Disney Channel: the name might flood back memories of your early childhood while for some, it was the equivalent to the bane of their existence. But whether you fall into either category or sit somewhere in the middle, their impact on younger audiences remain unrivalled and nothing attests to this than Disney Original films. Arguably growing up with the peak quality films Disney Channel had to offer, our writers have selected their personal favourites.
Lemonade Mouth (2011), dir. Patricia Riggen
Released in 2011, Lemonade Mouth stands out amongst other Disney Channel productions because of its brilliant soundtrack. Featuring Hayley Kiyoko, who has since gone on to be nominated for a few awards and won MTV’s Push Artist of the Year in 2018, there’s no doubt why the soundtrack is so addictive – it features an actual, successful musician (unlike some Disney Channel films…).
It satisfies all of the cringe, American high-school falsities which a lot of teen musicals of similar calibre demonstrate. But rather than being painful to watch, Lemonade Mouth has an intriguing plotline with interesting characters and some hilarious moments.
If you’re not familiar with the plot, it’s about a band that is formed in detention. Although reminiscent of The Breakfast Club and despite being significantly less edgy than its 80s counterpart, it still provides unexpected entertainment. Each character has their own lovable traits which may offer up moments of recoil, but their performances as a band make up for that. ‘Determinate’ will be stuck in your head for days after watching, and 11-year-old me wanted nothing more than to be Bridgit Mendler in her spectacular performance here.
The Cheetah Girls 2 (2006), dir. Kenny Ortega
The Cheetah Girls 2 first premiered in 2006 and follows an all girls group, The Cheetah Girls, as they travel to Spain to take part in an amateur music festival in Barcelona. The group consists of Galleria (Raven—Symoné), Chanel (Adrienne Bailon), Aqua (Kiely Williams) and Dorinda (Sabrina Bryan) who all go through trials and tribulations that almost break up the band, but eventually come out stronger and even better than ever before. The reason this film tops the other The Cheetah Girls films in the trilogy is because the soundtrack is outstanding with songs such as ‘The Party’s Just Begun’ and ‘Amigas Cheetahs’ which are mind-blowing and remain great party anthems even 14 years on. The movie also draws upon its Spanish influences by incorporating Hispanic flairs like the remix of ‘Cheetah Sisters (Barcelona Mix)’. There is also a verse in ‘Amigas Cheetahs’ sung in Spanish which is incredibly rare for a Disney Channel film and the incorporation of another language merged with its embrace and acceptance of Hispanic and Spanish roots, makes for a truly captivating watch.
Camp Rock (2008), dir. Matthew Diamond
After the smash hit of High School Musical, Disney Channel continued their success with Camp Rock. Premiering in 2008, this film capitalised on the Jonas Brothers hype that the world attained with these stars. I must admit as someone who was convinced she would marry Nick Jonas, I totally bought into this franchise and I am not ashamed in saying that.
Not only did this film establish Demi Lovato as a household name and showed off her vocal talent, it also proved to doubters that the Jonas Brothers can definitely act. In addition, with tunes such as ‘Play My Music’ and ‘This Is Me’, I guarantee playing this soundtrack will bring a room full of drunk strangers together.
Throughout the film, the journey that Mitchie Torres (Lovato) goes on to find herself is a real experience that speaks on a universal level. Attempting to fit in and be liked, to be something you are not and, of course, fall in love are all things that I was yet to experience but knew that if Mitchie could do it, so can I. Likewise, Shane (Joe Jonas) grows from a selfish egomaniac to a soft soul who really wants others to value themselves and find something that they are passionate about. He is the ultimate teacher.
Starstruck (2010), dir. Michael Grossman
Created near the end of the peak of Disney Channel Original Movies, Starstruck was an instant 2010 classic. The plot that follows a brush of fame for somewhat irritated teen girl Jessica Olson (Danielle Campbell), is bursting with perhaps the best soundtrack to any film that Disney Channel has produced. Granted, the High School Musical franchise had some bops, but in no way do they compare to the sultry tones of our beloved Christopher Wilde (Sterling Knight). Despite carrying the cliche of ‘that guy’ who whips out an acoustic guitar at a party, his stripped back version of ‘Hero’ is a welcome yet sweet moment. As well as featuring teen heartthrob Sterling Knight, who starred as the similar Brad Dylan Cooper in DC sitcom Sonny With A Chance, Starstruck successfully takes the viewer on a journey; from Malibu beach to a muddy swamp miles from home, before ending up at a school dance in classic Disney Channel fashion. This was the first DCOM I rewatched on Disney+, but this should come as no surprise considering I found myself mumbling to its multiple catchy choruses once again many years later.
Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure (2011), dir. Michael Lembeck
It’s no secret that Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale) was the star of the High School Musical trilogy, so how could we not love the spin off dedicated to her life on broadway post-graduation? In the name of the iconic ‘Fabulous’ (performed in High School Musical 2), the film follows Sharpay and her dog Boi on their not-so-fabulous adventure. In true HSM/Disney Channel Original Movie style, the soundtrack is comprised of auto-tuned, 2000s infused bangers that includes many of your favourite HSM hits such as ‘Humuhumunukunukuapua’a’. Despite the world trying to tell her she’s not fabulous, she perseveres to fight off the rejection and competition of Amber Lee Adams (Cameron Goodman) and Roger Elliston (Bradley Steven Perry), eventually taking over the broadway show and proving the world that she is the star she was always destined to be. Although Camp Rock (2008) is easily superior to the HSM franchise for my taste, Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure highlights yet again that she carried this beloved trilogy to its success.
Read It and Weep (2006), dir. Paul Hoen
An often-forgotten original movie, Read It and Weep has always been my favourite amongst the lot since its release in 2006. Based on the teen novel How My Private, Personal Journal Became A Bestseller by Julia DeVillers, the film sees freshman Jamie Bartlett (Kay Panabaker) accidentally enter her private journal titled ‘Is Saves the World’ into a school writing contest and, in a dramatic turn of events, becomes a worldwide best-selling author.
Every viewing of this film, even as an adult, still provides so much pleasure and nostalgia. As a kid, I was obsessed with reading and writing and one of my career aspirations was to be an author. Seeing Jamie in Read It and Weep become a world-renowned author and reap the benefits from it was inspiring to me as it was something that I wanted to relate to. Likewise, I was also a huge fan of everything Disney Channel so I was guaranteed to love it.
The alter ego plot involving Jamie’s fictional character Is (Danielle Panabaker) was one that gave the film a bit more edge, as well as the parts of Jamie’s journal that come to life. Even though there is a stereotypical ‘mean girl’ through high school student Sawyer (Allison Scagliotti), and there is a slightly cringe happy ending, that is something that makes Disney Channel films so good and easy to watch.
Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (2006), dir. John Laing
Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior was by no means a small release for Disney Channel back in 2006. Reaching 5.7 million views on its premiere night and becoming the fifth-highest viewed Disney Channel Original Movie (DCOM) at the time of its release, it contributed to making Disney Channel one of the highest-rated kids channels in the whole of Europe. Starring none other than Brenda Song (London Tipton in the iconic The Suite Life of Zack & Cody and The Suite Life on Deck) as the titular character Wendy Wu, it used its Asian-culture inspired plot as a way to weave loveable high-school drama with the intricacies of martial arts. Shaking up expectations by having a female-lead who was also a black-belt in martial arts (a sad rarity in the male-dominated sport) as well as a largely Asian cast, Wendy Wu went on to become labelled a strong protagonist and a good role model; a title she wholeheartedly deserves. Genuinely thrilling, heartwarming, and a unique gem among the Disney Channel repertoire of movies, Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior is an underrated film that borders on the toes of being a smaller-budget masterpiece.
High School Musical 2 (2007), dir. Kenny Ortega
Nothing is more classic Disney Channel than the High School Musical trilogy. If we’re talking legendary DC cinema, you can find it all right here; the drama, the characters, the SOUNDTRACKS, it’s all utter perfection. And, of course in my mind, High School Musical 2 (HSM:2) is easily the best one of the three. In what other film are you going to get a breathtaking group number like ‘What Time is It?’, a microcosmic story-within-a-film as iconic and effective as ‘Humuhumunukunukuapua’a’, and a solo number as overdramatic and meme fuelling as ‘Bet On It’ (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Zac Efron sassily strut around a golf course). Obviously a film is only as good as it’s characters, and High School Musical 2 is no exception. Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale), the legend that she is, really takes the cake in this film, with her dramatics and talent immortalising her as one of Disney’s best characters. Ryan Evans (Lucas Grabeel in storming form) finally gets his own storyline as well, evolving from being merely Sharpay’s sidekick to a teenager with his own struggles, voice and opinions (including a potential romance with a one Mr Chad Danforth; I see you ‘I Don’t Dance’). If you haven’t seen High School Musical 2, I beg of you, go watch it and experience what the pinnacle of Disney Channel (and potentially cinema) looks like.
Princess Protection Program (2009), dir. Allison Liddi-Brown
If you grew up as an obsessive Disney Channel fan, then you definitely lived for every time your favourite stars leapt outside of their shows to film a crossover. On that basis, Demi Lovato (Princess Rosalinda) and Selena Gomez (Carter Mason) teaming up to star in Princess Protection Program is certainly one of the greatest crossovers we experienced. When Princess Rosalinda is on the cusp of being crowned Queen of Costa Luna, General Magnus Kane (Johnny Ray Rodriguez) of neighbouring island Costa Estrella attempts to capture the royal family. Thankfully the Princess Protection Program swoop in to save the day, and Rosalinda is safely sent to stay with Carter. Despite a tumultuous start, the pair soon become best friends, attending school together and infusing their off-screen friendship perfectly into the film. With high-school drama, prom queen crownings, and royal politics thrown into one, Princess Protection Program is everything a great Disney Channel movie is meant to be: fights, friendship, and our two favourite Disney Channel sweethearts morphing into badass princess protection agents.
Radio Rebel (2012), dir. Peter Howitt
Radio Rebel is the story of Tara Adams (Debby Ryan), a shy high school student, whose alter ego as a bedroom DJ is the eponymous inspiration in the film. The movie follows the DJ’s journey as her popularity soars amongst her classmates, though they do not actually know her true identity. However, the fame surrounding Radio Rebel causes unrest in the school as the principal cancels their prom until the identity is revealed. This film is a brilliant modern story of surviving high school and expressing yourself in different and imaginative ways. The story is different to other Disney channel films because it isn’t about an individual and their personal story but rather about the power of community and support from your peers, especially for the greater good!
Halloweentown (1998), dir. Duwayne Dunha
As the fifth Disney Channel Original Movie (DCOM) and released in 1998, Halloweentown was the first that dealt extensively with magic, mayhem and all things beautiful to a child. Starting a canon of four movies that would continue to be released until 2006, the film boasts an impressive and loveable cast that included none other than Debbie Reynolds and Judith Hoag. Going on to ignite a huge surge in movies made by Disney Channel, the film can be seen as a flagship example of the high-quality movies that they put out with relatively small budgets. It’s this that arguably makes it the first “great” DCOM and one that I I hold close to my heart for igniting my love of fantasy and providing an introduction to the channel as a whole. I can even still remember my mum swaddling us both in a blanket with popcorn as she played it on the night of her birthday which was also none other than the 31st October. Nonetheless it’s a feel-good film that didn’t let a small-release hold it back and went above and beyond in creating a whacky new-world for children like myself to get lost in over and over again.