Parents of tween and pre-tween girls, you might as well surrender. Due to the presence of the Jonas Brothers and the skillful application of the Disney Tween Movie Formula, "Camp Rock," the new movie that launches on the Disney Channel tonight at 8, is destined to be a summertime hit.
If only the endeavor felt more worthy, and less prefabricated at some offshore factory where workers in mouse ears plug in the parts: the underconfident girl with a surprisingly pretty voice, the semi-bad boy with a sensitive side, the meticulously choreographed musical numbers, the heartfelt Disney lessons about self-love and self-expression.
Our protagonist here is Mitchie Torres, played by 15-year-old Demi Lovato, a relative newcomer who's likable enough. She's a budding songwriter of the "Hannah Montana" school who dreams of going to a camp for aspiring pop stars - yes, its name is Camp Rock - and who can only afford the fee because her mother is the chef. When she finds herself surrounded by music industry scions, she makes a desperate bid to fit in by pretending her mother is a TV mogul in China.
In the meantime, she befriends Shane Gray, an actual pop star of the Shaun Cassidy school, played by actual pop star Joe Jonas. He's the misbehaving member of a band called Connect 3 (his real-life brothers are his bandmates). Shane is sentenced to teach at Camp Rock - which happens to be run by his uncle - in order to rehab his image. He acts sullen at first, but it turns out he's just angry because the evil music overlords won't let him play his new songs. They want him to stick to the pre-vetted, sellable stuff.
The irony is that Gray's supposedly avant-garde tunes, including a summertime rocker he performs with the other Jonas boys, are perfectly calibrated to sell on iTunes and play in continuous loop on Radio Disney. Even more outrageous is the notion that the Mouse House is here to champion the little guy, batting his tiny fists against the corporate machine.
It all goes to show what's been lost since "High School Musical" whetted the company's appetite for summer domination. That 2006 TV movie was a sort of happy accident, and as such, had no meta-music-industry story to tell - just the old, classic preteen themes of belonging and self-discovery. It reveled in the cheesiness of the old movie-musical, where people spontaneously break into song. And it used the high school cafeteria, classroom, and gym to great effect. (That dance trick with the basketballs never gets old, and I gather it's good in the ice show, too.)
"Camp Rock," by contrast, has gone electric - literally and metaphorically - and nothing feels accidental about it. The production numbers all have a reason for being: They're presented at open mikes and jam sessions and a final talent show where the acts come with invisible bands and backup choirs. In fact, there's little to even suggest this is a camp; there's nary a lanyard to be found, and apparently there's only one canoe.
That's not to say "Camp Rock" has no merit for the under-12 crowd. What Disney still does well, and admirably, is to cast its movies with appealing kids who are just diverse and normal-looking enough to be attainably real. Even the superstar Jonas Brothers project themselves as cute and wholesome pop icons next door - and prove, as Zac Efron once did, that you don't have to be Brando to read a Disney script halfway-convincingly.
There's a quaint chasteness about everything, and a sense of overarching goodness in the world; even the blond villainess is only acting that way because she has serious mommy issues. Of course, our Mitchie will blossom when she learns to be herself.
I'd like her better, though, if her supposed original music were more believably great. The tunes here, pop-factory-made as they are, lack the hooks that made both "High School Musical" soundtracks so frighteningly indelible. Then again, that's on first viewing; I'll have to give them time. I'm sure I'll be hearing them again.