The work of Kenny Ortega has reverberated through the entertainment industry for generations, with the prolific choreographer and director helping bring countless memorable movies and music videos to life. Whether you're familiar with Ortega through his directing of the High School Musical movies, Descendants, and Hocus Pocus, or his time choreographing the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson, you probably have been moved by his work in some form or fashion. Through executive producing and choreographing Julie and the Phantoms -- the first project to come out of his overall deal with Netflix -- Ortega brings his family-friendly content into the modern streaming era, and does so with ease. The nine-episode first season brings an incredibly watchable series the whole family can enjoy to Netflix, one that takes the staples of that genre and elevates them just enough.
Julie and the Phantoms revolves around Julie (Madison Reyes), a 15-year-old high schooler who has been losing her passion for music following her mother's tragic passing. Through a series of events, Julie meets Luke (Charlie Gillespie), Alex (Owen Joyner), and Reggie (Jeremy Shada), three members of the band Sunset Curve. The only catch? The guys from Sunset Curve are actually ghosts, who haven't been seen by another human since their sudden and accidental deaths in 1995. Soon, they realize that the guys from Sunset Curve can only be seen by other humans when they play music with Julie. Together, the quartet sets out to make an unconventional stamp on the music industry as Julie and the Phantoms -- while also dealing with romance, school, and life in the present day.
Admittedly, the concept of Julie and the Phantoms (which is adapted from the Brazilian TV series Julie e os Fantasmas) is a little ridiculous and absurd, but the show wholeheartedly embraces that fact. Viewers will lose count of how many times the show lampshades certain plot points, including Julie frequently justifying the band's unique existence by telling other people that they're "a hologram band." But the show's plot is executed in such a wholesome and high-energy way that it never really gets bogged down by that implausibility. It all culminates in a tone that feels somewhere halfway between standard Disney Channel fare and Glee, but with a humor and spirit that never feels at the expense of any character.
Another major highlight of Julie and the Phantoms is its positive steps towards representation, especially with the genre of family-friendly musicals traditionally centering on white, straight characters. If Julie and the Phantoms had gotten an American adaptation when the Brazillian version first debuted in 2011, it's safe to assume that Julie and her family would have been portrayed as white, or that Julie's best friend Flynn (Jadah Marie) would have just been relegated to a token Black friend. Instead, Julie and the Phantoms takes steps to reflect more of our current reality and Gen Z sensibilities, while leaving plenty of room to grow in future seasons. The series also makes some admirable choices in terms of LGBTQ+ representation, with the budding relationship between Alex and fellow ghost Willie (Booboo Stewart) being an earnest highlight throughout the season. There definitely is room to grow, but the storyline still feels somewhat groundbreaking after the subtext-filled days of High School Musical 2's baseball scene.
It also feels necessary to mention the music of Julie and the Phantoms, which largely consists of various degrees of incredibly catchy pop. The musical tone of the series is equal parts the wholesome ridiculousness of High School Musical and the slick campiness of Descendants, but with a fresh and largely authentic energy throughout. The vast majority of the songs do feel like something that four teenagers could put together, and the series surprisingly doesn't rely on a lot of reprises and repeats of previous songs. The show's music will definitely get stuck in your head, but a lot of the songs might not necessarily stay in there for long after you finish the series. There are some exceptions -- Caleb Covington's (Cheyenne Jackson) intro number "The Other Side of Hollywood" has a big band kind of flair, and a solo from Luke towards the end of the season will definitely give viewers the feels.
Julie and the Phantoms largely works so well because of its ensemble cast, with Reyes (in her first professional role) cementing herself as an actress to watch. Her take on Julie authentically feels like a teenager in all of her messy glory, while also bringing a warmth and a star quality to every scene she's in. Gillespie, Joyner, and Shada all find their own mix of earnestness and absurdity, and are sure to become the newest teen heartthrobs by the time fans finish watching the series. Stewart and Jackson (both of whom collaborated with Ortega on the Descendants franchise) are also standouts of the series, with Jackson's campy performance feeling like the perfect stepping stone for younger fans to eventually find the campy work of Ryan Murphy.
On paper, Julie and the Phantoms shouldn't work as well as it does, which makes its first season all the more remarkable. The series comes across like a hybrid of spooky family-friendly fare like Scooby-Doo, and the earnest TV musicals that have become staples of the past 15 years. It definitely is comfort TV in every sense of the word -- it's lighthearted, ridiculous, and something that will leave you with a song in your heart.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Julie and the Phantoms debuts on Netflix on September 10th.