One inherent advantage of producing for 10-year-old girls (give or take) is the freedom to borrow liberally from past works without such creative license being instantly identified. So beyond the obvious echoes of “High School Musical” and of course a vintage summer genre, “Teen Beach Movie” incorporates riffs from “Back to the Future” and even “Purple Rose of Cairo.” It’s too bad the makers didn’t do a slightly better job casting the key roles, but taken on its own terms the (overlong) 95-minute Disney Channel original plays like a brightly colored beach blanket, albeit one that’s a little rough around its sandy edges.
Directed by Jeff Hornaday (who, with Christopher Scott, also choreographed the elaborate dance numbers) and reuniting several below-the-line members of the “High School Musical” team, the tween-marketed title counterintuitively taps directly into the half-century-old beach-movie subgenre, despite the fact the target demo is unlikely to be familiar with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. (Go ask your grandparents, kids, or mom’s much older new gentleman friend.)
Drawing from Disney’s extensive roster of youthful talent, the movie stars Maia Mitchell (“The Fosters”) as the orphaned McKenzie, who has been living with her grandfather (Barry Bostwick, fleetingly) and surfing regularly with her boyfriend Brady (“Austin & Ally’s” Ross Lynch). Alas, paradise is lost when McKenzie’s persnickety aunt (Suzanne Cryer) shows up, determined to fulfill McKenzie’s late mother’s wishes and ship her off to prep school back East, announcing, “Your endless summer has come to an end.”
Determined to catch one last big wave before she leaves, McKenzie and Brady get sucked vortex-style into the ’60s teen beach movie, “Wet Side Story” (groan), which he loves to watch. But their arrival not only messes up“Wet Side Story’s” plot — as they catch the respective attention of the movie’s mismatched lovers, Lela (Grace Phipps) and Tanner (Garrett Clayton) — but begins to mix up the movie’s continuity, creating moments where the characters don’t know what to do next.
As if that weren’t enough, the two feuding factions in the film are supposed to unite to thwart a mad scientist (Steve Valentine) working up a weather-altering ray, which offers the only chance for the two real-world interlopers to get out of the film and return home.
Although writers Vince Marcello, Mark Landry and Robert Horn try to have fun with evolving teenage idioms and technology, the sequences between musical interludes occasionally feel as much like punishment as the sinew connecting the story. The one inventive bit (relatively speaking) comes when McKenzie begins to become absorbed into the movie’s reality and is forced to sing a song against her will.
Fortunately, the music-free lapses never last too long, and there is a certain ebullience in the steady barrage of twirling surfboards and leaping bodies, with the invitingly blue waters of Puerto Rico as a near-constant backdrop.
Perhaps foremost, “Beach Movie” will test whether Disney can use its formidable muscle to will a project like this into hit status, after having been surprised (pleasantly) by how well “High School Musical” took off. The dizzying marketing barrage includes encore sing-along presentations, a DVD release through Walmart and a soundtrack, demonstrating that the actual movie is merely the crest of a much bigger wave.
“When will we get another chance to be in a movie?” Brady, who appears completely unconcerned about their situation, pleads to a more understandably freaked-out McKenzie.
Why, in the sequel, silly. In the sequel.