My Summer of Disney: “Teen Beach Movie” Review

Photo courtesy of Disney Channel.

Photo courtesy of Disney Channel.

As is à la mode in this Mad Men era, the Disney Channel found a muse in the 60’s for its 2013 musical production. Many a show or film has been made about that tumultuous decade in the past few years, but rather than focusing in on the standard flower power bag or repressed innocence of Beaver-ian suburbia, Disney found inspiration in an oft-forgotten niche of 60’s culture: the kitschy teenage fodder of the early 60’s beach movie, such as Beach Party and Bikini Beach. For those unfamiliar with the genre, these early teen beach movies were largely similar in plot; they would follow a beachside romance between two young lovers, almost always played by Frankie Avalon and former Mousketeer Anette Funicello, and feature a complication usually involving a biker named Eric Von Zipper and his gang, the Rat Pack. They are largely ridiculous, at times genuinely weird (a few things featured in the films: martians, lecherous anthropologists, villainous bodybuilders, a super-young Stevie Wonder), and mostly very amusing both for their goofily innocent fun-kid-times vibe as well as their purpose as a time capsule to an era that was just beginning, often awkwardly, to embrace youth culture and sexual expression.

Teen Beach Movie (a nice tribute to the unsubtle titling of the old films) pays homage to the charmingly vacant silliness of these films by placing its protagonists directly inside one. Our heroes McKenzie (Maia Mitchell) and Brady (Ross Lynch of Austin and Ally) are teen lovers who live beachside and enjoy a life of constant surfing and hanging out. Brady is blissfully lost in this infinite cycle of surfing, romancing, and watching his favorite movie Wet Side Story (a sort of amalgamation of West Side Story and Beach Party), until McKenzie informs him that she will be leaving this beach paradise to go to a fancy boarding school (such were the vague wishes of her dead mother) under the guidance of her posh aunt Antoinette and brings the dream crashing down. Both of them are quite bummed about the circumstances, so as a last defiant act of beach fun McKenzie decides to go surfing the next morning during a storm for the massive waves. When things look dangerous Brady rushes out to sea to save her, they both fall into the water and emerge to clear skies and the spectacle of a rapidly twisting beach bunny (a common trope in many of these beach movies). Movie magic has transported them into the world of Wet Side Story.

Once there complications ensue because Brady and McKenzie accidently interfere with the plot when the Wet Side Story protagonists, biker girl Lela (Grace Phipps) and surfer boy Tanner (the almost comically good-looking Garrett Clayton), fall for them instead of each other, thereby disrupting the Romeo and Juliet style story. Brady knows that without the Tanner-Lela union there will be no stopping the mad scientist Dr. Camembert and his evil weather machine from destroying everything and leaving them trapped in the movie, so the rest of the film is spent trying to unite the two while navigating the screwball universe of a 60’s beach party.

Yes, it’s all ridiculous and served up with a healthy dose of classic Disney quirkiness but the weirdness of the plot works within the context of a 60’s beach movie. Classic teen beach movies share many of the same qualities of modern day Disney musicals: smiley sincerity, big song-and-dance spectacle, romanticization of youth, etc. Thus the nostalgia for these movies functions both as a buffer to the grating over-the-topness of Disney musicals (because it’s supposed to be over the top in Wet Side Story) while simultaneously celebrating the lineage of the youth movie spectacle. It’s both a love paean to the past and the present.   

On top of the ingenuity of the conceit, Teen Beach Movie benefits from a solid attention to detail. The Wet Side Story universe is lovingly crafted to resemble the teen beach worlds of yore with an eye for detail. Explicit references to the old films abound, from the “Rodents” biker gang (a play of course on the Rat Pack), the group beach shack hangout, the far-off evil academics, etc. On top of this Teen Beach Movie captures the amusing crudeness of those early films (hair never getting wet in water, for instance) in a way that seems charming and affectionate rather than sneering. The music is surprisingly great; confined to 60’s homage Teen Beach Movie eschews the oft-unbearable schlock of modern day Disney movie tunes in favor of sugary tributes to rockabilly, surf-rock, and 60’s teen pop. I’ll even admit to liking one of the songs independently of the movie; the cyclical harmonic breakdown of the bouncy Turtles-cum-Sunflower-era-Beach-Boys number “Meant to Be” makes it almost good enough to buy (almost). The spectacle is all aided in no small way by the performances of Garrett Clayton and Grace Phipps, whose robotic ditz make them great surrogates for the original smiles-and-good-times beach party film protagonists.

But what separates Teen Beach Movie from the original beach party series is the pathos it tries to instill in its characters. Sure Lela and Tanner are dumb and fun but as Brady and McKenzie soon realize they are almost trapped in that behavior by the “way things are” (metaphor alert: the “way things are”=the structure of beach party movie universe that confines them=repressive 1960’s social norms) and actually have impulses that don’t jive with their world. For Lela it’s a desire to surf and do, as a girl, things boys can do, while for Tanner it’s a desire to end conflict between bikers and surfers as well as express his inner eloquence through Shakespearean quote dropping, despite the transcendent pretty-boy idiocy that defines him. Brady and McKenzie discover that they can use their modern attitudes to undermine the stranglehold of beach movies rules (aka 60’s social norms), especially McKenzie who uses a biker-girls-only slumber party as a way to plant the seeds of mid-century feminism when she suggests that girls should dress for themselves and take their romantic lives into their own hands. The morality lesson comes thick and unsubtle but one has to hand it to Disney for using this platform to decry gender repression, in however slight a way. It’s things like this that lend Teen Beach Movie its appeal, even amidst a film designed to celebrate the history of dumb fun it still tries hard to inject some classic Disney lessons into the story.

Ultimately Teen Beach Movie is a solid addition to the Disney Channel Original Movie canon: rich with nostalgic affection, solid production and choreography, and earnest morals. Most important of all, Teen Beach Movie is also harmless childish fun, much like its progenitors, the original beach movies. Disney has proven that it can bear the torch passed down from those early 60’s productions, and that oft-ridiculous young people entertainment will never die.

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