Thursday, October 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Thirteenth Year' (1999)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

A few months ago, the Disney Channel celebrated its 100th original movie with a marathon of every original feature the channel has produced, including 1999's The Thirteenth Year. Disney Channel completism is the only real reason I can think of to bother with this movie, which at this point is probably most notable as the first onscreen appearance of Kristen Stewart (in a nonspeaking background role). It's one of the earliest DCOMs (as the channel has branded them), before the days when movies like High School Musical and The Cheetah Girls made wider impressions in pop culture, and it doesn't have the same level of polish and energy that the Disney Channel brings to its current productions.

It also has a lead performance that makes Zac Efron look like Michael Fassbender, from unfortunately named kid actor Chez Starbuck. Starbuck plays Cody, who was found as a baby stashed in the boat of his adoptive parents (played by Lisa Stahl Sullivan and Dave Coulier), and, unbeknownst to both them and himself, is the son of a mermaid. Although he's grown up as a normal human kid, once Cody turns 13, his body starts changing as he grows scales and fins and feels drawn to the water. He also produces electric charges and is able to stick to various surfaces like Spider-Man, both of which seem unrelated to being a mermaid (there's some vague handwaving about eels to explain the electricity powers, at least). It's all an extended metaphor for puberty, obviously, although there are so many actual references to puberty that calling it a metaphor might be a bit of a stretch.

Cody, a popular jock on the swim team (at a school where the popular jocks are on the swim team, somehow), has the requisite nerd friend (Justin Jon Ross) and a wholesome girlfriend (Courtnee Draper), both of whom are eventually sympathetic about his transformation into a merman. He has to deal with some mild antagonism from a cocky fellow swim team member and from a local coot (Brent Briscoe, the poor man's Randy Quaid) who's obsessed with capturing a mermaid, but there isn't much tension in either of those threats. Much of the plot focuses on Cody's drive to win at the state championship swim meet, where of course his new mer-abilities give him an advantage (in a plot that borrows a lot from Teen Wolf's werewolf playing basketball).

In between there are lots of cheesy fish-related jokes, some truly awful prosthetic effects for Cody's fish parts, bland lessons about tolerance, and a surprisingly subdued performance from noted ham Coulier. If only Starbuck could deliver a single line with believable conviction or emotion, the movie might at least have some genuine heart. But he's painfully awkward in every scene, whether freaking out over his new mutations or trying to have a heartfelt moment with friends or family. Some of the Disney Channel's best productions manage to be cleverly self-aware while maintaining their focus on family-friendly messages and dumb jokes, but The Thirteenth Year plays everything straight, and is hilariously awful as a result.

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