Netflix is trying its hand at every genre under the sun. You want reality dating competitions? Netflix has a show for that. Cheesy holiday movies? Absolutely. Interactive choose-your-own-adventure games? Choose from a pile of them. And now, with Julie and the Phantoms, Netflix is embracing the highly specific subgenre of the Disney Channel Original Movie.
Netflix has certainly ventured into preteen programming before. Just a few months ago, the highly acclaimed Baby-Sitters’ Club series premiered on the platform. But Julie and the Phantoms’ 10-episode first season more specifically evokes Disney Channel Original classics like Hannah Montana, High School Musical, and Shake It Up. Is it because Disney Channel auteur Kenny Ortega is behind the show? Is it the glittery costumes and lavish musical sequences? Or the teenagers doing grandiose things that most teens probably couldn’t do?
Everything about the first trailer, for better or for worse, spells out Disney Channel Original. Based on a Brazilian show of the same name, Julie and the Phantoms’ first season proves Netflix can do wacky teen hijinks mixed with supernatural elements — plus over-the-top moments infused with a genuine emotional core.
[Ed. Note: This review contains slight spoilers for the first season of Julie and the Phantoms.]
The show follows Julie (Madison Reyes), a once-aspiring musician who’s suffering a bit of a creative block after her mother’s death. While cleaning out her mother’s old studio, she accidentally sets the ghostly spirits of a boy band free. Only Julie can see the three hunky ghosts (Charlie Gillespie as lead singer Luke, Owen Joyner as soft-hearted drummer Alex, and Jeremy Shada as dopey guitarist Reggie) — but they all quickly discover that when they all play together, the rest of the world can see the boys. So naturally, Julie and the boys form a band. But as Julie struggles with school drama and her own swaying confidence, the boys learn more about what it means to be dead, as they try to figure out what they even want out of their afterlives.
When it comes to drama at school, Julie and the Phantoms feels like a rehash of every Disney Channel sitcom since Lizzie McGuire: there’s a mean popular girl who wears a lot of pink and hates Julie for no real reason, and a cute popular boy who just happens to be dating that mean girl. The antagonist, Carrie, isn’t given much nuance or personality beyond “rich girl with her initials bedazzled on everything,” and while actress Savannah Lee May gives her all, the entire character feels like a shallow imitation of the great Queen Bees who came before her, specifically High School Musical’s Sharpay Evans. There are hints that there’s something more to her, a deeper conflict between her and Julie, but the first season never uses Carrie for anything besides snarky comments.
The good news is that while Carrie’s insistence on undermining Julie’s musical career does take up a fair amount of the plot’s bandwidth, the non-ghostly drama is far from shallow. The reason Julie is struggling to perform music is because she’s still grieving for her mother. The clashes she has with her father, brother, and aunt stem from this grief, but they all clearly love and care about one another. Some of the emotional beats are big, sweeping, and borderline cheesy, but it all comes off in a very warm, feel-good way. The high energy and emotion is a feature of the genre, not a bug. The musical sequences tend to be similarly grandiose in a way that exceeds the budget and planning abilities of a high-school student, but hey, that’s what we’re here for! Bring on the glitter, the fabulous costumes, the impressive choreography!
But the show carves its own path and shines brightest when it focuses not on life, but the afterlife. It’s not just Julie figuring out what death means the ways of the afterlife — Luke, Alex, and Reggie had no idea they’d been dead for 25 years. The four characters figure out the technicalities of ghosts together, with some hilarious scenes where Luke phases in and out of Julie’s refrigerator and Alex runs down the streets of Hollywood, through unsuspecting bystanders. Julie creates an elaborate lie to explain her mysterious bandmates — they’re musicians from Sweden, so they call in and project their performances via holograms, duh! She figures out neat ways to get around the whole ghost thing, pulling out her phone when talking to Luke at school, so it doesn’t look like she’s talking to herself.
The ghosts themselves are a loveable, laughable trio, each with their own fun little quirks. The friendship between the three of them — and ultimately with Julie — is wholesome and supportive. Eventually, the ghosts meet another dead teenager, skater Willie (Booboo Stewart) who gives them some more insight on their ghostly status, inviting them to a mysterious nightclub. Cheyenne Jackson plays Caleb, the owner of said haunted nightclub, where ghosts party and perform for all eternity. He wears a dark cape and top hat, because hey, if you owned a haunted nightclub, wouldn’t you fully indulge in the aesthetic?
The series isn’t all costumes and performance, though. What really gives Julie and the Phantoms an extra oomph is the way it interrogates the not-so-happy aspects of being dead. All the boys must deal with the fact that their families have moved on without them, something that hits extra-hard when it’s revealed that they all left their parents on pretty bad terms. It’s a neat parallel to Julie’s own grief: she’s a bit frustrated that instead of her mother coming back to help her, she gets these three random boys. But in time, they all learn from one another and help each other grow, through over-the-top musical sequences, extraordinary amounts of glitter, and wacky supernatural hijinks. Netflix’s take on the Disney Channel Original sitcom works, using all the subgenre’s high points to weave a surprisingly emotional story.
Julie and the Phantoms is now streaming on Netflix.