The Highlight Reel

“Chang Can Dunk” and the warmth of pre-nostalgia

Nick Porisch

More stories from Nick Porisch

The Highlight Reel
May 10, 2023

Photo by Marisa Valdez

Image copyright Walt Disney Pictures

Disney Channel Original Movies are a pretty strange institution of popular culture, if that hasn’t been made clear in this column already.

The first one was released in 1997, and since then, the children’s television channel has released over 100 films under the banner. They range from comedies and family dramas to Halloween specials and, of course, sports classics.

There’s a few eras of Disney Channel Original Movies. The film banner has ebbed and flowed in quality quite a bit, with an initial strong run starting in 1997, that tapered off around 2004, as well as brief resurgences in the 2010s and around the release of “High School Musical.”

However, in the past five years, the ratings of Disney Channel Original Movies have dropped off significantly, and even this noble institution has fallen to the trend of remakes and endless sequels.

As television migrates further from cable into streaming, the Disney Channel Original Movie seems like another television staple that has been left at the wayside.

Pondering this as I scrolled through Disney+ and its library of 2000s sports classics, I stumbled upon something… something exciting, and promising for the future.

Chang. Can. Dunk.

“Chang Can Dunk” is a 2023 Disney+ Original sports movie about a 5-foot-8 Chinese-American high schooler who dedicates himself to the mission of dunking a basketball in the hopes of defeating a bully and impressing his love interest.

Yeah, this was going to be good.

The movie had all the classic, nostalgic elements of an old-school Disney Channel Original Sports movie. 

There’s the charming, but immature protagonist who has an unsupportive parental figure, a quirky best friend, ultra-cool love interest, a cheesy bully and, of course, a goofy mentor.

The movie is centered on a bet (classic) between the protagonist, Chang, and his bully, Matt, over whether Chang can dunk.

Chang, seeing this as an opportunity to finally be known as cool at his high school, ropes a local basketball coach into training him, with the promise that Chang’s best friend will turn their process into a series of viral, inspirational YouTube videos.

The first half of the movie is a perfect modern update of the classic Disney Channel Original sports movie template. 

There’s a stellar training montage, warm, nostalgic cinematography and likable characters. Not to mention, the movie felt like it was really trying to be accurate to what a high schooler’s life is like in the late 2010s or early 2020s.

Eventually, Chang’s training is complete and, in front of the whole school, he dunks a basketball. As part of the bet, they shave Matt’s head and Chang gets the bully’s Kobe jersey.

The video of the dunk goes viral, and suddenly, Chang is launched to internet-celebrity status.

Here’s where things get interesting, because there’s still an hour left in the movie.

Over the next 40 minutes, Chang becomes a star, is featured on ESPN and, slowly, becomes just as much of a jerk as Matt.

Things come to a head when Matt accuses Chang of cheating on the dunk. They get in a fistfight and both land in the principal’s office.

There, Chang is confronted with the fact that he essentially cyber-bullied Matt when he humiliated him, shaved his head and took his Kobe jersey on a viral video seen by millions of people.

Ashamed, Chang admits he cheated on the dunk, and, rather than ending with a climactic sports event, the last act of the movie consists of Chang truly learning and growing.

He shaves his head in solidarity with Matt, gets back in touch with his friends and learns humility in a really realistic way.

There’s even a great subplot where Chang bonds with his unsupportive mother as they cope with the trauma of his father leaving them.

The movie ends with Chang setting aside his ego and joining the basketball team, connecting with Matt and finally, dunking in a game.

“Chang Can Dunk” feels like a perfect evolution of the classic Disney Channel Original sports movie formula. It builds off the tropes we know and tells a really grounded story about growing up, while still being quirky and entertaining.

Beyond that, the movie uses mixed media, like animation and in-world online videos, in a really effective and exciting way.

I tend to mention “Everything Everywhere All at Once” a lot when I talk about movies these days, because I firmly believe that there will be very few films in the future that don’t owe some kind of influence to it, but that aspect of “Chang Can Dunk” is a clear example.

Overall, “Chang Can Dunk” is a great movie that I’m sure a lot of kids are loving right now, and, in the future, it will probably be a wonderful, nostalgic classic for the current generation.

Porisch can be reached at [email protected].