The cult of Disney’s timeless, progressive cable flicks.
Like any good teen movie, Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century begins on the day of the big test.
Zenon Carr, a rambunctious blonde who loves wearing neon leggings, sleeps through her alarm clock. Her mom has to wake her up: Zenon jumps out of bed, now in a frenzy. She grabs clothes out of her closet—naturally decorated with her favorite bleached-haired idol, Protozoa—and opens up her blinds to show Earth floating leagues away from her space window.
Zoom, zoom, zoom, make my heart go boom, boom—my supernova girl.
To this day, these iconic words from the Zenon song resonate with a generation. In fact Disney Channel Original Movies (DCOMs) such as 1999’s Zenon have resurfaced during this era of pop culture nostalgia in cult-like fashion.
Smart House, Halloweentown, Brink!, and a slew of other titles transport today’s young adults back to their childhoods. For any kid who grew up with the Disney Channel, these movies were a big deal, something to celebrate on Friday night with a bowl of popcorn and SunnyD. Earlier this year when the Disney Channel announced that there’d be a mega-movie marathon of every Disney Channel Original Movie—beginning Friday—it’s understandable that now-grown audiences would “flip out major,” as Zenon would put it.
Many of these movies were fantastical adventures grounded with backstories, friends, and families that felt like the people in our lives. And while most of the nostalgic favorites are from the late ‘90s and ‘00s, they also had the uncanny ability to portray a future with technologies that we’re now living with. As absurd as some of the movie premises sound at first, they have turned out to be a lot closer to reality than you’d think.
Stu Krieger is the man to thank for some of the most memorable DCOM experiences. After writing everyone’s favorite dinosaur classic The Land Before Time for producers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Krieger was tapped to adapt Zenon from the original 1996 picture book. Disney interviewed almost 20 writers and many pitched their idea of the movie as a cross between Star Trek and Beverly Hills, 90210.
Krieger beat the competition out by framing his treatment after the lovable, mischievous Eloise at the Plaza (but on a space station). After Zenon’s incredible success, he went on to write a dozen more DCOMs, including the next two Zenon movies, Smart House, Phantom of the Megaplex, Cow Belles, Tru Confessions, and more. Today he teaches screenplay writing at the University of California, Riverside.
“One of the things with both Zenon and Smart House that I kept talking to Disney about is, if you look at the time I was writing them in the ‘90s and early 2000s, I would say to them when people write about the future they tend to do these magnificent leaps. Like in 40 years, we’re going to have flying cars,” Krieger tells the Daily Dot. “And I said, let’s look backwards to the 1950s and there’s so many ways our lives are radically different. There’s also incredible ways our lives are exactly the same. I think we need to be thinking much more incrementally.”
One technological advancement Zenon accurately depicted was video communication. In the movie, Zenon gets in trouble with the space station commander and is grounded by her parents—quite literally grounded, sent to stay with her aunt Judy on Earth. In order to contact her parents, she uses a handheld screen that’s practically the size of an iPhone 6 Plus.
The film’s video chatting is pretty much modern day FaceTime. There’s a front camera so Zenon can watch the screen while talking herself. And after she makes it back to the space station at the end of the movie, she uses the same tech to FaceTime with her boyfriend, Greg, whom she left behind on the planet she grew to love and appreciate.
We might be a few generations away from living together on a huge space station, but Zenon did get something like the handheld screen with various utilities right. The first movie of the trilogy is set in 2049, so we have a couple of decades to start sending families up into space.
Another movie that got not-so-far-away machinery right was 1999’s Smart House. Teenage computer whiz Ben Cooper is still reeling from the death of his mom. His sister and dad are also learning to cope. Ben’s too busy to be a kid these days, so he immediately jumps at the chance to win the contest for a fully equipped smart house named PAT (Personal Applied Technology) that takes care of chores.
PAT is an omnipresent Siri, always listening for the Coopers’ commands. The smart house has a bunch of cool features like turning the walls into full-fledged television screens, picking up the morning newspaper outside with a metallic claw, preparing meals based off a nutritional assessment of each family member, and more.
While the full-fledged smart house isn’t here yet, there are tons of advancements available to turn your home into something akin to Ben’s place. (The Amazon Echo can tell you the weather or set alarms by command; Nest thermostat will let you change the temperature in your home with audio commands; smart locks let you open and close them with the tap on an iPhone; and while nothing will compare to PAT’s ability to absorb any mess on her floors into oblivion, your trusty Roomba will scooter about, vacuuming up messes it encounters.)
Hologram technology is another peek into the future that various Disney Channel Original Movies nailed. In Zenon, the teens on the space station are taught by hologram Mr. Perez, who appears to be a real man just beamed into the class to teach via his non-corporeal extension. He might be intangible, but he’s still able to scald Zenon with a “is there something you’d like to share with the class” as she catches up on Protozoa news instead of paying attention. After Ben tries to teach PAT to be more maternal by showing her ’50s-era television shows that feature mothers, the artificial intelligence creates a hologram version of itself based off the moms she studied.
Meanwhile, the 2004 DCOM Pixel Perfect centers on a sentient dancing and singing hologram named Loretta. Main character Roscoe creates a girl to help his friend Sam’s band, the Zetta Bytes. Loretta debuts at a school performance with Sam’s band and she’s an instant hit with her energetic spins and backflips off the drum set.
Holograms have been newsworthy as of late because of their musical power, much like Loretta. Coachella attendees were treated to a Tupac hologram in 2012 and there were rumors of an Amy Winehouse hologram tour. Just this past week a Whitney Houston hologram was slated to perform with Christina Aguilera on the finale of The Voice, but was later replaced by Ariana Grande reportedly because the augmented version of the songstress wasn’t up to the Houston family’s standards. We even have famous pop stars just like Loretta—Hatsune Miku is huge in Japan.
“With the technology I wasn’t thinking computers aren’t going to exist anymore, I was just thinking how much forward will they have been? So things like the hologram teacher in Zenon and some of the technology in Smart House, those are things that are in fact now happening,” Krieger says. “But it wasn’t like I had some incredible crystal ball, it was just sort of take what’s here and close your eyes and think what’s the next 30, 40-year iteration of it.”
Subverting the tropes
Disney Channel Original Movies tended to be forward-thinking. No matter what the foundational story was—either living in space or living in the alternate dimension “Halloweentown,” where it’s Halloween every day—many DCOMs were ahead of their time.
Take for example Up, Up, and Away!, a 2000 movie that showcased a black family who also had double lives as superheroes. Today’s superhero television landscape is plagued by a lack of racial diversity; while the family’s blackness wasn’t necessarily explored in the movie, it did strides for representation. The channel also put out The Color of Friendship, a movie that explored global racial tensions. It was based on the true story of the friendship between a black girl living in the United States and a white South African girl benefiting from the apartheid system who comes to America through a student-exchange program.
Various DCOMs were also extremely subversive of typical teenage characters in pop culture during this era. Several movies had bold female characters that landed on all ends of the femininity spectrum. The all-Latina dance team from Gotta Kick It Up! dominated dance competitions, chanting “si se puede!” to pump themselves up. Rip Girls followed a 13-year-old girl as she learned how to surf in Hawaii. And in Motocrossed, a teenage girl cuts off all her hair and butches up to impersonate her twin brother in motocross races after feeling responsible for his injury that puts him out of the sport.
“I think the one movie that I revisted most in my teen and adult years is Motocrossed. It straddles all these weird lines of identity and gender politics that crosses off so many intersections,” says Zach Heltzel, who hosts the DCOM podcast Zetus Lapodcast.
A huge lover of DCOMs while growing up, Heltzel was inspired by other alternative comedy podcasts such as Gilmore Guys to start his own geek-out series about the genre. During the shows, he runs through the oral history of the movies and has 44 episodes available for your listening pleasure.
And while DCOMs got a lot right, Heltzel is also quick to point out that they occasionally missed the mark.
“Disney Channel Movies I found are either really good with their feminist content and some of them are blatantly offensive,” he says.
Take a look at some of the earlier favorites such as Johnny Tsunami or Brink!—sure, they’re fun classics to rewatch, but the female characters are largely relegated to just trophies for these athletic alpha males to pine after and eventually win by the end of the movie.
Same goes for technology misfires. Heltzel points out a ludicrous scene in Can of Worms, where a bully is able to hack into the protagonist’s computer by simply inserting a floppy disk and pressing the space bar.
The new class
Disney continues to produce these flicks with a similar youthful zaniness—albeit at a slower pace than the golden age’s monthly burn. The Zendaya-starring Zapped arrived in 2014, and found her controlling boys through an app that was originally meant for dog commands.
How to Build a Better Boy featured two friends who unknowingly use the military’s technology to create the perfect robotic boyfriend. Girl Meets World’s Rowan Blanchard stars in 2015’s Invisible Sister as a youth whose vanishing concoction is accidentally used on her sister.
In Zapped, Zendaya’s character uses the app to make her all-boy junior varsity dance team better than the varsity squad. The mean girl antagonist eventually finds out about the all-powerful app and wants to use it for her own devious plans, but Zendaya is able to smash the phone before anything awful happens.
Rachelle Skoretz was one of the writers for Zapped and has been working on a script called Keep Calm and Crush On, a story about being heavily embedded in the world of social media and tracking down the guy you want to date. She says the key to these films is to play to teen wish fulfillment.
“If I was a 15-year-old girl, what powers would I like, what magical app would make my life easier? Or how can I make my high school experience more pleasant? You tap into that when you are using a magical element,” she says.
While Zenon might be living decades in the future, getting in trouble on a space station, at her core she was just like any adventurous teen.
Plots such as mind control and military technology could easily skew dark, but the Disney banner keeps the tone bright and funny. In Smart House, PAT eventually goes rogue and traps the family in the house, glitching on what she computes to be motherly love and protection.
“The comedy really saves it without becoming too heavy-handed. Especially, like, Zapped, you’re not trying to hit with a heavy hand, you’re trying to keep it centered in that wish-fulfillment realm. Making it sort of physically funny so you don’t err on the side of a little bit scary,” she says.
Futuristic technology and progressive characters notwithstanding, our nostalgic love for Disney cable flicks comes down to their earnest heart.
“The premise was always important, the science fiction elements, all of that I could always do research on, but I would say to them at Disney Channel is ultimately if your audience doesn’t get involved or invested in the characters and their relationships, it doesn’t matter,” Krieger says. “No matter what the special effects are, it’s the characters and how they engage.”
While Zenon might be living decades in the future, getting in trouble on a space station, at her core she was just like any adventurous teen. All Ben Cooper wanted was the best for his family. And in childhood innocence, it was always easy to look forward.
“Disney Channel Original Movies by virtue of being Disney are always [optimistic] and they have a positive message. When thinking about the future, there’s an element of hope, of wonder, a sense of what could be versus what the world is,” Hetzel says. “It’s all about these really young kids exploring the world as it could be and I think that’s great. Especially when so many other things go in the other direction.”
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