Sixteen year old Princess Rosalinda (Demi Lovato) is about to be crowned queen of the obscure country of Costa Luna, when power-hungry General Magnus (Johnny Ray) stages a military coup that threatens her life. She is rescued by Mason (Tom Verica), an American agent working for the Princess Protection Programme, a secret organization funded by royal families around the world that looks after endangered princesses. Taken under Mason’s wing, the newly rechristened Rosie hides out in rural Louisiana under the guise of a normal teenager. Here she meets Mason's daughter, Carter (Selena Gomez), an insecure tomboy who works at the local bait shop.
A lifetime spent coping with spiteful high school girls leaves Carter less than happy sharing her life with what she perceives to be a pampered princess. The situation worsens when Rosie whips up a gourmet meal for Mason, impresses teachers by being fluent in several languages, and gets noticed by Donnie (Robert Adamson), the school hunk Carter dreams of going with to the school dance. But through the ups and downs, the girls form a tight bond and become close friends, with Carter teaching Rosie how to enjoy a down-to-earth life and Rosie helping her find her inner princess. When scheming prom queen wannabes Chelsea (Jamie Chung, upholding a worrying Disney trend for bitchy Asian villainesses) and Brooke (Samantha Droke) inadvertently put Rosie back in Magnus' sights, Carter selflessly places herself in danger to save her friend and the royal throne.
A quirky showcase for the respectively sweet and sassy-sardonic charms of Disney starlets Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez, Princess Protection Programme is girlier than a plate of pink-frosted cupcakes. But for its teen audience, for whom this is as big a clash of the titans as De Niro vs. Pacino in Heat (1995), that is far from a bad thing. Annie De Young's screenplay is pick-and-mix and lifts elements from spy movies, high school comedies and chick flicks - including that much loved staple "the makeover montage" - which the brisk running time and TV movie budget don't always exploit to their full potential. A subplot in which gentle giant Ed (the likeable Nicholas Braun) harbours a lifelong crush on Carter is wrapped up inconclusively, but in other areas the script really scores.
The portrayal of how teenage girls can get territorial certainly rings true and miraculously, the film sidesteps that pitfall in almost all fish-out-of water comedies wherein characters are either Americanized or conform to an established social order. Rather winningly, Rosie holds her own and endures the slings and arrows of high school cruelty with grace, good judgement (she pegs Donnie as shallow from the get-go), inner dignity and quiet resolve. Qualities that remain intact even after Carter teaches her how to belch. Like Enchanted (2007), the film is another Disney attempt to redeem princesses from their modern stereotype as shallow media brats. As Rosie tells Carter, being a princess isn't about how you dress, it's about strength of character and what you have to offer the world. To underline the message, the heroines help a group of "average" schoolgirls find their inner beauty and then shun the school studs and dance the night away with a couple of little boys. If the message sounds a little touchy-feely, remember with pampered party-goers like Paris Hilton in the spotlight, young women could use some decent heroines.
Lovato steals the acting honours, handling a demanding role with real aplomb. She ably balances comic pratfalls with heartbreaking pathos, and combines the requisite regal bearing with an endearing girlishness. Which is not to sell Gomez short, since Carter's character arc brings out a winning mix of vulnerability, pluck and moral backbone hitherto unseen in her reoccurring role in Disney's Wizards of Waverly Place. The climactic bait-and-switch proves surprisingly tense and touching, as Carter puts her life on the line to save her friend. In real life, the actresses are childhood friends which is evident from the breezy, infectious onscreen chemistry that lifts even the weaker scenes. Lovato, a talented singer-songwriter/musician (and the best thing about Disney’s Camp Rock (2006)) performs "When Two Different Worlds Collide", a rather touching song she wrote and dedicated to Gomez, and the pair also duet on a pop-rock stomper: "One and the Same". We might be witnessing the birth of a world-conquering double-act.