The best way to describe a Disney Channel Original Movie? You know it when you see it. Since 1997 (or 1983, if you count Disney Channel Premiere Films), DCOMs have invaded households around the world, giving tween audiences a range of characters to connect with and their adult guardians the peace of mind knowing their children are learning some lasting moral lessons.
With Disney Channel Original Movies now readily available on Disney+, we decided to go through the whole catalog and pick the best for your viewing pleasure.
Ask a random sample of people to name one Disney Channel Original Movie and High School Musical is the title most likely to be mentioned again and again. The film, which centers around stereotypical high school teens rising above their cliques and into the show-business stratosphere, has become one of the most iconic Disney Originals of all-time. It launched the careers of Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, and Corbin Bleu (who would star in another DCOM, Jump In!) and provided an unforgettable soundtrack, the hallmark of a classic DCOM. The movie also proved to be the start of something new and profitable for Disney, which has kept the franchise invigorated over the years with two sequels, a spin-off movie, and a tongue-in-cheek original series on Disney+ where the characters put on a musical performance of the original movie, creating a temporal paradox in the universe.
Rotten Tomatoes: 63%
Genre: Rom-com, Musical, Coming-of-age
Stars: Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Corbin Bleu
Director: Kenny Ortega
Runtime: 98 minutes
Another DCOM released during the genre’s golden year of 2006, Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior catapulted to fame with heart, humor, and a Disney staple — the kick-butt female protagonist. Brenda Song was already a star, playing the ditzy hotel heiress London Tipton in The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, but she showed off a more action-oriented side of herself as Wendy Wu, the reincarnation of a female warrior tasked with saving the world through the use of kung fu. Some of the stereotypical depictions would not be welcome in a more contemporary movie, but Song’s depiction of Wendy Wu was arguably a big step in improving representation on screen.
Rotten Tomatoes: 52%
Genre: Action-Adventure, Fantasy
Stars: Brenda Song, Shin Koyamada
Director: John Laing
Runtime: 91 minutes
And yet another selection from the year 2006 — Read It and Weep, the rare movie that starred both Danielle and Kay Panabaker. Kay plays Jamie, a high school student who suddenly catapults to fame after her private journal is accidentally submitted as the winning entry of a writing contest and an eventual bestseller (Danielle plays Isabella, a character in the journal). As Jamie becomes more famous, the riches and spoils of celebrity get the best of her as she becomes materialistic and vindictive. Jamie is forced to confront her alter ego to learn that wealth isn’t everything and nothing is more important than friendship and treating others well, a classic Disney moral.
Rotten Tomatoes: 58%
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Coming-of-age
Stars: Kay Panabaker, Danielle Panabaker
Directors: Paul Hoen
Runtime: 85 minutes
If there’s one thing Disney Channel Original Movies loved more than a good song and dance, it’s twins. Before the Panabaker twins starred in Read It and Weep, the Mowry twins (Tia and Tamera) starred in Twitches, playing twin witches (see how that works?) who were separated young and adopted by different parents. The twins go on to live very different lifestyles before they encounter each other on their 21st birthdays. Once they learn of their origin and the prophecy that rules them, they are forced to return to a magical realm to rid the world of the Darkness. It’s very much The Parent Trap meets Game of Thrones, once you dive into the thorns of the plot. A sequel came out in 2007, but it’s not nearly as good.
Rotten Tomatoes: 60%
Genre: Comedy, Fantasy
Stars: Tia Mowry, Tamera Mowry
Director: Stuart Gillard
Runtime: 87 minutes
Twitches is one of the best Halloween-themed Disney Originals, but the best of them is the original Halloweentown, one of the earliest. The film stars Debbie Reynolds (Princess Leia’s real-life mom) as Aggie Cromwell, a grandmother who wants to teach her grandchildren the ways of witchcraft, much to the chagrin of her daughter, who aims to raise her children as mortals. The three grandchildren eventually learn of their mystical ways and take a secret trip to Halloweentown, where they are suddenly tasked with learning about their powers and saving the townspeople from certain doom by dropping a talisman in a giant jack-o-lantern in the center of town. This film was so good it spawned not one, not two, but three sequels for Disney Channel.
Rotten Tomatoes: 80%
Genre: Comedy, Fantasy, Action-Adventure, Coming-of-age
Stars: Debbie Reynolds, Judith Hoag, Kimberly Brown
Director: Duwayne Dunham
Runtime: 84 minutes
Another genre the DCOM universe is obsessed with is sports, and one of the best in the genre is The Luck of the Irish, which combines elements of fantasy with the desire to win. Ryan Merriman stars as Kyle Johnson, who discovers he’s actually part-leprechaun when he loses his lucky charm. Before all the leprechauns succumb to the wills of the charm’s thief, Ryan must turn his luck around without the help of his charm. He also has to play a lot of basketball — the Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics must’ve been vowing to recruit Merriman if he played ball daily. Oh, and the villain of the film is played by Timothy Omundson, who has gone on to be a pretty big deal in the acting world.
Rotten Tomatoes: 53%
Genre: Comedy, Fantasy
Stars: Ryan Merriman, Timothy Omundson, Paul Kiernan
Director: Paul Hoen
Runtime: 86 minutes
It’s the classic dilemma all children of a certain age face: Baseball or cooking? Eddie Ogden is a baseball star, much to the approval of his father. But he has secretly been harboring a love of the culinary arts, even tricking his friends into joining a home economics class so he can cook some more. So when he enters a million-dollar cook-off (hosted by Bobby Flay!) on the day of the big playoff game, he’s faced with a difficult decision: follow his heart or please his friends and father? Maybe there’s a way to do both! Eddie’s Million Dollar Cook-Off definitely hits viewers over the head with an empathetic message, but the fact of the matter is, they just don’t make movies with this kind of levity and enjoyment any more.
Rotten Tomatoes: 48%
Genre: Sports, Comedy, Coming-of-age
Stars: Taylor Ball, Orlando Brown, Rose McIver
Director: Paul Hoen
Runtime: 85 minutes
Two of the Disney Channel’s greatest exports of all time are Hilary Duff (Lizzie McGuire) and Christy Carlson Romano (Even Stevens, Kim Possible), who go head-to-head in Cadet Kelly. It tells the story of Kelly Collins (Duff), who is forced to enroll in a military school after her mother marries a brigadier (Gary Cole). Kelly immediately clashes with Captain Jennifer Stone (Romano), who often taunts Kelly and memorably calls her a “maggot.” As punishment for various infractions, Kelly ends up on the drill team, where she learns military school life isn’t so bad after all. She learns to appreciate her stepfather and her arch-nemesis, with the film closing with salutes between the two, one of the more iconic DCOM endings of all-time. Combining two of Disney’s biggest stars at the time was a mash-up for the ages, before movies like The Avengers made these types of combinations common parlance.
Rotten Tomatoes: 49%
Genre: Comedy, Coming-of-age
Stars: Hilary Duff, Christy Carlson Romano, Gary Cole
Director: Larry Shaw
Runtime: 100 minutes
Camp Rock features two of the most famous musicians to come out of Disney in Demi Lovato and Joe Jonas, whose fellow Jonas Brothers also pop up during the film. Lovato plays a young musician who goes to a summer camp for musicians but doesn’t really fit in because of her economic status. Jonas plays Shane Gray, a spoiled singer forced to teach dance classes at the camp. How will they ever connect? And what beautiful music will they make together? Lovato singing “This Is Me” toward the end of the movie is one of the better original songs to come from the DCOMs. A sequel came out two years later, but like most sequels, it didn’t have the same luster as the original.
Rotten Tomatoes: 45%
Genre: Musical, Coming-of-age
Stars: Demi Lovato, Joe Jonas, the Jonas Brothers
Director: Matthew Diamond
Runtime: 96 minutes
While the rest of the entertainment universe dove headfirst into the era of reboots and revivals, Disney found a unique angle to pursue for their DCOMs. The result was Descendants, an adventure-comedy about the children of some of Disney’s most infamous villains, including the Evil Queen, Maleficent, Jafar, and Cruella de Vil. They share some of their parents’ evil characteristics, but there is also genuine goodness to root for in each character as they try to both prop up their parents and learn to outlive the outsized legacies they left. For good measure, there are several impressive songs in the movie, particularly “Rotten to the Core,” which set the tone for a franchise that has now seen prequels and sequels spun off of the original. Descendants also made stars out of Dove Cameron, Sofia Carson, and the late Cameron Boyce.
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Genre: Fantasy, Musical, Coming-of-age
Stars: Dove Cameron, Sofia Carson, Cameron Boyce
Director: Kenny Ortega
Runtime: 114 minutes
Back in the mid-2000s, the most recognizable Disney Channel star was Raven-Symoné. While she was already known for starring on The Cosby Show, she blew up in 2003 when she began starring in arguably the best Disney Channel series of all-time, That’s So Raven. She proceeded to star in The Cheetah Girls, about a group of four young singers trying to simultaneously win a talent show and make it big with a record deal. The movie features all of the classic DCOM tropes, as the women navigate friendships and family fraught with peril. It also features a great soundtrack and score, no doubt a result of having Whitney Houston as a producer. The breakout star here is Adrienne Bailon, who currently hosts The Real. This is the rare DCOM where an argument can be made that the 2006 sequel is superior, as the Cheetah Girls memorably travel to Spain.
Rotten Tomatoes: 71%
Genre: Drama, Musical, Coming-of-age
Stars: Raven-Symoné, Adrienne Bailon
Director: Kenny Ortega
Runtime: 93 minutes
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