What happens when Disney loads up the Beach Party Woodie with passengers like West Side Story, Back to the Future and Grease? Teen Beach Movie happens, that's what.
Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello accidentally ushered in the beach party genre with a 1963 film called, succinctly, Beach Party. Fifty years later, Disney's TV-to-DVD offering imagines what would happen if a pair of contemporary teens got magically beamed back into a movie like that one.
For best (twitterpated) friends Brady and McKenzie (who goes by Mack), surfing is it. After losing her mother years before, Mack lives with her grandfather, Big Poppa, at a surf shop on a beach. Every endless summer day, she and Brady shred waves from sunup to sundown.
Until, that is, Mack's workaholic Aunt Antoinette shows up to inform her it's time to make good on a bargain she made years before: spending her first high school years on the beach in exchange for heading east to an exclusive prep school to finish her secondary education. It was an agreement Mack never quite found the courage to tell Brady about.
Cue angst-ridden breakup scene.
The day of her departure, Mack heads off to the beach for one last ride—just as a historic big-wave storm roles in. She takes a tumble, of course, and Brady, of course, dives in to save her.
When they surface, it's sunny 1962. Mysteriously, magically, they're smack in the middle of Brady's favorite beach movie, the musical Wet Side Story. He sums it up in one breathless sentence: "A surfer guy and a biker girl share a secret love while trying to unite their rival gangs as an evil real estate mogul tries to turn their hangout into a resort by building a weather machine which blows up, creating a massive storm."
Amid myriad musical numbers, that story is now playing out around them—much to Brady's delight … and Mack's disdain. But the whole production goes completely off script when the movie's primary love interests, a surfer named Tanner and a biker girl named Lela, fall not for each other, but for the newcomers, Mack and Brady.
To get back to the future, Brady and Mack have to set the story straight again. And do a few more dance numbers.
In many ways, Teen Beach Movie is an airy, whimsical excuse to imagine what might happen if you plopped two 21st-century kids into a silly 1962 movie—while satirizing many of the genre's mid-century conventions. (Those groovy references will make adults smile as they surf over youngsters' heads.) Along the way, however, the Mouse House weaves in a few morals.
Two of the main themes revolve around Mack and the conundrum she faces. She doesn't want to leave her peachy beachy life with her grandfather (and Brady!), but she feels compelled to do so in order to honor her mother's memory. She tells Brady that her mom didn't go to college because she had Mack so young. She reads an excerpt from her mother's journal that says, "Most of all, I dream that my daughter becomes a great success, that she isn't just pulled through life, but marches through it triumphantly." And for a time, Mack believes the only way to do that is to submit to her aunt's ambitious plans for her schooling.
But Brady tells Mack that she doesn't have to accept her aunt's idea of how she should find success—a message that the movie invites us to see as a positive one given her aunt's dominant, controlling and inflexible attitude.
Mack eventually realizes that the best way to honor her mother is to be true to who she is. (It's a too-frequent Disney theme, but it does contain significant truth.) She ultimately tells her aunt (very respectfully, I should note), "I love you, and Mom would be so happy that you care so much. But I think you've been wrong. My mom wouldn't want me to be successful like you, she'd want me to be happy doing what I love—like you are doing what you love. But it's not what I love."
That's a realization Mack has been in the process of making throughout the movie as she challenges a group of biker girls to wake up to the fact that they can do far more with their lives than merely be eye candy for the guys. Before Mack and Brady return to the present, she tells him, "I've spent this entire movie telling Lela to follow her heart and do what she loves, and she did. She's more courageous than I am."
It's the film's way of throwing an eye roll at the limited roles women filled in 1962 (especially compared to now). And throughout the story, Mack brings something of a gentle emphasis on equality and dignity, challenging '60s-era restrictions on women. In most cases, this mindset yields clearly positive results, like when she confronts Tanner about repeatedly calling her a "chick" or convincing Lela that she can in fact learn to surf "as good as any boy."
Related to that idea of overcoming cultural barriers is a subplot about two different groups, the bikers and the surfers, realizing that they're not so different after all. With Mack and Brady's help, they unite in a common cause and become friends instead of being separated and harboring antagonism because of their different cultures/hobbies.
It's implied that a magical surfboard transports Brady and Mack back and forth between the centuries. The concept of destiny is referred to repeatedly, both as a force that brings people together, and as an outcome that a girl should choose for herself.
Formfitting outfits, cleavage, midriff and leg get screen time, usually during dance numbers and, of course, on the beach. Though both swimsuits and dance gear are usually designed to be steadfastly conservative by modern standards, we do see a costume or two that boast what look like bras. We see the girls at a pajama party, clad in frilly baby doll PJs. Lyrics in one song repeatedly sing the praises (from a guy's perspective) of being in a "bikini wonderland." But, interestingly, Mack comments on the tight clothes the '60s girls are wearing, saying they don't need tight (sexy) clothes to attract a guy.
Dancers mimic famous '60s moves, which include shimmying, hip shaking and thrusting. Women move their shoulders and hips back and forth rapidly to shake their chests, and a surfer named Seacat tells a particularly enthusiastic mover and shaker, "Hey, Giggles, those hips are so seismic." (Heavy fringe on her getup hides a lot of curves.)
Brady and Mack are obviously in the throes of puppy love. They hug a number of times, hold hands and drape arms around each other. (Their would-be kisses always get interrupted.) Similarly, Tanner and Lela fall for Mack and Brady (respectively) before they discover and fall for each another. More googly eyes, hand-holding and hugs ensue.
Someone is dubbed a "foxy babe." And Brady describes Lela as "smoking hot." The girls talk about their flirting abilities.
The movie's movie's token baddies stun Brady with a shot from a futuristic ray gun, knocking him down. A silly, slapstick "battle" takes place between those bad 'uns and the combined surfer/biker group. Mack and Brady are captured and tied up. Several surfers crash and burn in heavy surf.
Crude or Profane Language
A couple of uses of "Oh my gosh," "oh lordy" or "jeeps."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Mack recalls seeing a bizarre movie featuring a "robot who drank liquor from an abandoned spaceship."
Teen Beach Movie is exactly what you'd expect it to be. And then, somewhat surprisingly, it's more than that, too. Mostly, it's an affectionate, goofy, cheesy homage to '60s beach culture—a time so far back in pop culture's rearview mirror that this film will likely serve as many young viewers' first exposure to it. (And lest you think I'm being meanspirited in describing it as cheesy, well, the main villain's name is Les Camembert. 'Nuff said.)
The mere act of looking back at '60s beach movies may evoke rose-colored reminiscing for viewers of a certain age. At the time, however, the trend was thought of as more risqué, the vanguard of a growing youth culture that would eventually devolve into a much more rebellious counterculture. Here's a clue to that mindset: In its trivia section on Teen Beach Movie, IMDb.com notes that Hollywood's movie production code (largely abandoned when the current ratings system was introduced in 1968) forbade beach movies from showing women's navels.
It's a restriction Teen Beach Movie wholeheartedly embraces in the name of authenticity. And one might be tempted to think of that as anachronistically cute now, still appreciated by discerning families but nearly beside the point even for them. Back then it was a more serious subject. And the tension makes for an interesting case study in culture's shifting mores.
Also part of that half-century long tug and pull are onscreen observations about how much norms have changed with regard to gender roles. Mack deconstructs the idea that women should somehow be forbidden to participate in certain pursuits, as well as the suggestion that a female's chief value lies in her looks and ability to please a male. These are indeed worthwhile messages.
And then there's that oft-delivered Disney ideal that happiness is found in pursuing our own destiny (read: dreams), not submitting to someone else's idea of it. That's not problematic insofar as it's married to wise advice and spiritual discernment. But that's a rare combo onscreen. And it's not all that present in this film. So I'll let the subject go with this: When the person "imposing" a given fate upon a teen is unhealthily controlling, as Aunt Antoinette is here, it's much easier to see a path through all the feelings. But when loving parents and teens have different understandings of what direction to go, Disney's insistence upon teen autonomy can be a less helpful influence.
That said, this breezy update on a five-decade-old genre could also serve as an interesting and informative jumping off point for a discussion between tweens, teens and their parents about whether there are roles, activities or choices that are more suited for one gender of the other—as well as who gets to decide what path a young person should take as he or she surfs toward adulthood.