I love to claim that I grew up with the best crop of Disney Channel Original Movies (DCOM). I will admit that there are a couple of technical loopholes, namely that I was too young to be live on the scene to fully appreciate the 'High School Musical' franchise, 'Cheetah Girls' and 'Camp Rock' era running from 2006–2011, though I did catch them on DVD soon after.
This all curiously puts the period of DCOMs I remember watching and growing up with between 2012 to 2018 to the test. With Disney trying to recapture the magic (money) of High School Musical in a bottle again in spite of a faltering audience, in 2013, they cleared their slate to leave room for one movie – 'Teen Beach Movie'.
Starring a collection of primarily newcomers to Disney Channel and the tried-and-tested formula of catchy kid-friendly musical numbers, 'Teen Beach Movie' was a hit, raking in high viewership numbers of 8.4 million, last seen in 2009 ('Princess Protection Program', 8.5 million) and peaking at three on the Billboard charts. It was also a hit in my household (a much more important indicator) – as evidenced by my memories of searching and watching behind-the-scenes production and dance rehearsal videos on YouTube. And for years, long before 'Barbie' (2023) gloriously rolled onto our screens... Lela and Tanner were my live-action Barbie and Ken.
But sadly, time does pass, and things change. The most recent DCOM/Disney+ musical franchise is a trilogy about singing zombies in school. So does 'Teen Beach Movie' hold up now in the era of shiny Disney+ Original Films? What degree of ear-worm do the songs stand at an entire decade in? For its 10th anniversary - which, if you are like me, just had a very rude awakening that time is flying by - let's look back on 'West Side Story' meets 'Back to the Future' (Disney Channel's version) together.
With a one and a half-hour run time and perfect cuts for ad breaks, the story centres on couple Mack (Maia Mitchell) and Brady (Ross Lynch), who spent their summer holiday together surfing by her grandfather's beach. Brady is obsessed with a 1960s musical aptly named 'Wet Side Story', which is not a reference to any iconic musical at all that the average tween watcher of Disney Channel would likely be aware of. 'Wet Side Story' depicts a rivalry between a surfer and biker gang over a diner, where the biker lead Lela (Grace Phipps) falls into forbidden love with the surfer lead Tanner (Garrett Clayton). As the movie unfolds, they join groups to defeat the evil villains trying to affect the weather around the beach, seeking to push the bikers and surfers out of town. Simple enough! When Mack and Brady find themselves stuck inside 'Wet Side Story' (MacGuffin of choice: magic surfboard) and having caused the leads to fall for them instead, they have to find a way to change the story and get back to the real world.
I'll come right out and say it... 'Teen Beach Movie' is unironically, well, pretty good! Besides its villains – which are two grown men sneaking around trying to be foils to our dear heroes in a pantomime cartoonish way that never convinced child me nor present-day me. Back then, there was no skip forward button on live Disney Channel premieres either. Very corny and uninteresting villainy aside, I surprisingly found that I still enjoyed rewatching the film for its anniversary. The songs are straight bangers, the campy self-aware tone works, and the feminist lens of the film which 9-year-old me adored still has an impact today.
These three points culminate in a song and dance number, 'Like Me'. The 60s characters try to convince the two modern teenagers of their flirtation techniques relating to traditional gender roles and vice versa ("Don't let her know how much you care"/"Look in her eyes, and tell her even if you're scared", "Pick up the check"/"No! Bake him a pie"). While these lyrics may seem a little on the nose, 'Teen Beach Movie' also had a target audience of... 7- to 14-year-olds. Lela, the 60s film lead biker girl, goes on a journey of self-discovery as Mack encourages her to pursue her dreams of surfing. Lela, in return, also teaches Mack about following her heart.
'Teen Beach Movie' manages to thread these surprisingly interesting character arcs into a campy and meta film digestible for kids and adults because it knows exactly what it is. It's a direct-to-Disney Channel movie injected with enough fun musical numbers to power a small troupe of theatre kids (me included), coupled with meta callbacks to cheesy and classic films. When Brady leaps at the chance to join in his favourite 'Wet Side Story' number, 'Cruisin' with a Brusin'' – complete with an electric guitar solo and double pirouettes - we are similarly left with the choice to tap out or just embrace the corniness, the cringe, the fun of 'Teen Beach Movie'.
While 'Teen Beach Movie' has lived under the shadow of the equally excellent 'High School Musical' franchise for years, even starting from its conception where its original title was 'Teen Beach Musical', I do believe it has equally earned its nostalgic charm. Holding a charming story and a catchy soundtrack – all back when DCOMs had full-grown actors performing for their lives. We should bring these back!