There was a time in my life not too long ago when just the very concept of a Disney Channel motion picture was enough to avoid anything they had to offer. Then I spent time with the three "High School Musical" pictures in quick succession last autumn, and I was amazed at the energy emanating from these low-budget affairs, along with a delightful ambiance of kindhearted family entertainment value. It was with this mindset that I agreed to review the latest Disney Channel juggernaut, "Princess Protection Program." While not infused with a gymnastic Wildcats hyperactivity, "Program" is a perfectly serviceable pre-teen diversion boasting two brightly talented stars, a digestible amount of adolescent drama, and a few snippets of principled behavior befitting royalty.
When a coup is staged in her home country of Costa Luna, 16-year-old Princess Rosalinda (Demi Lovato, "Camp Rock") is rescued by Agent Joe Mason (Tom Verica) and taken into the Princess Protection Program. Sent to rural Louisiana with Joe to hide while the political situation is sorted out, Rosalinda is introduced to Joe's daughter, Carter (Selena Gomez, "Wizards of Waverly Place"). Forced to attend high school with Carter, Rosalinda is rechristened "Rosie from Iowa," and sent into the mind field of teen ridicule. At first unsure of each other, Carter and Rosie quickly develop a strong friendship, put to the test when scheming classmate Chelsea (Jamie Chung, "Dragonball") instigates shenanigans to prevent Rosie and Carter from stealing her homecoming queen title, and perhaps school stud Donny (Robert Adamson) as well.
Make no mistake, "Program" is featherweight material, delivered with the same faintly unappetizing day-glo glaze Disney Channel layers over everything they produce. It's a puffball meant to clog up summer free time, pushing two of the network's biggest stars together to drum up some sizable ratings, now that the Mouse House lacks a "High School Musical" event to keep the profit train a-chuggin' along. That's cynicism rearing up inside me, but Disney Channel isn't exactly known for their delicate marketing and production hand. They want the hot stuff and they want it now.
Perhaps born from a seedy cross-promotional opportunity, "Program" manages to hurdle a large amount of doubt to become an appealing comedy. Director Allison Liddi (a television vet) assembles a competent package of fears and hellish high school humiliations, visibly nudging the film along when it gets too bogged down in the details. Actually, the first 15 minutes of the picture are surprisingly dark, dealing with Rosie's domestic upheaval, identity overhaul, and her general paralysis with it comes to anything American teen. Eventually, "Program" warms up, especially when the screenplay introduces more approachable comic elements such as Rosie enduring a hamburger tutorial, showing off her bowling skills, or learning to burp like an average kid.
Carrying the film with striking ease are Lovato and Gomez, who are quite the engaging duo, giving the awkward relationship between Rosie and Carter at least a modicum of believable tension, as high school jealousies burn white-hot and the culture gap is established. The young actresses hold a special screen presence that's miles above anything their CW counterparts could muster, lending a needed sense of joy and heavily rehearsed camera appeal to the proceedings. Lovato has the heavier workload, including the depiction of unrefined regality and some slapstick monkey business at an after-school frozen yogurt gig, and she pulls off the role with an ideal amount of cluelessness and tiara-topped sophistication. The weak link here is Chung, who overplays her high school b-word role with a teeth-gnashing drag queen fierceness. Chung's not much of an actress to begin with, and to see her allowed to stomp one-dimensionally around the film broadly disrupts the modest tempo of the picture and robs "Program" of a compelling villain.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio), "Program" was shot for basic cable consumption and frankly looks it. Riddled with EE problems and muted colors, the image quality here is less than desirable, cutting into the merriment the filmmaker are rabid to create. Detail is passable, while black levels remain under control.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix never quite lives up to the promise of dimension. Soundtrack cuts hold a recognizable pop, shaking some life into the mix. However, while cleanly reproduced, dialogue registers as flat, falling into the background action during more hectic sequences. Spanish and French 5.1 tracks are included.
English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are available.
"Royal & Loyal BFFs" (7:36) explore the real life friendship shared between Lovato and Gomez. This featurette contains a lot of giggling, reminiscing, and praise from the cast and crew. Some BTS footage is permitted into this teen-squealing fest, which adds the appropriate weight of production information.
"A Royal Reality" (5:01) chats with India Oxenberg, a real life princess, discussing her life and goals. The talk heads back to the cast and crew, who give their thoughts on the true responsibilities of a princess.
"'One and the Same' Music Video" (3:05) showcases Lovato and Gomez as they team up to sell some soundtracks. Sample lyric: "Friday we're cool, Monday we're freaks/Sometimes we rule, sometimes we can't even speak/But we kick it out, let loose and LOL." You've been warned.
While "Program" has to play it safe with multiple montages (scored to tuneless pop-rock songs) and melodramatic tangents, there's a lovely message of self-worth within the film that's endearing, along with Rosie's philanthropic dedication to the royal life that rubs off on Carter. These are small tokens of honor and pride instillation, but it's the effort that counts, yanking the film away from a simple pink-laden piece of amusement. "Princess Protection Program" may be content to give the target demographic exactly what they want in dresses, dudes, and text-message defamation, but there's an honorable inspiration behind the bangs and eye shadow that that helps to swallow the malarkey.