There’s so much to watch lately that the smorgasbord of options can start to feel almost smothering. Should you check out what’s playing in theaters, or stay home and take in the latest scam-turned-limited series? Try something new, or fall back on old favorites?
Fortunately, there’s an option that captures the comfort of nostalgia, while also offering a wealth of new stories to discover: the veritable treasure trove of Disney Channel Original Movies. DCOMs are made-for-TV movies that have been premiering on the channel since the late 1990s. These classic films anchored decades of sleepovers and promised generations of 12-year-olds that by their next birthday, they’d discover everything from first love to latent magic powers. Of course, not a single one is without flaws (nor is the company that made them)—but many are gems nonetheless, full of whimsically ridiculous storylines and surprising star cameos.
Not sure where to start your DCOM journey? Here are 10 worth checking out right now. (You can watch them all on Disney+.)
The Halloweentown movies introduced viewers to a rich magical universe where it’s everyone’s favorite spooky holiday all year round (think Spirit Halloween, but a kids’ film series). On her 13th birthday (of course), Marnie Piper learns that she’s descended from a long line of witches. Her mother wants her to live a “normal” life in honor of her deceased mortal dad, but her grandmother (the delightfully mischievous Debbie Reynolds, gamely giving her all) is determined to teach Marnie how to harness her magic. Over the course of the series (Halloweentown, Halloweentown II: Kalabar’s Revenge, Halloweentown High, and Return to Halloweentown), Marnie and her siblings use their powers to defend both Halloweentown and our decidedly less fun regular world from various magical threats. All the Halloweentown movies are worth a watch—although the last one’s casting switch-up is a bit disheartening. No disrespect to Sarah Paxton (Aquamarine is iconic in its own right) but Kimberly J. Brown will always be the fans’ Marnie.
The Thirteenth Year (1999)
The words “Disney” and “mermaid” together probably conjure underwater orchestrals and seashell bras, but Ariel isn’t the only merperson in the Disney Extended Cinematic Universe. In The Thirteenth Year, a young couple has just moved to a charming coastal town to run a tour business and “start a new life free from the constraints of a bourgeois capitalist existence”—don’t believe this is a direct quote? Watch for yourself—when they find a baby abandoned on their boat. That baby grows up to be Cody Griffith: a popular, athletic, seemingly human kid who suddenly starts growing scales and breathing underwater on his 13th birthday. As Cody navigates his puberty allegory, he must also avoid detection by the local mermaid-hunter (every charming coastal town’s got to have one). Come for the unlikely jock-nerd friendship and daring commentary on toxic middle-school masculinity, and stay for Best Actress nominee Kristen Stewart’s debut as “Girl in Fountain Line!”
Smart House (1999)
Smart House walked so that Black Mirror could run. When 13-year-old computer nerd Ben Cooper wins his family the chance to live in a fully automated “smart house,” he hopes the move will be the fresh start they need to recover from his mother’s recent death. The house is run by a virtual assistant named PAT, who becomes steadily more Stepford-esque as Ben, desperate for a maternal presence, feeds her a nutritionally dubious diet of 1950s family television. (Why does this kid presumably born in 1986 draw his ideas about motherhood from ‘50s sitcoms? Don’t worry about it.) Soon, PAT becomes hostile and overbearing, and the family must fight to regain control, and heal together from their grief. Smart House is a chance to enjoy the simultaneously hokey and prescient takes on technology the late ‘90s had to offer—and think twice before installing that omniscient security system you keep seeing ads for.
The Luck of the Irish (2001)
The only possible explanation for The Luck of the Irish is that Disney saw its success with The Thirteenth Year, decided the teenage-boy-becomes-fairy-tale-creature gimmick was the special sauce, and doubled down—and frankly, they were right. It’s not until his 15th birthday that basketball player Kyle Johnson (a late bloomer by Disney standards) discovers that he and his family are leprechauns in disguise, but the trouble he faces makes up for lost time. His lucky coin, an heirloom that allows Kyle and his family to pass as human, is stolen by an evil leprechaun/professional Irish stepdancer named Seamus. Kyle and his mother immediately shrink to 2-feet tall and sprout red hair and pointy ears. As Kyle fights to regain the talisman, he learns valuable lessons about his Irish heritage, plus the importance of not forgoing hard work to rely on luck and always keeping an eye on your valuables. It is completely ridiculous. 10/10.
Cadet Kelly (2002)
Kelly Collins, played by Hillary Duff, is a free spirit who’s forced to attend a military boarding school after her mother’s new husband becomes the school’s commandant (like a principal, but with more saluting). Irate, she elects not to gently slip into the military industrial complex. Instead, she brings color and levity to the school’s stifling, dreary atmosphere by accessorizing her uniform and pulling pranks on her cadet captain/arch-nemisis/partner-in-romantic-tension Jennifer Stone (Christy Carlson Romano). Kelly is forced by her stepfather to join the drill team, where she and Captain Stone get under one another’s skin even more. Yes, there is technically a male love interest named Brad (of course), but everyone who graduated from DCOMs to The L Word knows the real love story here is between Kelly and Captain Stone. It’s especially fun to watch now that Duff is starring in How I Met Your Father.
The Cheetah Girls (2003)
The Cheetah Girls was the first DCOMM (that’s Disney Channel Original Movie Musical, a key sub-genre), and was based upon an award-winning book series by author Deborah Gregory. It follows the four members of the eponymous band—Galleria (Raven-Symoné), Dorinda (Sabrina Bryan), Aqua (Kiely Williams), and Chanel (Adrienne Bailon)—as they navigate their friendships and burgeoning fame. The movie was co-produced by Whitney Houston, features the absolute bop Cinderella (in fact, the whole soundtrack went double platinum), and spawned two sequels: The Cheetah Girls 2 and Cheetah Girls: One World. All three are worthy additions to your DCOM watch list, although the third falls a bit flat without Raven-Symoné. If you know a kid who wanted to be a pop star in 2003 (or an adult who still does today), there’s a solid chance that The Cheetah Girls is the reason why.
Alex and Camryn (played by Tia and Tamera Mowry) star as twins who were separated at birth when the magical realm of their origin, Coventry, was attacked by an evil force called The Darkness. They have been raised in the human world under very different circumstances, creating more conversation around class experiences than one might generally expect from a DCOM. The twins come into their powers and are reunited on their 21st birthday (gone are the days of letting 13-year-olds run around with magic powers, now Disney waits until they’re old enough to drink!). The sisters are being stalked by The Darkness, and must return to Coventry, where their birth mother has married their deceased father’s brother (and you thought The Lion King was the only Hamlet-esque Disney property). She’s only barely staving off the realm’s complete destruction. Anyone who enjoyed Sister, Sister (so, everyone) will be delighted by Twitches, and its sequel, Twitches Too. Plus, who doesn’t love a good portmanteau?
Wendy Wu Homecoming Warrior (2006)
Wendy Wu is cool, popular, and laser-focused on her campaign to become homecoming queen—until a handsome Buddhist monk named Shen appears at her door and informs her that she is the reincarnation of a powerful warrior, and must prepare to defeat a great evil. Her initial (understandable) resistance gives way to steely determination as she learns from her grandmother that reincarnation and taking down ancient villains run in the family. Wendy Wu has all the hallmarks of a prime DCOM: training montages, makeover montages, fight scenes (many of which feature star Brenda Song doing her own stunts), burgeoning romance, consulting from anthropology professor and UCLA Center for Chinese Studies co-director Yunxiang Yan, and a pool-party scene.
High School Musical (2006)
Before you turn your nose up at the most notorious of the DCOMs—successful enough that the third one wasn’t even a DCOM, but simply a DOM, with a theatrical release and everything—remember that this is the franchise that gave us Olivia Rodrigo (in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series). HSM kicked off the movie-musical craze in earnest, leading to films like Camp Rock (hello, Jonas Brothers), Lemonade Mouth (hello, Hayley Kiyoko), and Descendants (hello, entirely new generation of triple-threat child stars). The High School Musical movies were a potent gateway drug for burgeoning theatre kids. The way Troy Bolton learns to unite the arts with athletics—and his friends Chad Danforth and Ryan Evans learn to enjoy both music and baseball together and also somehow switch outfits with each other—sends a powerful message: it’s OK to go both ways.
Jump In! (2007)
Simply put, Corbin Bleu should’ve gotten more attention for Jump In!—and not just because he manages to make jumping rope look dreamy (but partly because of that). While it doesn’t turn its teenaged boy protagonist into a fairytale creature, this film is enchanting all the same. Bleu stars as Izzy Daniels, a boxer whose friend and eventual love interest Mary (played by the scene-stealing Keke Palmer) convinces him to participate in a Double Dutch tournament when her team member drops out at the last minute. Izzy is initially embarrassed, but soon comes to realize how much he likes the sport, and how long it’s been since he’s enjoyed boxing. Afraid to reveal this to his father, a former prize-winning boxer who’s still mourning the loss of his wife, Izzy does what any reasonable DCOM protagonist would and tries to juggle both in secret. The only way Jump In! could have been more fun is if it had taken full advantage of Bleu’s fabulous singing voice.
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