Mainstream theatrically released movies may get all the attention when it comes to discussing the best Disney movies ever made, but what people are all too quick to forget is just how many great Disney movies were made for television and aired on Disney Channel. From the early 1990s, to the mid 2000s, Disney Channel was a real leader in providing children, teenagers, and families with high quality entertainment.
In recent years, their output has sadly declined in quality, but increased in quantity. But to be a kid in the 1990s and early 2000s meant tuning in for your favorite television series, and looking forward to the exciting premiere of the lastest Disney Channel Original Movies - or, as they came to be known, DCOMs. DCOMs included cast members from everyone's favorite Disney channel series, like Hilary Duff, Raven Symone, Brenda Song, and more.
But beyond the clear corporate synergy of casting, the stories these movies told were oftentimes inspiring, truly original, and filled with just the right amount of heart. Here, we take a look back at the top ten DCOMs.
You'd be hard pressed to find a Disney Channel Original Movie that covers weightier, and more meaningful, territory than 2000's The Color of Friendship. Set in the 1970s, the film covers the subject of South African apartheid from a truly sophisticated perspective. Piper Dellums, the African American daughter of a strongly anti-apartheid US Senator, finds herself confronted with the privileged world of Mahree Bok, a white South African exchange student whose wealthy family directly benefits from the inequality of apartheid.
Over the course of the film, the two characters learn much from one another, with Mahree in particular coming to understand how wrong the world she has been accustomed to truly is. What makes this film all the more inspiring, and emotionally stunning, is that The Color of Friendship is based on entirely true stories.
Cadet Kelly was a true twofer in terms of the talent it brought together under one movie title. Starring Lizzie McGuire's Hilary Duff and Even Stevens' and Kim Possible's Christy Carlson Romano, the movie told a real story of female empowerment and friendship, in the face of stereotypical odds. It dealt with common high school aged female friendship tropes, such as an outsider joining an already established world order, a perky and friendly girl vs. a more studious and serious one, and many more.
It also boasted additional star power in television veteran Gary Cole, future X-Men star Shawn Ashmore, and Lucifer's Aimee Garcia. Cadet Kelly offers an inspiring message about overcoming low expectations, and defying the odds to become a real hero. It's a great underdog story, with a stellar cast, and one heck of a drill routine finish.
It's pretty much every teenage girl's dream to meet the pop superstar you've been crushing on, regardless of how unrealistic that dream may be. But the 2004 Disney Channel Original Movie Stuck in the Suburbs goes above and beyond with making that pipe dream a reality - in the most outlandish, madcap adventure sort of way.
Starring future The Flash actress Danielle Panabaker, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody star Brenda Song, and Saturday Night Live feature player Taran Killam, Stuck in the Suburbs is one of Disney's most good-natured, albeit totally ridiculous movies. After inadvertently swapping phones with superstar Jordan Cahill, teenage girls Brittany and Natasha find themselves basically wielding the power to control his music career. Hilarity ensues, but so, too, does a real, earnest discussion about what it means to be an artist.
Zetus lapetus! If that catchphrase doesn't immediately transport you back to the comfort of the 1990s Disney Channel world, then really, what are you doing here? The iconic film Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century represented one of Disney Channel's first forays into true genre fiction, and science fiction no less. It also stands as one of the first of Disney's televised movies to become a franchise, with 2001's Zenon: The Zequel and 2004's Zenon: Z3 following the initial 1999 entry.
Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century followed the life of rebellious teenage girl Zenon Kar, played by Kirsten Storms, who is sent by her family to live back on Earth after being raised in outer space. It's a true fish out of water story, with hilariously colorful costumes, incredibly catchy music, and an adventure that lets one teenage girl save the day - and the galaxy, too.
1990s teen icons Tia and Tamera Mowry, best known for their work on the beloved sitcom Sister, Sister, became full fledged Disney Channel icons with the release of their 2005 fantasy film Twitches. In the movie, the Mowry twins play twin sisters who are separated at birth (again!) and come from a secret magical land called Coventry, populated with witches of all kinds.
After reconnecting with one another in their adult life, the sisters - Alexandra (in reality Artemis) and Camryn (in reality Apolla) - find that their magic powers have awakened, and that they have to work together in order to return to their homeland of Coventry and restore it to its former glory. It's a fun fantastical romp, and the sequel in 2007's Twitches Too is just as much fun, too. But none of it would have been possible without the terrific work of the Mowry twins.
The subject of ethnicity and immigration is a common topic in elementary and high school social studies classes, and it was clearly the entry point for this fantastical Disney Channel Original Movie. The Luck of the Irish finds teenager Kyle looking to learn more about his family history as part of a school project - only to learn something truly shocking and amazing all at once: he hails from a long line of - wait for it - leprechauns.
The premise is about as bizarre as things get, and the film shouldn't work in any way. But through a wonderfully earnest script, filled with plenty of visual gags and sharp humor, The Luck of the Irish becomes a winning film about what it really means to be American, to be Irish, and to be human, too. It also features hilarious work from future Psych star Timothy Omundson as the villainous Seamus McTiernen.
It's not every day a network like Disney Channel could harness the star power of a legend like Debbie Reynolds into not one, not two, not three, but four separate films. That alone makes the Halloweentown films something worth watching. The Halloweentown series, which spanned from 1998 to 2006, was one of Disney's best performing series, and remains one of its most beloved to this date, with an incredibly devoted cult following around the Halloween season.
The movies chronicle the life of a young teenage witch, Marnie Piper, and her developing relationship with her grandmother, Aggie Cromwell, an aging and quirky itch played by Debbie Reynolds herself. The Halloweentown films are gripping adventure tales from start to finish, with heartwarming and heartwrenching stories about family and love. Just don't talk to anyone about the last film in the franchise; no one likes to remember that one even happened.
Disney fans undeniably know that Disney's biggest hit movie about a teenage mermaid is the 1989 animated classic The Little Mermaid. But even the most devoted of Disney fans may not know about the hidden gem that is the 1999 Disney Channel Original Movie The Thirteenth Year. The Thirteenth Year tells the story of a boy named Cody who, upon turning thirteen years old, suddenly finds himself with an unquenchable thirst. Things only get more confusing when he suddenly sprouts gills and becomes an even more talented swimmer than he already was.
Of course, the truth is that he's born from mermaids, given only the first thirteen years of his life to live on land as a human, before he hits mermaid puberty and is forced to rejoin his mermaid family back underwater. What follows is a truly poignant, even heartbreaking story about the nature of family, and the lengths people will go to in order to protect the ones they love.
Long before female teenage super groups like Little Mix and Fifth Harmony existed to win over legions of fans the world over, Disney Channel introduced viewers to The Cheetah Girls. With a franchise spanning from 2003 to 2008, and a real life formation of the titular super group, The Cheetah Girls was one of the first true examples of total synergy between Disney Channel's television landscape and its musical output.
Starring Disney Channel icon Raven Symone, Sabrina Bryan, and past 3LW members Kiely Williams and Adrienne Bailon, The Cheetah Girls followed a group of friends as they rose from their normal life as teens in Manhattan, to worldwide superstars. The movies may have been filled with great music and performances, but the real highlight of these films was its depiction of fiercely loyal female friendships.
Speaking of the perfect blending of Disney's television output and its musical production, how could any other movie than the beyond iconic franchise High School Musical top a list of the best Disney Channel Original Movies ever made? When High School Musical first aired in 2006, it totally changed the game in terms of entertainment for kids and teens alike, as well as the amount of musical content that could be included in such entertainment.
Long before Glee was around to depict stories of forbidden teen love and dramatically executed dance routines and singing competitions, High School Musical was doing all of that and more. And better than Glee ever would. The franchise would also launch the careers of future Hollywood stars in Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Tisdale.