Revisiting 'Teen Beach Movie,' Disney's Weird And Wonderful Musical About Musicals

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

The Disney Channel has made over 100 movies since the '80s, but when the network entered the new millennium, it started focusing on two kinds of stories. There were wacky genre comedies with high concepts like Luck of the Irish. And there were many, many, many musical films in the vein of High School Musical

And then there's Teen Beach Movie, which takes the best of both worlds and results in a highly entertaining musical that also features a wacky genre story that riffs on Back to the Future and GreaseSo grab your surfboard and hop on the fastest car you can find while shouting "Cowabunga!" way too often, because we're heading to one hell of a weird beach party for what's easily one of the best Disney Channel musicals.

The Pitch

When Disney started making original movies for their TV channel, their initial output was mostly sequels to theatrical films (not one, not two, but three The Parent Trap sequels), or remakes of their theatrical releases like Escape to Witch Mountain. The late '90s saw the beginning of the trend where Disney would play with genre. As we've covered on this column before, we got great horror films like Halloweentown and Don't Look Under the Bed. This continued into the early '00s with films about regular kids with regular problems, accentuated by a genre twist, like the self-explanatory Mom's Got a Date with a Vampire, or a film about a teenage kid who discovers he's turning into a leprechaun in The Luck of the Irish. It wasn't until The Cheetah Girls in 2003 that Disney started making musical films, but this path truly exploded in popularity with High School Musical.

After High School Musical, Disney didn't stop trying to recapture that surprise success, and we got yearly made-for-TV musicals like Jump In!, Camp Rock, Starstruck, and more. These were all set in "real life" or at least just a musical version of real life. But in 2013, Teen Beach Movie changed this by taking a page out of Back to the Future.

The film follows Ross Lynch and Maia Mitchell as Brady and Mack, boyfriend and girlfriend as well as surfer kids who decide to go for the big waves in the middle of a storm. Something goes wrong (or totally right) and they get washed ashore in the 1960s. Except this isn't the regular 1960s, but a Beach Blanket Bingo-style movie-within-a-movie called Wet Side Story (really) that is basically West Side Story but with a gang of bikers and a gang of surfers. The film is directed by Jeffrey Hornaday, who had worked as a choreographer in films like Flashdance, Streets of Fire, and Captain EO, who didn't really have much experience directing prior to this other than the 1991 film Shout starring John Travolta. 

The Movie

If it wasn't clear already, this movie is wild. First of all, this is still a musical, and thankfully the songs are a bop. Because this is not only musical but a parody of a specific genre of musicals, the soundtrack includes everything from surf rock to Motown R&B, perfectly capturing the nonsense lyrics of films like Grease and paying loving tribute to those songs while making an absolute mockery of them at the same time. Disney Channel executives thinking the thing kids were lacking back in 2013 was a throwback to '60s beach party movies is beyond me, but it turns out Disney of all companies making a beach party movie like it was High School Musical works surprisingly well.

But the music is good, what about the rest of the movie? That's where things actually get wild and interesting. See, early in the story, we find out that Brady is a musical nerd and Wet Side Story is his favorite movie ever. Mack, on the other hand, absolutely hates everything about musicals and finds them dumb and illogical. The moment they realize they're inside a beach party movie, Brady goes crazy with glee, inserting himself into his favorite musical numbers and interacting with his favorite fictional characters, while Mack is confused by how everyone's hair is dry even after being in the water. Then, Brady accidentally steps in at the moment the fake movie's leads are supposed to have their meet-cute, causing the lead biker girl to fall in love with Brady rather than the singing, surfing, human Ken doll. In order to get back to their reality, Brady and Mack have to put the movie back on track in a fun riff on Back to the Future.

Teen Beach Movie avoids the trap many recent Disney Channel Original Movies fall into, where they try to jam modern and hip tween trends into the movie, even if they don't fit. Instead, this movie sticks to its weirdness and completely devotes itself to milking its premise for every bizarre situation you can think of. Rather than seeing a photo of their siblings disappear the longer they stay in the past, Mack discovers she's turning into a supporting character in Wet Side Story, using '60s jargon and even breaking into song at one point. She also decides to teach all these fake '60s girls about feminism and how they can actually try and surf or bike better than the boys can, which essentially breaks the fabric of this fake movie-within-a-movie universe.

The Legacy

Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack for this movie was a huge hit, and it became the fourth best-selling soundtrack of 2013 behind Pitch Perfect, The Great Gatsby and Les Miserables. And even then, you can argue this movie has a better soundtrack than at least a couple of those (there's no Russell Crowe singing in Teen Beach Movie, thankfully). 

The movie itself became the biggest ratings hit for Disney Channel since High School Musical 2 (the best in that trilogy). Of course, this meant it didn't take long for Disney to greenlight a sequel, which came out in 2015 on Disney Channel, with the entire cast returning for another bizarre series of hijinks.

With Disney Channel's musical output nowadays comprising almost entirely of sequels and spinoffs of their Descendants franchise, you can watch the film that started the trend of genre-bending musical comedies, now that Teen Beach Movie is available to stream on Disney Plus.