Director: Jeffrey Hornaday
Script: Vince Marcello, Mark Landry, Robert Horn
Cast: Ross Lynch, Maia Mitchell, Grace Phipps, Garrett Clayton, John DeLuca.
Mack (Maia Mitchell) and Brady (Ross Lynch) are forced to part after their summer affair by the arrival of Mack’s aunt (Suzanne Cryer), who wishes to take the girl to a more prestigious high school, thus giving her the chance to go to a better college and become the successful woman her late mother wanted her to be. But just before leaving, Mack decides to surf for the last time during a storm, prompting Brady to jump in and rescue her. What they couldn’t foresee was that the magic surfboard would take them to a different dimension, that of Brady’s favorite movie: Wet Side Story, where they must make sure that the film goes according to plan so they can return home.
Although the movie presents itself as a modernized version of the classic West Side Story rivalry between groups –represented in the film by bikers and surfers-, Teen Beach Movie lacks the progressive and critical tone of its predecessor, thus becoming a jumbled mess of references with virtually no story.
Some gags and allusions are spot on, like the Italian accents of some of the bikers, or the annoying voice and skanky attitude of Cheechee; but the lack of a consistent script and an appropriate setting spoil the film beyond redemption.
One of the weakest element of the plot consists in the conflictive relationship between the gangs. The rift remains unexplored during the entire film, and the protagonists move amongst bikers and surfers without problem, thus producing no tangible tension except for a few slurs thrown here and there by the characters. The apparent conflict is quickly resolved without much thought or obstacles, prompting the viewer to believe that the original movie-within-a-movie would have been quite a drag to watch.
Another disadvantage is the employment of two villains with no other purpose than to trigger the final events of the film. Both are absolutely ridiculous, unnecessary and lack enough depth to be intimidating or create a credible difficulty.
The emotional component of the movie is also feeble. The lack of chemistry between Mack and Brady, and the induced and superficial affection between Lela (Grace Phipps) and Tanner (Garrett Clayton), make it impossible to root for a romantic reunion among the characters. Likewise, the friendship between Lela and Mack is rushed and hollow, and it serves only for the purpose of conferring to Mack the necklace which will serve as proof that her adventure in the movie’s world was real.
Many of these problems derive from the sloppy acting skills of Maia Mitchell. She’s too skittish and shows no emotional connection with her character and that of her peers, whilst Ross Lynch and Grace Phipps are much more engaging and expressive, the former displaying adequate dancing skills and seemingly enjoying singing and dancing.
All in all, it’s a pity that the secondary characters were barely featured, since the highest points of the film derive from their performances.
When it comes to the music, the film starts off with numbers that truly remind the viewer of classic teen musicals of the sixties –for example, Cruisin’ for a bruisin’-; but soon every link to the time depicted is lost, thus giving way to musical numbers which display no resemblance to the movies the film tries to emulate, like Mean to be, sung by the four main characters. The heavy use of synthesizer and some unfitting voices –like Grace Phipps, a decent performer whose voice unfortunately doesn’t suit that of the heroines of the sixties- break the illusion of being transported into another era.
Visually the movie is unimpressive, as it uses the standard cinematography of most Disney TV flicks, whilst the settings, costumes and make-up are modernized versions of the 50’s and 60’s fashion. Unlike Hairspray or Grease, Teen Beach Movie seems unable to recreate the time it portrays with enough accuracy to be believable or function as a parody, lacking the sugary fun of the first one or the critical authenticity of the latter.
At the core of the film is the theme of fulfilling society’s expectations or following the dictates of our own yearnings. Mack and Lela represent this dichotomy, with the first one inducing her musical counterpart to become a more independent girl, whilst she desperately submits herself to the desires of her late mother and her aunt. In the end, Lela learns to follow her longings while Mack agrees to enjoy her youth and worry about her future later.
This outcome takes place as expected, with no surprises or struggle. The absence of real conflict and the increasing nonsensicality of the citations to other movies, make this one of the weakest musicals Disney has ever produced. The film even opts to use a final musical number after the characters return to normality, hence breaking the distinction between reality and fantasy it urgently tried to enforce throughout the entire movie –a distinction it had tantalized earlier, when the protagonists senselessly realize they’re singing spontaneously after joining about five other musical numbers before performing Can´t stop singing.
Overall, Teen Beach Movie could have been a good musical, but an inadequate production delivered a terribly mediocre outcome.
Verdict: popcorn flick.