Disney’s stamp is all over ‘Camp’
Welcome to “Camp Rock.” The latest in Disney’s line of musical cash registers made in the shape of a TV movie, it debuts tonight on the Disney Channel, debuts again Saturday on ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney,” and debuts again Sunday on ABC Family, after which it will go on debuting around the world. You can already buy the soundtrack album, “Camp Rock: the Junior Novel,” the “Camp Rock Rockstar Dreams Activity Book” and branded bedding, pajamas, things to drink from and eat out of, backpacks and capri pants.
Besides the singing and dancing, the heart of its pre-sold tween appeal is the presence of the mega-super popsters the Jonas Brothers, who are deeply enmeshed in Disney’s cross-platforming empire, recording for its Hollywood Records, appearing on Radio Disney and prepping a Disney Channel sitcom, “J.O.N.A.S.!,” whose acronym (“Junior Operatives Networking As Spies”) should tell you all you need to know about that.
Those expecting a “Jonas Brothers movie” will be a little disappointed; brothers Nick and Kevin appear only intermittently, as two-thirds of the fictional musical group Connect 3. But there is a whole lot of Joe, the dreamy middle Jonas, as their bandmate Shane Gray, who as punishment for his negative attitude has been banished to a summer as a counselor at Camp Rock, a training ground for young rockers, of which he is also an alumnus. Like most princes charming, Shane is ultimately a secondary character, a foil to the princess, the agent who frees her from her metaphorical prison, who knows her deepest thoughts, who sees her as she is.
The Cinderella at hand is Mitchie Torres (Demi Lovato), whose dreams of going to the camp are made real when her mother takes a job as a cook there. Mitchie, who has to sneak off to work in the kitchen between classes -- not that we ever see much in the way of classes -- inflates her circumstances, gaining the interest of manipulative camp queen bee Tess Tyler (Meaghan Jette Martin), for whom she sacrifices the real friendship of quirky Caitlyn Geller (Alyson Stoner). In the usual way of these things, Tess is Barbie-blond, and though it was perhaps not intentional it’s nevertheless interesting that, with the addition of Mitchie, Tess has a Latina, an African American (Jasmine Richards) and Asian American (Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, from “Hannah Montana”) as her subalterns. She is a “mean girl,” but mean with a reason (her pop-star mother neglects her), and in the end she decides to embody the love she is denied and gets to take part in the big finale. No room for haters here.
Mitchie and Shane will naturally fall in puppy love on their way to self-understanding. (They will do no more than look soulfully into each other’s eyes -- and sing, of course.) Shane -- whose negativity was meant only to “keep the poseurs away,” like Bob Dylan in “No Direction Home” -- tells Mitchie he is looking for a “new sound,” a change from the “stupid cookie-cutter pop-star stuff” he is forced to play by his label. (Although everyone at Camp Rock seems to like it well enough.) To be sure, “cookie-cutter pop-star stuff” is exactly what is on sale here, and that includes Shane’s new sound (cookie-cutter pop-star stuff on an acoustic guitar), an irony surely to be lost on the target audience, whether or not it was lost on the producers. I leave off the “stupid,” because although this music may be manufactured, it isn’t dumb. It is made by people who know just which melodic skip will put a lump in your throat and what chord change will drive you to your feet. It works on me, and I know better.
Aimed at kids who feel themselves unrecognized and invisible, which is to say practically all of them, it exhorts viewers to be themselves. “I’ve always been the kind of girl that hid my face/So afraid to tell the world what I’ve got to say,” sings Mitchie. “No more hiding who I wanna be/This is me.”
“It’s not all about your image,” Shane tells his class. “None of it means anything unless people see who you really are, and your music has to be who you really are, it has to show how you feel or it doesn’t mean anything.” Sings the ensemble: “We’re not afraid to be/Everything you see/No more hiding/Now we’re gonna own it.”
Four screenwriters labored to craft this piece, including Julie Brown (of “Earth Girls Are Easy,” “Just Say Julie” and elsewhere), who appears as a camp counselor. “Camp Rock” isn’t particularly good, but it’s good at what it does. The product may be “inauthentic,” if such a thing is even possible, but the way it will connect with a lot of little girls and more than a few little boys is real enough. Authenticity is in the heart of the beholder.
Where: Disney Channel
When: 8 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)