Carly Mallenbaum, USA TODAY
The musical, premiering Friday, is a modern take on those Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon films of old.
A bunch of tanned surfers dancing with striped towels, patterned suits and coiffed hair: If that sounds like the beginning of '60s film Beach Blanket Bingo, well, it is.
But it's also an apt description of the first musical number in Disney Channel's Teen Beach Movie, which pays homage to the kinds of films popularized by Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. You know, those films that kids watching the movie, on Friday at 8 p.m. ET/PT -- and probably even their parents -- probably haven't seen.
"We felt that the genre is so fun, exuberant and embodies the spirit of summer, you don't need an appreciation of those movies" to enjoy the network's latest original movie, says Disney Channel VP Jennilee Cummings.
To be clear, Teen Beach Movie isn't a retro beach movie, but a movie about two modern-day teenage surfers, McKenzie (Maia Mitchell, ABC Family's The Fosters) and Brady (Ross Lynch, Austin & Ally), who get trapped inside a '60s-era musical. However, the musical holding them hostage — Wet Side Story, where surfers and bikers battle for control of a local hangout — is more colorful,acrobatic and full of tunes than any of the actual beach films ever were.
"It's a very different experience when you go back and watch" the original beach-party films, says director and choreographer Jeff Hornaday, who also directed Disney's 2011 film Geek Charming. "In their time, they were charming. But they were kind of flat, and choreography was very minimal," he says.
Instead, Wet Side Story, which borrows heavily from musicals such as West Side Story and Grease, is meant to be comically over-the-top. So the dance numbers are no beach picnic.
"Running up and down the sand wears you out pretty quick," says Hornaday. "For the dancers, it was a real challenge. People were dropping like flies," he says. Lynch, who pirouettes, flips and tap-dances as Brady, says he lost a toenail during filming. "The first few takes it's fun, but the sand gets really hot, really heavy. You start to stick to the sand."
While Brady loves the beach genre, McKenzie finds Wet Side Story ludicrous. That premise "gave us license to make (musical) transitions really humorous and really obvious," says Hornaday. Like when Wet Side Story heartthrob Tanner (Garrett Clayton) starts singing to McKenzie, mid-conversation, and throws his guitar off-screen. "Oh, oh good, a song," says McKenzie sarcastically.
In truth, the songs "are what's at the heart of the whole film," says Mitchell. And Disney is hoping those songs (released Tuesdayon iTunes and stores nationwide) will find their way into kids' hearts. Instructional dance videos starring Mitchell and Lynch should help.
If the music isn't enough, kids can also own Teen Beach Movie-themed bedding, dolls, stationery and more. That's after they see giant beach balls at concerts by One Direction and R5 (Lynch's band), and catch the Disney stars on their international publicity tour.
"We just got back from London promoting it, and now we're in New York," said Mitchell this week, after stops on ABC's Good Morning America and The View, on her way to Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. "And we're going to Europe to do a few promotional things," adds Lynch.
With its latest project, Disney hopes to repeat the success of its High School Musical franchise. The 2006 original was seen by roughly 160 million people and generated $500 million in DVD, soundtrack and merchandise sales. So as with 2008's Camp Rock -- which boosted Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers -- there's a clear push for Teen Beach Movie to be the next big thing.
If Teen Beach Movie is a splash, Lynch, Mitchell and Hornaday say they'd all be on board for a sequel. "I'd direct this movie for the rest of my life," says Hornaday. But he's keeping expectations low. "You never know how an audience is gonna react," he says. When he choreographed 1983 hit film Flashdance, he initially thought it "would be a total bomb."