Disney Channel breaks rank with its latest original movie "Tiger Cruise," an affecting tale of teen angst and turmoil set amid the backdrop of 9/11. Pic still carries many Disney hallmarks -- a burgeoning teen-queen star, a catchy theme song and predictable subplots, but marks a departure from the net's usual fairytale formula.

Disney Channel breaks rank with its latest original movie “Tiger Cruise,” an affecting tale of teen angst and turmoil set amid the backdrop of 9/11. Pic still carries many Disney hallmarks — a burgeoning teen-queen star, a catchy theme song and predictable subplots, but marks a departure from the net’s usual fairytale formula.

Writers Anna Sandor and Bruce Graham deserve kudos for filtering a tough story through the eyes of kids without diluting the message. Based on real events, “Tiger Cruise” never feels exploitative or opportunistic. And director Duwayne Dunham is careful to distinguish between solemn and maudlin, serious and sentimental.

The result is a respectful, cathartic story, especially for those kids unable to articulate their feelings about the terrorist attacks. It’s a bold move for Disney, which has made ratings hay with feel-good teen romps. It should be interesting to see how young fans treat the more serious side of the Mouse.

Film is based loosely on the true story of the Navy aircraft carrier U.S.S. Constellation, which made naval history for being the first ship to go on full combat alert with hundreds of civilians aboard — many of them kids — when the twin towers and Pentagon were attacked.

“Remember the Titan’s” Hayden Panettiere stars as Maddie Dolan, a teenager who cringes at being called a Navy brat, despite the high-ranking position her father, Commander Gary Dolan (the ever stalwart Bill Pullman), has aboard the Constellation.

For a long time, Maddie has resisted joining in the military tradition of the Tiger Cruise, a program that allows families to join their loved ones on a weeklong tour of operations. But Maddie has a plan to convince her dad to quit the military for good. Sick of moving frequently and spending long stretches without him, Maddie unleashes all of her pent-up teen angst on dad.

Maddie is befriended on the cruise by Tina Torres (Bianca Collins), a chatty Latino teen who idolizes her pilot sister, and the surly Anthony (Nathaniel Lee Jr.), a street-wise New Yorker indifferent to his jet mechanic brother and to life in general.

As tensions between Maddie and her father come to a head, Commander Dolan succumbs to what seems more like emotional blackmail than an honest plea for family unity; he tells Maddie he won’t re-enlist.

But two days into what was a carefree cruise from Hawaii to San Diego, the fun and frivolity soon turns to fear and alarm. As news comes in on the morning of Sept. 11, the ship is put on full alert. Suddenly, all the doors that were open to visitors are slamming shut and the civilians have been herded below deck to watch the disturbing news.

With more than 800 civilians onboard, the ship is in a holding pattern until further instructions from operation command. Commander Dolan comes up with a plan to get everyone home safely. For the first time, Maddie finally understands why her father’s commitment and sacrifice is so important.

It’s a story that needs little embellishment, and Dunham is careful to sidestep too many details regarding the attacks. Images of the smoking towers are brief but effective. This selective tactic works for the story, deftly illustrating the lack of information and feelings of helplessness in those first confusing hours.

The initial all-access romp onboard and Maddie’s casual disregard for ship’s rules reflects the naivete surrounding freedoms and security that most in our country enjoyed without thought before the attacks. Later in the film, as the civilians eventually disembark, Maddie notices the difference, as armed guards are stationed around the base. “It’s like we’ve landed in an enemy port,” she observes. The world changed that day, and it would be a disservice to assume kids didn’t feel the change too.

Pullman seems born to play the stiff parental-authority figure who’s just soft enough to crack under pressure from a big pair of sad eyes. It’s hard to say whether the role is a step down for the theatrical star, or a big boost for the Disney TV movie franchise.

The same is true of Panettiere, who has enough acting chops to keep the film from wavering into sentimentality. She gives the pic heart, and in true Disney star form, also provides the vocals for the theme song, “My Hero Is You,” written by Jamie Houston.

Unfortunately, neither of the two stars gets any support from other actors, who, stuck in stereotyped roles appear awkward.

Special effects were rough, but, thankfully, few were needed, since the movie was realistically filmed aboard the U.S.S. John C. Stennis and the U.S.S. Nimitz.

Tiger Cruise

Disney Channel, Fri. Aug. 6, 8 p.m..

Production

Filmed on location in San Diego and various locations by First Street Films and Stu Segall Prods. Executive producer, Barry Rosenbush; producer, Bill Borden; director, Duwayne Dunham; writers, Anna Sandor, Bruce Graham;

Crew

Camera, Bob Seaman; music, Jamie Houston; casting, Judy Taylor, Linda Gordon, D. Candis Paule. Running time: 120 MIN.

Cast

Maddie Dolan - Hayden Panettiere Commander Gary Dolan - Bill Pullman Tina Torres - Bianca Collins Anthony - Nathaniel Lee Jr. Grace Torres - Mercedes Colon Kenny - Mehcad Brooks Joey - Jansen Panettiere Diane Coleman - Lisa Dean Ryan Seaman Danny Horner - Ty O'Neal Chuck Horner - Troy Evans Lt. Tom Hillman - Gary Weeks

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