As I write this, the Jonas Brothers are poised to have their first number one record, with the band's "A Little Bit Longer" pegged by Billboard as selling as many as 750,000 copies in its debut week. That's the kind of number that will propel the group beyond mere hit status or fad-of-the-week to place them in the pantheon of true tween pop sensations, a level of cultural phenomenon that could potentially match that of Menudo, New Kids on the Block, and fellow Disney label-mate Miley Cyrus. Whether or not the Jonas Brothers can eventually sustain a long-term, viable career as actual musicians is another matter (just witness the otherwise-talented but forever-branded Hanson), but no matter where they go from here, we'll be able to look back at 'Camp Rock' as ground zero of the band's ascension to superstardom.
A sort of thinly-disguised Frontierland version of Disney's 'High School Musical' franchise, 'Camp Rock' is a clear lift of the same formula (silly Cinderella plot, ingratiating soundtrack of tween-pop songs, lots of freshly Clearasil-scrubbed newcomers), and pre-branded product through-and-through. Massively hyped-up by Disney for months before it debuted to big (if not huge) numbers on the Disney Channel, 'Camp Rock' doesn't have the freshness or zeal of 'High School Musical,' but its conceits are durable enough to withstand even this half-hearted swipe of the template. And it does, after all, have the Jonas Brothers, and they're the real reason to see it anyway.
Less a vehicle for the group than a vehicle for its lead singer Joe Jonas, 'Camp Rock' doesn't stretch his acting chops by having him play fictional pop star Shane Gray, head of the boy band Connect 3 (made up of the other two guys in the Jonas Brothers). Seems Shane has once again gotten himself into tabloid trouble, and so is sent by his management to Camp Rock, which apparently is like a celebrity rehab for tween pop stars, except without the drugs and Dr. Drew Pinsky. All the other kids at the camp know he's a big shot, however, which only isolates Shane further, fueling his aggravation and "bad boy" behavior (which, in the Disney universe, consists of being pouty and refusing to make friends). Further fanning the flames is a scheme by his management and Uncle Brown Cesario (Daniel Fathers), who works at the camp, to trick Shane into recording a song for the camp's big "Final Jam" competition.
The plot really kicks into motion, however, when one afternoon Shane overhears the beautiful voice of a girl singing and playing the piano. Turns out the girl is Mitchie Torres (Demi Lovato), a wanna-be pop singer cursed with a poor family and limited prospects. Though originally unable to send her daughter to the ultra-elite Camp Rock, her caterer-mother hatched a successful plan to land a job at the camp, so now Mitchie is finally on the way to living out her dream (and in perfect Disney fashion, has her mom along as a chaperone so she can't get into any real trouble). But Shane never saw Mitchie's face, so in a cute little twist on 'Cinderella,' he must find the girl who fits the glass slipper, er, fits the perfect voice, and will spend the rest of the movie in pursuit of his fantasy.
No Disney Channel movie would be complete without a little moral crisis, however, and filling that wicked role is Grammy-winning country singer Tess Tyler (Meaghan Jette Martin), who is also at the camp. Like Tess, all of her "inner circle" of cool kids have famous or wealthy parents, so Mitchie makes the mistake of giving into the peer pressure and blurts out an impulsive lie, saying that her mother is actually the president of the Hot Tunes conglomerate in China (!?). This will set up the film's key thematic complication, as Mitchie is in danger of potentially losing Shane by pretending to be someone other than who she is, not to mention all the new hip "friends" she's made thanks to her desperate ruse.
It's message may be laudable, but 'Camp Rock' still isn't as much fun as 'High School Musical.' The production values are a bit cheaper, the characters not quite as memorable, and there is a shoddiness to the construction of a story that doesn't even bother to try and surprise us. Some might even call 'Camp Rock' lazy. But what the movie does have going for it is the eagerness of its young cast and the few fun tunes they belt out, plus a less theatrical tone than 'High School Musical' that, while hardly qualifying as cinema verite, does allow us to suspend our disbelief for all this tween nonsense. 'Camp Rock' is Disney formula, but taken down a notch with a hint of normalcy. Whether it be Mitchie's parents (who are not, for once, gross caricatures or lovable idiots) or a fun cameo by former MTV comedienne Julie Brown, here cast as eager head counselor Dee La Duke, a conscious effort seems to have been made to give 'Camp Rock's fantasy universe a bit of verisimilitude.
If 'Camp Rock' does ultimately squeak by as enjoyable Disney filler, it's thanks to the chemistry of Jonas and Lovato. The eldest Brother can't really act all that well (his line readings are self-conscious at best), but Lovato has a sparkling million-dollar smile that takes up the slack. While I would never call the heat generated by any two leads in a Disney Channel flick "sexy," thanks to Lovato there does seem to be a genuine connection between the two actors that's cute in a puppy-love sort of way, as if in a few years time (as soon as they both get their drivers licenses and Jonas can grow facial hair), they could actually, like, kiss each other with tongue. It is indeed fun to watch these two go through the 'Cinderella' motions, even if I was always thinking of darker, more lurid storylines than Disney would ever allow (how about teen pregnancy or lesbian experimentation next time?)
Regardless, thanks to the success of the Jonas Brothers and the strong (if not 'High School Musical'-level) ratings for 'Camp Rock,' Disney likely has another hit franchise on its hands. And no criticisms will likely stop it. 'Camp Rock' isn't really something I can recommend to anyone outside of its target tween demographic, but at the same time, I can't say I didn't enjoy watching it. If you're forced to pay a visit to 'Camp Rock,' you could do a lot worse for 90 minutes of inoffensive, toe-tappable Disney entertainment.
'Camp Rock' on Blu-ray deviates in aspect ratio from the standard DVD release of the film, which is presented in 1.33:1, while here we get a nice 1.78:1 widescreen 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. This is not as appealing an image as the recent 'High School Musical 2' Blu-ray, as the production is a bit cheaper, and the film's visual style overall looks pretty TV-movie-ish.
Certainly, 'Camp Rock' has been shot in a competent manner. The 1.78:1 frame is nicely balanced, and colors are generally bright and bold. Contrast is weak, however -- the image looks a bit flat on the high end, and black levels, while not poor, are not the richest I've seen. There is also an annoying use of soft filters, which makes all the tween stars look nice and misty but hardly helps visible detail. Nevertheless, the image looks fine enough, and shots that go lighter on the filtering enjoy a pleasing sense of dimension. The encode is usually clean, though I noticed some obvious and distracting posterization during slow dissolves and fades. 'Camp Rock' is not the greatest high-def I've seen, but I can't imagine the target audience will mind much.
Disney provides an uncompressed PCM 5.1 Surround mix (48kHz/24-bit) for 'Camp Rock,' and (though they're not labeled on the back packaging) Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround options (all 640kbps) in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. After recently reviewing the superior 'Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds' Blu-ray, I had higher hopes for this one. 'Camp Rock' sounds all right, but it's not great.
The lack of surround engagement is immediately apparent. The track just never really comes alive even when we get to the camp, which should have offered plenty of opportunities for some envelopment. The mix is largely front heavy, with only sporadic atmosphere and a hint of score/music bleed. Stereo dispersement across the front soundstage is solid, and dialogue clear and well-balanced. Dynamic range sounds fairly full-bodied, and low bass is decent if lacking that extra bit of oomph the power-pop songs really needed. No, there's nothing at all wrong with this mix, but it's nothing more than serviceable.
Disney has created a nice and fluffy batch of extras for 'Camp Rock' that will undoubtedly be devoured by fans. The material looks pretty slick, too, as it's offered in full 1080 video. (Optional English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles are also provided.)
'Camp Rock' may be the poor man's 'High School Musical,' but it's a fun and innocuous little film that will surely thrill fans of the Jonas Brothers. (And yes, if you're over the age of 14, you'll probably hate it no matter what.) This Blu-ray is pretty good -- solid if unspectacular video and audio, and a summer camp's worth of extras geared towards the target age group. I can't recommend 'Camp Rock' to non-fans, but if you're one of them, why have you read this far anyway?