Disney Channel is home to some of the most memorable programs for children and teens. For people like myself, they were shows like The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Kim Possible, The Even Stevens Show, and much more. Disney Channel also had some iconic original movies like High School Musical, Descendants, The Cheetah Girls, and plenty of other big hits. There were a fair share of original movies that stuck with me growing up, but what I noticed was that some of these movies were kept hidden well under the radar to a lot of viewers. Sure, Troy Bolton singing “Bet On It” on that golf course will always be one of the defining moments of a generation, but there were plenty of other standout stories that were just unfortunately overshadowed by the more popular content on the network. With that in mind, here are five Disney Channel original movies that deserve to be recognized and appreciated.
Inline skating isn’t really as popular when compared to some other extreme sports of its kind, so it’s great to see Disney Channel shed some light on it. Brink! tells the story of Andy “Brink” Brinker, a Southern California teenager who spends his time hanging out with his friends Peter, Jordy, and Gabriella. They refer to themselves as “Soul-Skaters”, people who believe skating should just be for fun rather than for profit. Brink and the others feel intimidated upon meeting a group of sponsored skaters known as “Team X-Bladez”, led by Val Horrigan. They believe themselves to be the superior skaters in town and think Brink and his friends need to step aside, causing a fierce rivalry between the two.
One evening, after getting suspended from school for a race against one of Team X-Bladez’s members that left him injured, Brink overhears his parents talking about the family’s financial troubles. His father, who strongly disapproves of Brink’s skating activities, says they will run out of money if something doesn’t happen soon. Brink uses this as an opportunity to join Team X-Bladez, this way he can be a star in the inline skating world and make a name for himself like Val. This creates a rift between him and his friends, thinking he sold himself out. Brink’s passion for skating dies down as he believes himself to be alone, and his father hears word of this. He reminds Brink that, with or without inline skating, he will still be him, and the only thing that truly matters is who he surrounds himself with. Brink! is a reminder of why we do the things we do and what makes them special to us. It is a story of passion over money, and even though money will always be very important, it’s also important to remember to not lose yourself along the way.
Johnny Tsunami is about an up-and-coming surfer named Johnny Kapahala. He looks up to his legendary surfer grandfather Johnny Tsunami, hoping he can one day reach the same heights and status as him. This dream is dashed away when his father Pete gets a sudden job transfer, and the whole family is forced to move to Vermont while Johnny Tsunami stays behind in Hawaii. Kapahala is enrolled into a private school, where he is ridiculed by everyone except a girl named Emily, who just so happens to be the headmaster’s daughter. Johnny attempts to familiarize himself with skiing, the popular sport at his private school, but ultimately fails to make himself professional at it. All of a sudden, he meets a boy named Sam, who goes to the rivaling public school and is a snowboarder. Johnny tries out snowboarding and becomes much more acquainted with it due to its similarities with surfing.
Johnny invites Emily to try out snowboarding, unbeknownst to her friends. Ignoring the warning signs and going down a restricted path, she nearly falls off of a perilous cliff and is rescued by Johnny and a park ranger. This infuriates Pete and forbids Johnny to see his friends and snowboard; at the same time, Sam tells Johnny he is moving to Iceland for his father’s military work. The two decide to sneak off to Hawaii and be with Johnny’s grandfather so he can learn more about surfing. Tsunami refuses to send the boys back to Vermont until they decide they want to return. He eventually goes with them and meets his son once again, who tells him that it is not up to him to decide Johnny’s path in life. Just like he could not stop Pete from quitting surfing, Johnny’s father cannot stop him from being his own person and standing out from everyone else. Johnny Tsunami delivers a similar message to Brink! about following your heart and being your own person without letting anyone get in the way. If you really enjoyed this movie, they made a sequel called Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board that focuses on dirtboarding in Hawaii.
Whether you want to believe it or not, the spooky season is approaching fast. If you’re someone who might be a little too big of a scaredy cat and prefer to watch a more “wholesome” Halloween movie, look no further than Halloweentown. This movie follows the story of 13 year-old Marnie Piper, a girl who is obsessed with all things creepy and mystifying and considers Halloween her favorite holiday. However, her mother Gwen shelters her and her siblings Dylan and Zoey from ever celebrating Halloween without giving any explanation as to why. Grandmother Agatha “Aggie” Cromwell makes her annual Halloween visit and talks to Gwen privately about starting Marnie’s witch training; this arouses Marnie’s curiosity, as she starts to believe that Halloweentown, the place that Aggie has always told her about in stories, is a real place. She sneaks off with her siblings and follows Aggie onto the magical bus that takes them to Halloweentown.
The siblings meet up with their grandmother at her home, where they learn that they are descendants of a powerful family of witches called the Cromwells and that Marnie is next in line to obtain her special powers. Grandmother Aggie takes them on a guided tour of Halloweentown while Gwen, believing Marnie’s witch training will prevent her and her kids from having a normal life, tries to take them home. All of this happens as a sinister plot which will threaten Halloweentown and its citizens slowly unfolds. By no means is Halloweentown an academy-award winning movie on all fronts, but the level of detail and amount of information the viewer is given about Halloweentown itself makes this the most immersive world a Disney Channel original has ever given. Debbie Reynolds is also a show-stealer; it’s not hard to tell that she had a lot of fun with this role. If you enjoy this movie and want to immerse yourself even more, they made three sequels that explore Halloweentown’s lore even further.
Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century
Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century focuses on Zenon Kar, a girl who constantly gets into trouble aboard a space station in Earth’s orbit. Her reputation as a troublemaker gains her unpopularity among the station’s commander as well as her family and other crew members. One day her antics result in her being “grounded”, or being sent to Earth to live with her Aunt Judy. Having no memory or experience of life on earth, Zenon becomes depressed about being exposed to what she considers a less-than-adequate standard of living compared to life aboard the space station.
Zenon is ridiculed by most of her peers for her choice of vocabulary and unusual background, while she considers them to be behind in the times for not catching up to her advanced society. This is when a boy named Greg takes an interest in Zenon, who reciprocates the same feelings when she realizes that he does not view her any differently than the others despite her differences. As their relationship develops, she discovers that her space station’s sponsor Parker Wyndham intends to crash the space station to collect the insurance money, which she tries to stop. Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century is perfect for learning how to navigate a different world from your own, and anyone who watches it might take an interest in the zany, futuristic world building that the sequels offer.
The Color of Friendship
This leads to the last movie on this list, and it’s one that has aged incredibly well in today’s world. Based on a true story, The Color of Friendship focuses on two girls living in the 1970’s at the height of Apartheid: Piper, an black girl living in the United States who is the daughter of Congressman Ron Dellums, and Mahree, a white girl from South Africa. Both express interest in the foreign exchange student program, with Piper’s family wanting to invite a student from Africa and Mahree wanting to live in America for a semester. They are shocked when both of their expectations are dashed; Mahree did not know that the politician she was living with was black (nor did she know there were even black politicians in the U.S.) while Piper didn’t know white people lived in Africa.
Each of them learns how to overcome their initial feelings of rudeness and judgement, and they discover that they share a lot more in common than they first thought. Mahree spends the next couple of months exposed to culture in the U.S. and how black and white people coexist much more peacefully than in South Africa. She begins to understand that there is a lot that her country’s racist systems hide from her as well as teach her in order to maintain this separation, while Piper is in shock and awe that Mahree was taught and exposed to such things. Seeing how much her country is hated by everyone for its systemic racism and how wrong they are for believing in segregation, Mahree learns that South Africa needs to leave Apartheid behind and stand for racial unity. The Color of Friendship is a shockingly powerful tale about tolerance and friendship between two young girls from different backgrounds, and it is a message that everyone needs to receive today. It teaches us that despite our many differences, there is much more that we share in common and that love will always trump hate. This movie is so good, it even won a Primetime Emmy award for Outstanding Children’s Program.
All five of these movies are available for streaming on Disney+.
(Cover Photo: “Halloweentown”)