Clearly it was not ‘Meant to Be’.
In 2019 I managed to briefly date a kind and intelligent scientist, brilliant. The spark that led to this romance was a mutual love for niche Disney Channel Original movies; namely StarStruck with Christopher Wilde. However, when I tried to argue that Teen Beach Movie was better than High School Musical… It was over for us. In this article I will explain why I am right.
In StarStruck, Christopher Wilde (who found fame playing himself on Disney’s Sonny With a Chance) essentially plays himself again as a celebrity who falls for a ‘normal’ girl (Daniella Campbell). Despite both actors not having to stretch very far for their roles, the acting is still terrible. This is not helped by the awkward dialogue, a cliche yet unbelievable plot, and music that makes your eyes roll back into your skull. Basically, it’s everything you could ever want in a Disney Channel Original movie (DCOM for short).
There is a uniquely infectious B-movie/musical essence that runs through the veins of most of the 105 DCOMs, and it is actually the movies that lean into this ‘bad movie’ idea that tend to be more popular, somehow. But with Teen Beach Movie, this ‘bad movie’ idea went full circle, and they ended up creating one of the most entertaining films of the decade – and it’s not entertaining because it’s bad, it’s entertaining because it’s actually really good! I will explain how, but first some context might be needed.
Take the first High School Musical; this was the one movie that really put DCOMs on the cultural map, and inspired a generation of musical theatre kids that ultimately led to the massive popularity of young-adult musical shows such as Glee and even Riverdale. The film itself is actually pretty terrible though, and it is only due to the major charisma of its key players that it spawned such a legacy in the first place.
The film is objectively not great because, true to DCOM standards, the characters’ behaviours are rather unbelievable. I’m not talking about how all characters start singing and dancing together spontaneously, that’s all fairly standard in the realm of musicals. I’m instead talking about how, for example, the ‘nice’ science kids essentially gaslight the main couple, Troy and Gabriella, into breaking up for seemingly no reason. Or how the musical director prevents them from auditioning for the school musical; anyone who has done school theatre knows how badly bodies are needed to participate, especially ‘popular’ kids. Troy and Gabriella face problems that realistically wouldn’t happen to attractive popular white teens, and it feels like these problems were created to make us root for them. Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens have oodles of charisma so this was wildly unnecessary! I was already rooting for them, we were all rooting for them how DARE they!
My main gripe with the film, however, is best shown in the ‘Getcha Head In The Game’ number above which, to me, looks and sounds horrifically cheap and dated. Furthermore, Zac Efron didn’t even sing in the first movie, he uses a voice double that ultimately serves to undermine his breakout role.
That being said, the massive popularity of the films can be clearly attributed to the fact that the performances all feel like they were choreographed and performed by amateurs – AKA, high school students. So in that respect it really did what it set out to do, which is a sign of a great piece of media! But, just like school musicals in real life, if you don’t know anybody performing then it’s not going to be as enjoyable – it’s even a bit weird to attend.
The far superior High School Musical 2 is where the series really comes into its own. The music is camper (‘Fabulous’ and ‘Humuhumunukanukaapua’a’ say hello) the clothes, setting, and plot points are more colourful; all in all the film feels more fun. The best part is perhaps how Ashley Tisdale’s breakout villain ‘Sharpay’ gets some much needed character depth. She also becomes the main person standing in Troy and Gabriella’s way, whereas in the first film it felt like everybody was unnecessarily against them.
Unfortunately, there is still something that places the High School Musical films firmly in the category of ‘films that can’t be taken seriously’; and I’ve realised that it is a lack of self-awareness, especially in regards to the longevity of these films. The HSM series is great for young people, but generally it’s only fun for viewers over the age of 16 if they have seen the film before. It unlocks certain nostalgia points, but newcomers will hardly be convinced.
Here’s where Teen Beach Movie comes in. The film was released in 2013; seven whole years after the original HSM film, and three years after the last Camp Rock film. The film has a very similar setup to other DCOMs, with the plot allowing for colourful and fun musical dance numbers. The tone however is vastly different from the usual humdrum seen before. More importantly, this film doesn’t rely on it’s own self-generating nostalgia, it instead builds its nostalgia through references to other movie musicals.
The film introduces us to Brady and Mack, played by the devastatingly charming Ross Lynch (Harvey from Netlix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) and the blank slate that is Maia Mitchell. The interesting thing here is that the two main characters are already in a committed relationship, which means that the film is going to have to be more interesting than a standard blossoming romance, and it is! We follow Brady and Mack as they get magically transported into Brady’s favourite film: ‘Wet Side Story’. This 60’s film within a film is a melting pot of all the classics: West Side Story, Grease, and Hairspray all feature heavily both musically and aesthetically. This time, the glaring issues with these older films are used as a vehicle to not only advance the plot, but also make statements on how far we have advanced in society.
By having characters of the same age but from different eras on the screen at the same time, Teen Beach Movie manages to explore themes of environmentalism, anti-capitalism, feminism, and the abolition of gender roles – all under the guise of a silly campy beach musical. Brady and Mack meet a gang of surfers and bikers from the 60s (who don’t know that they aren’t real by the way, Descartes would be proud) and use their time in the movie to educate the 60s kids how to navigate society in a way that respects differences without stereotyping.
Of course it wouldn’t be a DCOM without a somewhat cliche romantic subplot. Whilst the two main characters of ‘Wet Side Story’, Tanner (Garrett Clayton) and Lela (Grace Phipps), eventually do fall in love as it was ‘Meant to Be’; they instead have to navigate their romance with a more modern approach, courtesy of Brady and Mack. This is most clearly seen in the insanely catchy ‘Like Me’ number, where the 60s teens compare flirting strategies that now feel incredibly dated. It is for this reason that Teen Beach Movie feels so much more progressive than other DCOM movies despite having the same production value and energy. High School Musical feels dated because it lives in a world based on the specific trends of 2005, whereas Teen Beach Movie purposefully shows how far we have come over 50 years.
Aside from ‘Like Me’, the rest of the musical numbers are very much harmlessly apolitical, and that is what makes Teen Beach Movie such a joy to watch; the social lessons are woven so seamlessly into the fabric of the plot that it never once felt like a chore to experience. The opening musical number ‘Surf Crazy’ is so insanely well choreographed that it instantly elevates the film and takes the audience into the fantasy one would see at a live stage show. Furthermore, the running joke of the whole plot being a movie within a movie (culminating with the twee song and dance ‘Can’t Stop Singing’) is actually kind of funny, and for me shows the self-awareness that Disney needed to achieve to advance the tired formula of their previous original movies.
The main issue that prevents Teen Beach from being a ‘perfect’ movie is the inclusion of a truly embarrassing villain and sidekick pairing. It’s a horribly blatant comment on industrialism and capitalism that involves the two cringey/pantomime ‘adults’ plotting to destroy the beach so they can build a… car park.. or something? The entire film would be so much better if this part of the plot was cut. Thankfully this issue is rectified in Teen Beach 2, and more time is spent in the sequel exploring the dichotomy between the teens from the 60s and the teens in the present day.
To sum up my points: I believe that Teen Beach Movie is far superior to High School Musical and should be celebrated more. Everything about the surf-crazy Disney movie feels more progressive. Whether that be the 60s inspired beach fashion, direct old-school musical references, meticulous choreography, or the self-awareness that leads to a social commentary that, for Disney, manages to be somewhat nuanced and actually funny. Whilst the High School Musical franchise offers an iconic snapshot into what teens of the noughties were concerned about, Teen Beach Movie proves that the teens of the 2010’s are so much more aware of the impact of social and political norms – and the future will be far brighter because of this.
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