Creating the next Disney movie phenomenon feels a bit like baking a cake from a mix. If the formula is followed, the outcome will be airy and sweet.
“Teen Beach Movie,” premiering Friday, July 19, on Disney Channel, is a mash-up of 1950s surfers and bikers. It has chaste romances, energetic choreography and peppy songs. It also has time travel and a cartoonish villain.
Seventeen months ago on Governor’s Beach in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, the cast rehearsed as iguanas scuttled under trailers, and flocks of blackbirds screeched. The plot has the plucky heroine, Mack (Maia Mitchell, “The Fosters”), happily living with her grandfather. She loves to surf with her boyfriend, Brady (Ross Lynch, “Austin & Ally”).
Her aunt arrives to whisk her away to a preppy school. Mack feels obligated to live up to expectations. In her diary, Mack’s late mother wrote: “I dream my daughter becomes a great success, that she isn’t just pulled through life but marches through it triumphantly.”
Resigned to leaving paradise, Mack defiantly must catch one more wave during a fast-approaching storm. She goes under. Brady tries to save her. When they resurface, it’s 1962.
If that’s not enough of a leap, they wind up in Brady’s favorite movie, “Wet Side Story,” where members of a bike club, the Rodents, and surfers squabble. There’s no real violence.
There is, however, a teen idol, Tanner (Garrett Clayton), and with a name like that, he’s naturally a surfer. The movie has fun with his golden-boy glam; when Tanner smiles, his teeth twinkle, like in a toothpaste ad.
“The hair, makeup and wardrobe make me look like a crazy Ken doll,” Clayton tells Zap2it.
Tanner and Lela (Grace Phipps, “The Vampire Diaries”) like each other, but her brother is leader of the Rodents, so they’re supposed to be enemies.
Mack, an independent teen of today, has a hard time with 1962’s gender stereotypes. She tells the broadly drawn biker girls, “It’s your life. Why can’t you decide?”
“She is the voice of feminism in the movie,” Mitchell says. “She is a very spontaneous person. The very idea that girls are not equal to guys, and girls are not as good as surfers is offensive to her. It brings some sense of justice in a way, this kind of lonely duality of time.” Mack and Lela bond, despite their differences.
“It’s a 1960s Disney movie,” Phipps says. “She doesn’t have to use her head. She starts out that way. As she meets Mack she admits she wants to use her brain instead of just saying, ‘Surfers have never done anything wrong to me.’ She doesn’t need to let anyone’s expectations get in her way.”
That’s a lesson the movie stresses.
“I wanted contemporary characters that kids could relate to, and thrust them into an alien world and have some fun and learn something,” says Michael Healy, a former Disney executive who shepherded the film. “McKenzie was on her way off to a stuffy boarding school. She believes she has to because she thinks her mother would have wanted her to.”
Mack, like the others, learns to follow her heart. All of the young actors were keenly aware of that lesson.
“No matter who you are, or where you are, you can find yourself – with the right people around you,” Clayton says.
“The message of my character is to trust your friends and to believe in stuff and to follow your dreams,” Lynch says of Brady.
Dreams do come true. This is, after all, a Disney movie, true to formula. It is airy and sweet, but it’s also fueled by a merchandising machine geared to create a phenomenon.