“Seeing it on the stage and seeing our demo – the 10-year-old kids in the audience – and how they reacted and feeling it in a theater, we [Disney Channel executives] walked out of it saying 'We have to make this work as a movie,’” Adam Bonnett, executive vice president of original programming for Disney Channel, said.
Bonnett added that at the heart of every Disney Channel production – whether it’s a remake or an original – is the core belief that children and young adults want shows that are emotionally honest to experiences they can relate to. And in productions where songs and lyrics can convey emotions in a more obvious and direct way, adapting the “Freaky Friday” stage musical was a no-brainer for Disney.
“When I talk about the honesty of ‘Freaky Friday,’ there's a little more of it in the stage musical because it was created and produced for a very broad audience – not just for kids, but adults as well,” Bonnett said. “I think that's one of the things audiences walk away from our movie is really feeling that we tackle things that we may have been afraid to tackle in the past, but because of the way you dealt with it, it felt real and appropriate.”
I think kids really need to look at a show and say, "That's me up there! I'm about to go through that," and to really see themselves in characters is so important.
In this new “Freaky Friday” adaptation, the musical stays true to the fun and energetic moods created in the past by original productions like “High School Musical” (in one scene, students in biology class perform a dance number while wielding iPads), but the film really hits an emotional crescendo during a song about the pain and hurt behind why parents lie to their kids.
It’s a moment, Bonnett said, that shows how carefully Disney Channel has always paid attention to it’s viewers.
“Kids today want to taste a lot of different flavors. They want a full course meal that isn't just meat and potatoes, but has different flavors and different colors. You're underestimating the audience if you just want to give them one thing,” he said. “We're working hard to give them a diversity of content. I think kids really need to look at a show and say 'That's me up there! I'm about to go through that’ and to really see themselves in characters is so important.”
With a primary cast more diverse than the past three film adaptations combined, the new “Freaky Friday” continues Disney’s efforts to evolve with their target audience. In 2017, the New York Times highlighted the Disney Channel’s “startling new direction” with the debut of “Andi Mack,” a comedic drama about a 13-year-old girl who discovers her older sister is actually her mother.
The show has received positive reviews and praise for its representation of both Asian American and LGBTQ characters. It’s a direction for Disney that executives have recognized as being risky, but that audiences are tuning into (“Andi Mack” is the top cable series for kids, 6-11, according to Nielsen data) – and that’s exciting for an actor like He, who wants to be part of the effort to make Hollywood more diverse.
“As a kid, I was fortunate to have North American media and then I watched a lot of content from overseas,” He said. “As an Asian-American person, I didn't really see a mirror of the two where I had American media and Asian media, but I didn't have a combination of both experiences. I felt like I owed it to my friends that I grew up with to show that experience and show that part of the world.”
As for updating a classic story? Both Bonnett and He are on the same page: “Freaky Friday” is timeless, and this new adaptation is a chance for Disney to tell that story with its new efforts in mind to accurately represent and reflect today’s youth.
“Adam, at the end of the day, wasn't written as an Asian character or a Hispanic character or a white character or a black character," He said. "He's just a kid that goes to a high school and I think that that's very honest to kids that go to high school because you see people of all diverse backgrounds, and it's a realistic representation of our world."
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