Polygon’s latest series, The Masterpieces of Streaming, looks at the new batch of classics that have emerged from an evolving era of entertainment.
Disney Plus launched in the fall of 2019 with a full library of Disney classics, from animated movies like The Lion King to live-action ones like ... The Lion King. And while the service has found success with event series like The Mandalorian and WandaVision, there hasn’t been an original Disney Plus movie that has made the same impact as any of the studio’s theatrical endeavors. After a few swings and misses, the reason seems clear: in an effort to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, Disney Plus movies are forgetting the magic of the Disney Channel Original Movie.
There’s nothing derogatory about a film being dubbed a “Disney Channel Original Movie.” (DCOM, for short). For 24 years, Disney Channel’s original movie lineup has been gleefully and unapologetically tailored toward a younger audience, making full use of vibrant color patterns, messages of friendship and earnestness, and silly plot elements. They capture the best of youthful whimsy and never try to snag the attention of older audiences, making them a rare sort of live-action movie.
In a Disney Channel Original Movie, the teenage children of iconic Disney characters go to boarding school together. In a Disney Channel Original Movie, two surfers find themselves transported into a beach version of West Side Story. In a Disney Channel Original Movie, a boy turns into a mermaid on his 13th birthday. If you grew up watching DCOMs, you likely have a favorite that was sealed in your mind, be it Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, High School Musical, Radio Rebel, or Zombies. One hundred and ten Disney Channel original movies created a full spectrum of quality, and as adults of a certain age know, there are classic DCOMs.
As defined by the last one-and-a-half years of output, Disney Plus Originals aren’t spiritual successors to Disney Channel Original Movies. The samples that exist — specifically Stargirl, The Secret Society of Second-Born Royals, and Flora and Ulysses — deal with plot elements and themes that feel thematically in tune with DCOMs, but with production value that’s reaching to match offerings from Marvel and Lucasfilm.
Stargirl, which emphasizes being true to yourself, ends with an overly saccharine message that actually undermines the themes of the book it is based on, where a girl is basically bullied out of a school for being true to herself.
The Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is basically a mashup of other kid-tailored movies like Sky High, Spy Kids, and Descendants, but without any of the garish set design or funky costumes. Kids saving the day by controlling swarms of butterflies doesn’t compute against sophisticated CG backdrops.
Flora and Ulysses is a movie that stars a superpowered squirrel, but the coolest thing he does is compose messages on a typewriter, as the family turmoil takes center stage.
All three of these new Disney Plus Originals wind up caught in a weird limbo of trying to bolster more childlike (again, not in a bad sense of the word at all!) plot elements into a more sophisticated veneer. The result feels like three kids stacked together in a trenchcoat and a fake moustache. Perhaps as a result of the mismatched tones, none of the films have cracked the zeitgeist. Somehow 1998’s Halloweentown and 2011’s Lemonade Mouth stuck around the nostalgic cultural conversation, but a kid-friendly thriller with a cast of up-and-comer Disney stars can’t find its way in.
High School Musical might be the ultimate example of keeping it simple to astounding results. The name itself is blunt to the point of parody. The main plotline is straight out of campy beach movies from decades prior, finding two teenagers torn between their cliques and their burning need to sing together. The archetypal mean girl villain has a sequined pink locker. The whole basketball team breaks out into a song about the star athlete choosing between singing and spots. The songs have lyrics like “If you wanna be cool, follow one simple rule!” and someone confesses that his big dark secret is that he likes to bake. High School Musical had no aspirations to be West Side Story or Broadway-bound. It’s a cheesy musical with an overblown message and infectiously catchy songs. Kids actually loved it — this was a musical tailored for kid senses, with jokes and struggles they could understand. The franchise blew up and spawned two sequels (one theatrical!) and a spinoff, never once compromising the messages, plot elements, or TV-budgeted visuals.
High School Musical is the most notable example, but it’s not the only one. The Descendants movies are basically officially licensed Next Gen AU fanfiction of popular Disney movies — where the main character is Maleficent’s daughter, a purple-haired, fingerless glove-wearing sorceress and graffiti artist named Mal who gets with Belle and the Beast’s son. Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior turned Brenda Song into a kung fu hero — and homecoming queen. In Camp Rock, a regular ol’ girl next door gets a chance to attend an elite music camp — which is named Camp Rock — because yeah, sure, of course. All DCOMs just have this certain energy, created from viewing the world through the eyes of kids and young teens and imagining stories where they are heroes and leads of the stories, and their wildest dreams are valid and can come true.
Disney Plus’s new original movies, however, don’t quite capture the same zany magic. Each of the movies has at least one strong thread which would absolutely shine were they allowed to embrace the full cheesiness and absurdity of the DCOM formula. But by trying to appeal to the parents who may also be watching these movies, they lose a certain je ne c’est quoi. Without the electric color palette, garish special effects, and over-the-top entries, they are simply mediocre offerings — enjoyable, maybe, but forgettable once the credits roll.