Ever since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs hit the silver screen in 1937, the Walt Disney company has cultivated our daughters and nieces’ curious desire to become princesses. With children engaging the grown-up world at earlier and earlier ages, the studio has had to find new ways to sustain the dream. Enter Hannah Montana and its tween-targeted clones, which translate royalty into Hollywood contracts, media exposure, and, of course, popularity. In light of such dreadful fare as Another Cinderella Story (2008) and its follow-up A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song (2011), one might be tempted to dismiss the whole genre as a cynical exercise in consumer-culture brainwashing. That is, were it not for humble surprises like Princess Protection Program.
Consider the Disney Channel original movie’s tongue-in-cheek conceit: even in the modern world, royal daughters spend most of their time getting kidnapped by dastardly villains, so a global agency was formed to extract endangered princesses and give them temporary new lives in mainstream society. As such, when General Kane (Johnny Ray Rodriguez) invades the kingdom of Costa Luna, Princess Rosalinda Maria Montoya Fiore (Demi Lovato) is relocated to Lousiana and forced to bunk with tomboy Carter Mason (Selena Gomez). We’re asked to take for granted that the small island is better off with a monarchy than a dictatorship, which seems fair enough given the target demographic, but I suspect this over-the-top premise might have better fitted an animated feature.
Then again, we would’ve missed out on Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato’s onscreen chemistry, which stems from the two starlets being real-life BFFs at the time, or so Disney Channel continuously advertised. Their natural warmth and ease with each other comes across in every scene. Just the same, Gomez, who can convey shame, admiration, and ambivalence with a single pout, is clearly the better actress here (she’s the lesser singer, so it all evens out). By comparison, Lovato comes off a bit stiff, refusing to play Rosie as the glorious caricature she’s meant to be.
From her perspective, Princess Protection Program might be interpreted as a fish-out-of-water comedy, as the foreign princess adapts to our barbaric high school rituals and finds that her core values apply anywhere in the world. I like the twist of presenting American culture as the backwaters way of life. However, the movie largely favours Carter’s point of view, from which the joke lies in her new roommate besting her in everything by virtue of that royal je ne sais quoi.
The metaphor is interesting. “Princess” here refers to that x-factor Simon Cowell keeps rambling about: the ability to command attention though charm and charisma. Whereas most teen flicks would have the heroine take off her hipster glasses and discover her inner princess (think 1999’s She’s All That), Princess Protection Program makes it clear that some people have got it, and others just plain don’t. It’s a harsh lesson for twelve-year-olds, one that may spark a challenging conversation with mommy and daddy, but why would any parent shy away from such an opportunity?
Besides, popularity should not be viewed as an end, lest kids want to end up like Chelsea (Jamie Chung), who cheats, bullies, and ultimately humiliates herself to maintain her position in the high school food chain. In contrast, Rosie befriends Carter by revealing that she views her princess status not as a birthright but as a tool to help people. You see, social influence is not a bad thing in and of itself. Movies that argue otherwise may comfort the downtrodden but they teach us nothing. Princess Protection Program proves more ambitious, imparting to its young audience that, no matter the circumstance, what matters is what you do with the cards you’re dealt. “I want to do more with my life,” muses Carter. Shouldn’t we all?
I may be overselling the movie a bit. It remains, after all, a Disney Channel production complete with cheap special effects, recycled slapstick (enough with the ice cream floods!), and the word “princess” repeated a few hundred times to hammer in the metaphor and sometimes confuse it. What I’m trying to convey, though, is that Princess Protection Program has got its heart in the right place. According to Carter and Rosie, that makes it more precious than any other tween hit.