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Pajiba Jumps the Shark! Again.

By Guest Critic: Ling | Film | June 23, 2009 |

By Guest Critic: Ling | Film | June 23, 2009 |

In one of Dustin’s emails to me during our correspondence about this review, he gave me a piece of advice that I originally brushed off as obvious. “Looking forward to it, Ling,” he wrote. “Any piece of writing by a commenter so eloquent, bitingly witty, and devastatingly sexy as you should be a joy to read and edit. Just keep in mind the audience while composing the review.” Feeling rather chuffed, I replied, “Ha. Don’t worry about it. I’m as cynical as the next pain-in-the-ass hipster.” I didn’t think there was any chance I would actually like a Disney Channel movie and be thus compelled to write an un-pajiba-ly favorable review.

Well, strip me down and spank me senseless, because the impossible has happened. I did like the movie, and this is a favourable review.

Nobody is more shocked than me. I’ve done some soul-searching, and I think I’ve figured out why: before the lights had even dimmed, I weighed the cost of not liking it. You have to understand that this was a world premiere, meaning the two stars (Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez of Disney Channel fame) were sitting like right there, as well as the bigwig Disney executives. There was a chance, a good chance, of being asked my opinion of the movie by people who had a vested interest in its success. While I would love to be the person cool enough to be honest with a Disney exec, I myself had a vested interest, and that was to keep them happy. If they were happy, the Family Channel execs that were running the event would be happy. And if they were happy, they’d give me more work. It’s oddly self-serving, but that’s how I roll.

The “Disney Channel Original Movies” slate is an entity that is as intriguing as it is annoying, especially when compared to Disney’s theatrical releases. In the case of the latter, the Disney brand’s image of quality is interpreted in such a way as to strive to create solid plots, developed characters, and watertight scripts. Current movies (the Pixar slate), my personal favorites (any 1990’s-era musical starring a fierce brunette heroine), and my parents’ childhood staples (starring iconic blonde ditzes) fit this criterion. In terms of external packaging, the animation is beautiful, but far from realistic, and characters are drawn with flaws. I’m thinking here of both Disney’s oldest offering, in which Snow White is given endearing baby-like chubby cheeks, and their newest, Up, which, as all of you know, features a borderline obese protagonist.

And then we have the Disney Channel movies, churned out for your watching pleasure since 1997. External perfection is the norm. Clothes are trendy and perfectly pressed. Hair is glossy. Eyes pop from behind perfectly-applied eyeliner. Beautiful people; every frame could be a clothing ad. And the script, plot, character development - all a vehicle for the on-screen perfection. It’s movies like these that made Zac Efron a star. The latest addition, Princess Protection Program, is as much a glorified Abercrombie catalogue as its predecessors.

The plot is simple as toast: Rosalinda Maria Montoya Fiore (Lovato) is the crown Princessa of Costa Luna, a small island kingdom whose official language seems to be English with a variably strong Spanish accent. In the wake of her father’s untimely passing, she is preparing to become a 17-year-old monarch. Strangely for Disney, no mention beyond a conveniently placed line is made of the father or any grief at his death; in fact, the young beauty and her mother seem rather content with her impending coronation, leaving the sadder but wiser audience members to assume that the father was assassinated by his own family. (This suspicion is never addressed, which could be either laziness or genius.)

Ten days before the coronation, rebels storm the palace, calling for the unseating of the monarchy and installation of a militant dictator named General Magnus Kane (Billy Ray Cyrus - kidding! Johnny Ray Rodriguez). A shockingly snappy action sequence ensues that involves a sword thrown Pirates of the Caribbean-style into a wall, skewering Rosalinda’s tiara in the process. The day is saved by a staggeringly DILF-y military type, Mason, who spirits the princess away on a helicopter, saving her from certain political imprisonment. At this point, the low expectations of the adult audience members have been positively turkey-slapped by what has transpired. Unfortunately, PPP soon finds its mundane feet as we return to the USA.

We next meet the unfortunately-named Carter Mason (Gomez), a high-school student and bait shop employee living in rural Louisiana. Carter, whose only accent is Gomez’s own adorable Texas twang, deals with “bait girl” stigma, which separates her from the rich popular types Disney Channel loves to whip out. (For a popular example, see Evans, Sharpay.) Against a backdrop of green bayou, Carter greets her father, who turns out to be — drumroll — DILF McGee from Costa Luna! But wait — there is a princess sitting in her bedroom, saying shockingly snobby things like “You’re Excused” and “Please!” It will be necessary for Carter to help “Rosie” blend into her high school; otherwise, she will be discovered and seized by the revolutionaries. Actually - holy crap, those are some high stakes. Come on, Disney Channel, what happened to “the respect of one’s peers” as life’s highest priority?

Keep in mind that, this whole time, Rosie’s mother has been a prisoner of the skeevy Stalin-esque villain. Again, the audience is forced to make another uncomfortable assumption: that she is being raped regularly. In this case, we appear to be right: General Magnus Kane forces Mom into a marriage, which leads to the movie’s climax.

Shockingly, the movie works only because of the performance of the two leading ladies. Gomez’s and Lovato’s performances, but for a few hiccups, are strong and subtle and, at times, touching. Lines that would inspire rage out of the mouth of, say, Miley Cyrus, sound appropriately playful here. “I don’t mean I hate you like I hate you, I mean I hate you like you’re my best friend.” There are genuine moments amidst all the hokey manufactured drama, where sometimes silence is used as a dramatic tool (in a better movie, of course, this would go without saying, but here it was delightfully surprising). Also, there is a small but appreciated scene in which Rosie cooks dinner and has Carter and General DILF wear traditional wreaths, and because of this moment, I am now aware that any man with prominently-displayed pecs wearing a laurel wreath (and not just James Purefoy) makes me think sinful thoughts.

(FYI, if you googled “Princess Protection Program” and “Shia LaBeouf,” you might have come across some reports that he’d have a cameo. These were lies.)

But let’s address reality. This movie is objectively not good. The dialogue is shallow. The plot is kinda whack. Those scenes where Lovato speaks Spanish make me gag a little; her accent is empirically terrible, and I wondered why her friend Selena Gomez couldn’t help her out. (Then I giggled to myself and stopped being so racist.) If I hadn’t sort of told myself to like the movie, or if I had watched it in my living room instead of in a 3,000-seat theatre, I would have been quite apathetic towards it. You’re never going to voluntarily see this. Unless you have young kids, you’re not going to rush to set your TiVo for the television premiere (June 28th on Disney Channel/Family Channel, if you’re interested!). If nothing else, take from this review that there are two tweeny performers out there who, despite their Jonas Brothers’ affiliations, are bona fide actresses. They can string a scene together without resorting to shouting, cutesy shrugging, or “schmacting” of any kind. And even if they are hos, which is certainly possible, they manage to keep their skanktacular lives out of ours, for which I thank them.

Ling is a university student, who divides her time between Toronto and Montreal. Check out more of her musings on her blog, Away With The Gypsies.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.