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By Matthew Sorrento | March 14, 2008

As critics approached this Disney release with their fists up and ready to bash, they couldn’t see that “College Road Trip” – in Weird Al Yankovic’s words – truly dares to be stupid. And all for good effect, as “Trip” yields plenty of moments of campy farce to make it a delightful family film. The cheeky pairing of Martin Lawrence and Raven-Symone finds a whimsical chemistry, as the goofiness of the elder sets the stage for the younger. Raven-Symone, whose acting experience goes back as far as Lawrence’s (she was Olivia on “The Cosby Show”), knows how to work the camera as she steps up to deliver the over-the-top comedy that the script calls for.

She plays Melanie Porter, a high school kid with an overprotective dad, James (Lawrence). In the opening, Lawrence delivers a voiceover that implies, with a street-cred accent, that his character’s a homeboy who’s become the kind of parent he always feared he’d be. He’s a police chief with a loving family which happily resides in a McMansion. While this actor’s often dropped into generic roles, here he could very well be the grown-up version of his former, self-named sitcom character, who has been taken out of party central, although party time hasn’t been taken out of him.

Hence, his teenage daughter, a go-getter and aspiring lawyer, is ready to let loose next fall at Georgetown. James, whose repressed party-guy inside surfaces as fear about Melanie, insists on Northwestern, which is only a stone’s throw away. Her mother (Kym Whitley, Larry David’s hilarious carpool-lane-riding prostitute) is the parent-who-says-it’s-ok. James hears her out, only if he can escort Melanie on a college-visiting trip (which the mother cannot attend).

Here comes our device, the road trip, so often exploited for cheap comic bits recycled numerous times over. We cannot excuse this “Trip” entirely, since it resorts to the broken-down car bit (which also appeared in 2000’s “Road Trip” – whoops, don’t mean to confuse anybody…) and a sky-diving climax. As the comic pieces arrive, Lawrence’s daddy has met his match in the sassy but endearing Raven-Symone. Lawrence can bring the talk, but his James flies backwards on roller skates when he gets the backtalk.

Raven-Symone triumphs when the stage is set for her, like when she shakes down a tour bus with vocals of a daddy-daughter favorite. This moment gets a little syrupy, but director Roger Kumble (who also helmed “Cruel Intentions”!) and his screenwriters never forget that they are out for laughs, as the Disney-required family values sit in the background. Raven-Symone has enough promise that she could (and very well should) transition from youth entertainments like her “That’s So Raven” to more of her own comic vehicles. Granted, she benefits from being one of the most adorable presences onscreen, but she also appears very comfortable behind an exaggerated performance. She lets it fly without the unease that many actors find when attempting farce. (Though why any make-up artist would choose to overdo such a youthful face, I’m not sure.)

Just for good measure, Disney deployed a supporting actor who’s more than happy to use his cult iconography for a campy treat. When Donny Osmond shows up, as a show-tune obsessed father of another college road-tripping girl (a certifiably zany Molly Ephraim, making her big-screen debut), he appears like a caffeine-crazed member of the Osmond band, circa 20 years after. What a pleasure it is to see Osmond camp it up, which proves that he looks upon his yesteryear stardom about as seriously as Lawrence should regard “Wild Hogs.” (Oh, yeah – there’s a pet pig in this film too that steals a wedding crashing scene.)

“College Road Trip” is undeniably fun for the kids, though it requires a camp sensibility in its adult audience. But in doing so, it is a warm return to the live-action Disney movies of yesteryear.

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