Surfing buddies Brady (Ross Lynch) and McKenzie (Maia Mitchell) hit a stumbling block in their relationship. While Brady wants them to stay together, Mack feels duty-bound to honour her late mother's wishes and move away to start college, even though deep down it is not what she wants to do. On their last summer together Brady talks Mack into watching his all-time favourite movie: 'Wet Side Story', a Sixties Beach Party musical about surfers, bikers and rock-and-roll. Mack finds the whole thing too silly for words. But later, she and Brady wind up stranded at sea atop a magical surf board (just go with it). It somehow transports them into the sunny sing-along retro movie land of Wet Side Story where it is fun and frolics on the beach all day, every day. Amidst ongoing dance battles between surfers and bikers, Brady accidentally wins the heart of comely movie heroine Lela (Grace Phipps) while Mack proves equally attractive to beach hunk Tanner (Garrett Clayton). Having disrupted the balance of the surf movie universe, Brady and Mack must set things right before they are wiped out of existence.
Given the plethora of retro-Sixties styled musicals released over the past few years – e.g. Dreamgirls (2006), Hairspray (2007) and Jersey Boys (2014) – it was inevitable someone would revive the Beach Party musical. And given the near-antiseptic, squeaky clean nature of the genre it was perhaps equally inevitable the studio responsible would be Disney. The most interesting thing about Teen Beach Movie is that rather than a straightforward period piece the filmmakers go for a 'meta' approach with a film within a film weirdly prescient of the conceit behind retro-slasher comedy The Final Girls (2015). Beach musical fan Brady is in his element. He can barely contain his glee over actually performing his favourite song-and-dance numbers or romancing his lifelong fantasy crush. Mack on the other hand is far less enthusiastic, probably because unlike Brady she was grappling with far more complex personal issues in the real world. Her constant complaints about Sixties social mores and the inherent stupidity of musicals grates a little though are thankfully not as damaging as the similar conceit employed in the remake of Annie (2014).
Any doubts as to whether millennials were actually aware of what Teen Beach Party was spoofing were swiftly disproved after it became one of the highest-rated made-for-television movies of all time. Nevertheless, the problem with Disney tween musicals is more often than not they are all sugar and no substance. Teen Beach Party has a plot even frothier than a vintage Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello surf flick. It barely hangs together providing the flimsiest narrative glue to bind all the songs into some kind of story. The whole thing is only an excuse to get young children bopping around their living rooms. Judging by its popularity among tweens the filmmakers achieved their modest goal though one can't help lamenting the lack of a substantial emotional core. Despite establishing some laudibly complex themes, as Mack buckles under the burden of her late mom's expectations and the beach musical becomes a near-mythical refuge for angst-ridden teens, the ultimate bubblegum nature of the film-within-the-film fails to gel with her emotional dilemma. A further problem is that Brady and Mack do not really do anything to affect the story's outcome aside from the latter's rather laboured attempts to instill the placid Sixties beach bunnies with some twenty-first century feminism. The climax has the Wet Side Story characters solve their own problems before the final slapstick showdown with mad scientist Dr. Fusion (Kevin Chamberlin) and Les Camembert (Steve Valentine) who essays the archetypal Vincent Price or Basil Rathbone stuffy villain role.
On the other hand the script has a handful of genuinely witty lines ("So we landed in the middle of a surf and turf war?") and for every dud gag that drops like a lead balloon (including a lame reference to the game Angry Birds) there is another that raises a smile such as the characters reaction to 'jump-cuts' that transition from scene to scene complete with costume changes. The young leads: Disney teen heartthrob Ross Lynch and Australian actress Maia Mitchell, whom some may remember from the charming CBBC series Mortified, are perky and personable with bags of talent. Lynch in particular really throws himself into the musical numbers with gusto. The supporting performances are enthusiastic and engaging though the lack of substantial characters means leaves the talented young musical stars with little to sink their teeth into. Having said that Grace Phipps and Garrett Clayton are worth singling out as talents to watch given each embodies their retro archetypes perfectly. Choreographer turned filmmaker Jeffrey Honaday staged dance sequences in films from Flashdance (1983) to Dick Tracy (1990) along with tours for the likes of Madonna, Miley Cyrus and Paul McCartney. His previous films include Shout (1991), a musical drama that paired a pre-comeback John Travolta with a pre-stardom Heather Graham and Gwyneth Paltrow, and an earlier Disney romantic comedy Geek Charming (2011) which is indeed surprisingly charming. Honaday's chief strength is his dynamic staging of the song-and-dance numbers. The soundtrack has the usual abundance of sugary tween pop but also a number of authentic sounding surf rock tunes that are undeniably catchy. Filmed on location in Puerto Rico the visuals are arguably far more picturesque and enticing than those found in vintage beach party musicals and the cute, colourful costuming is spot-on. It is a little odd that the film looks to a cameo from Barry Bostwick as an allusion to the past, given most associate him with The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) not Sixties Beach Party musicals. Inevitably there was a Teen Beach Movie 2 (2015).