Disney Plus has a library full of beloved animated live-action films, but most importantly, the streaming service is now the official designated home of the Disney Channel Original Movie library. Disney Channel had live-action movies as far back as the 1980s, but Disney Channel Original Movie (DCOM for short) as a name and brand didn’t start till the late 1990s, with 1997’s mummy comedy Under Wraps.
DCOMs are made-for-television movies catering specifically to children and teens, often with an unapologetic campiness. To a certain demographic, DCOMs were the thing to be watching on a Friday night, a heralded emblem of childhood evenings fighting over the remote control and racing to the television just in time to hear the Disney Channel Original Movie theme song. DCOMs are still made to this day, with a whole new sector of kids and tweens enjoying them. Currently, more than 100 titles fall under the DCOM banner.
With lots of wonderful made-for-TV content out there and so little time, we’ve handpicked 10 DCOMs that capture the franchise’s initial zeitgeist in the late ’90s and early 2000s through its maturation in the late ’00s.
The fall of 1998 was a magical time for American children. Halloweentown premiered on the Disney Channel just a month after Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone debuted in the US. Both films featured a seemingly ordinary child learning that they come from a family of witches and wizards/warlocks, then entering a secret world of magic and thwarting an evil sorcerer. Am I suggesting that Halloweentown deserves to be a global phenomenon on the scale of Harry Potter? Why yes, yes I am. —Emily Heller
Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century (1999)
Our past visions of the future are always hilarious, but the 1999 Disney Channel’s version of the 21st century is especially fun to revisit. The fashions alone are incredible — Raven-Symoné wears slinkies in her hair! While we may not be saying “zetus lapetus” and living on space stations yet, Zenon did get one thing right about the 21st century. The plot revolves around an executive who cares more about his bottom line than the safety of his employees, which is a real 2019 “eat the rich” kind of mood. —EH
The Thirteenth Year (1999)
The Thirteenth Year is my generation’s Teen Wolf: a boy hits puberty and starts to transform into a magical creature. The changes also make him really good at sports. In Disney Channel’s version, he’s a star swimmer who starts to grow some (truly disgusting) scales and fins on his 13th birthday. Turns out, his mom — a mermaid — dropped him off in a couple’s boat while escaping a fisherman. Rather than calling Child Protective Services, they just decide to keep this strange baby that seemingly materialized out of nowhere. Oh, and the adopted dad is Dave Coulier. It’s just a bonkers movie, y’all. —EH
Cadet Kelly (2002)
Disney Channel loves to cast its TV stars in DCOMs, and Cadet Kelly was a twofer. Even Stevens’ Christy Carlson Romano played a mean older girl at the military school where Lizzie McGuire herself, Hilary Duff, was forced to transfer. Duff’s Kelly is very girly, and Romano’s severe Cadet Captain Stone isn’t having it. But when Kelly joins the drill team, they set aside their differences to choreograph a routine set to a Superchick song. If that sounds super gay, that’s because it totally is. —EH
The Cheetah Girls (2003)
Before High School Musical, there was The Cheetah Girls. Equally campy and with just as many catchy bops, The Cheetah Girls was the Gossip Girl to High School Musical’s Glee. (If the Gossip Girl cast sang, that is.) The titular Cheetah Girls are a Spice Girls-style girl group who get discovered by a flashy record producer at their high school talent show. The pressure to sell out threatens to destroy the band, but through the power of friendship and four-part harmonies, they reunite to save Raven-Symoné’s dog. (He fell down a manhole.) —EH
High School Musical (2006)
The first DCOM musical, High School Musical changed the DCOM game, bringing made-for-TV kids movies outside their small audience and inspiring two sequels and a fresh new Disney Plus meta spinoff. The setup is simple: shy new girl Gabriella and basketball captain Troy shake things up at their school when they audition for the school’s musical. In an era where catty cliques ruled high-school television, High School Musical plays with all its tropes with campy delight. —Petrana Radulovic
Three misfit teens build a time machine. Though they use it for selfish reasons at first, eventually they decide to just undo their classmates’ embarrassing moments. Wacky hijinks ensue. Of course, playing with the space-time continuum leads to dire consequences. Minutemen is all cheesy Disney Channel teen drama and corny special effects, with a typical message of how popularity isn’t everything — but boy, it’s the best of all those tropes. —PR
Camp Rock (2008)
Perhaps the first entry in the genre High School Musical birthed, Camp Rock was also a chance for the Disney Channel to show off its latest musical sensation, the Jonas Brothers. Aspiring musician Mitchie (Demi Lovato in her first Disney Channel role) wants to attend a super cool rock camp called Camp Rock, but can’t afford tuition. Her mother lands a job as the camp’s cook, and Mitchie can attend — so long as she works in the kitchen. It’s a tale about being true to yourself, set to some rockin’ late-2000s JoBro jams. —PR
Princess Protection Program (2009)
For a brief period in the late 2000s, the bulk of Disney Channel marketing focused on Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato’s pre-fame friendship. The excitement of Princess Protection Program wasn’t just that it was about two favorite Disney Channel stars playing best friends — it was awesome because they were best friends IRL! (Never mind that they stopped talking to each other a few years later).
Princess Protection Program is all about the power of female friendship. After a dictator invades Princess Rosalinda’s country, she’s sent to a safe house under the name Rosie (Lovato). Living with an agent of the titular Princess Protection Program and his tomboy daughter Carter (Gomez), Rosie must adjust to regular teen life. Though reluctant at first, the two quickly become friends and learn from each other. —PR
Lemonade Mouth (2011)
The only thing you really need to know about Lemonade Mouth is that it stars Hayley Kiyoko before she was Hayley Kiyoko. Five misfit students meet in detention à la the Breakfast Club, and discover they all share musical talents. Though they’re all dealing with insecurities and issues of their own, they come together to form a band. It’s teenage rebellion, but in a nice, safe, Disney Channel way that’s ultimately about self-expression and artistic empowerment. Also, the soundtrack still slaps so hard. —PR