Sense was the best work of Joey Lawrence’s post-Blossom career. And it was crazy to see the dude from Janet Jackson’s “Go Deep” video shining in Don’t Look Under The Bed.
Now, all of those films were great, but 1999 exists as a legendary year for Disney Channel because of two movies in particular. Smart House and Johnny Tsunami are both legitimate contenders for the network’s best original movie and they dropped in back-to-back months. Do you realize how exciting summer break was that year? Not only was Johnny Tsunami an amazing story of a chill surfer-turned-snowboarder bro versus preppy ski bros, but it also had Lee Thompson Young of Jett Jackson fame expanding his acting horizons in the role of a lifetime. He was Johnny’s only friend in the new town, then he had to move, then he came back to see Johnny win that race at the end, and it was all just very entertaining and emotional.
Smart House was a movie about a house that could do all of this high-tech stuff like cook meals and clean up after parties, but most importantly, it gave us classic music like “The House Is Jumpin’” and this rare dance sequence:
By 2000, Disney Channel Original Movies were fully established as a reliable and worthy source of entertainment. We were in middle school and there was palpable anticipation on the Friday before one aired, followed by conversations about it the Monday after. Every single movie they dropped that year hit hard, too. The Color of Friendship was educated a lot of us about apartheid and won an Emmy. Miracle in Lane 2 had Frankie Muniz when Malcolm in the Middle was at its peak, on some true star power shit. The Other Me had everybody wanting a clone. Phantom of the Megaplex was pure suspenseful crack and starred Mickey Rooney; the movie was the first thing I thought about when he passed away last week.
Alley Cats Strike starred Robert Ri’chard from Cousin Skeeter and had a super well-done plot twist at the end. Bowling has only ever looked cooler in The Big Lebowski. I saw that Robert Ri’chard at a party in L.A. a few months ago too, and it was weird because he was lurking alone and looking washed up, but I really wanted to tell him, “Alley Cats Strike was a remarkable piece of cinema and I think you’re cool,” and I should have.
However, like all good things, especially those involving childhood, the whole Disney Channel Original Movie run sort of came to an end very quickly. They aired some gems like Motocrossed and The Luck of the Irish in early 2001, but it was basically a wrap after that. I mean, once you start growing up and you get to high school and you’re trying to have sex and get drunk, you’re not about to be out here watching Cadet Kelly and shit. It happens so quickly, though.
Now, mind you, Disney Channel did have some successful original movies after my era. The Cheetah Girls and High School Musical were huge, but that wasn’t for me. And while I’m sure that some younger kids really rep for those, those movie were released in the twilight of the Disney Channel Original Movie phenomenon. Disney barely even produces them anymore. I’m just glad that we were the age that we were when those movies were in their prime. We came up during a special time and we might not talk about it too much now, but it’s worth remembering.