If the “Transformers” were the snips and snails and puppy dog tails of the toys-to-movie genre of the summer of 2007, the Bratz were the sugar and spice.
The dollz, I mean dolls, grabbed a hefty chunk of market share out of the perfectly manicured fingers of previously undisputed queen Barbie, capturing the imagination of a generation of 8-year-olds with their hipness, insouciance and imperfection. And the Bratz are not girls who complain, as Barbie once did, that “math is hard.” These are girls who have “a passion for fashion” and like cool parties and “the hottest clothes ever!” but who also totally rock out in chemistry, journalism, sports, cheer-leading and music. They are smart, honest, and loyal. They resist the cliques at school and are confident about who they are. They respect and love their parents. They are attractive in an accessible, non-movie-starish way and accomplished in a confident but unpretentious way. And of course their clothes are ever-changing and totally rockin’.
In other words, they are an 8-year-old’s ideal of teenagerhood, and likely to be their parents’ ideal as well. Plus, of course there are some makeover montages, along with a school-wide food fight, a talent show, a little romance, and the triumph over a Mean Girl, all done with not just a sense of humor, but a sense of humor about itself that makes it feel sweetly genuine.
Chloe (Skyler Shaye), Yasmin (Nathalia Ramos), Jade (Janel Parrish) and Sasha (Logan Browning) are BFFs who are so close that when it comes time for the super-important first day of high school they convene via web-cam to discuss each one’s outfits for their big entrance. They think nothing can break them apart. Enter Meredith (Chelsea Staub), daughter of the aptly named Principal Dimly (Jon Voight, behind another fake nose), who pretty much lets her run everything. A kind of “prison for dummies” book she consults tells her that control is best maintained by dividing and conquering, so Meredith sets up a map of the school lunch area, rigidly allocating space to more than 30 cliques, everyone from the cheerleaders and the nerds to the goths and the emos. She even has a place for the mimes.
Meredith insists on total obedience from everyone. The four friends try to resist, but once they become involved in the activities they love, they make new friends and lose touch with each other. Two years later, Meredith’s plan seems to have worked.
But then being stuck in detention together reminds the girls how much they still care about each other, and they resolve that nothing will ever keep them apart again. This really makes Meredith furious, so she decides to show them with the coolest sweet sixteen party ever (even though she already had one), this time to be covered by MTV, to include not just a stage for Meredith to do a huge musical number about how wonderful she is, but to have her enter riding an elephant. Meredith thinks she will embarrass the girls by having them at the party as staff, not guests (Chloe’s mother is the caterer). She does her best to humiliate them in front of everyone. But when their class and dignity — and a tumble into the pool — make Meredith look bad, she comes up with the worst insult she can think of and dubs them: Bratz. They accept that title with pleasure, declare themselves to be all about “bratitude,” and decide to take Meredith on at the big talent show, to win the money Chloe needs for college.
Director Sean McNamara gets the best from his young cast, with a fresh, sincere, tone and he throws in some delicious silliness and “bratitude” of his own to keep the story buoyant. The four young actresses establish vivid individual characters and interact with on-screen chemistry that makes their friendship feel real. Staub makes a delicious comic foil and it is clear that everyone is having a blast on screen.
“Bratz” has more in common with “Transformers” than both being essentially dramatic infomercials to sell toys. They are both about the power of transformation (girl terminology: makeover), that ultimate metaphor for adolescence and growing up. Stories like these both thrill and reassure children on the brink of that journey to adulthood. And they are both about high school kids triumphing over big, powerful monsters who want to control everything. The Transformers may have to battle Megatron but the Bratz have Meredith, who could have Megatron sitting in a corner with the evil robot clique before he had time to rattle his gears in her direction.
And there is a lot for both kids and their parents to like about this film. Its heroines deal with some real-life issues with dignity and resourcefulness. Its portrayal of the pull of cliques and conformity is sweet and smart. One of the girls has a single mom with money problems, one has a hard time telling her parents the truth about herself, and one is struggling with a joint custody arrangement. The Bratz are diverse in a deliberately un-stereotypic manner and are comfortable with their academic, creative, and athletic interests. Disabled characters are rare in any category of film and when they do appear they tend to be both defined by their disability and excluded from any pos-sibility of a romantic relationship; this movie has one who is not just deaf but handsome, popular, and athletic, and who becomes one of the girls’ boyfriend. The girls love fashion as a way of expressing their own personalities, not to be “cool” or to fit in. And their friendship feels real enough that the lessons of inclusion and loyalty will last long after the toys have been passed on to the next generation.
Parents should know that this movie, while light-hearted, has characters confronting some serious issues, including coping with estranged parents and joint custody and money problems. There is a kiss and characters briefly wear skimpy clothes. A strength of the movie is its positive portrayal of positive, accomplished, honorable characters along a wide range of diversity — racial (including bi-racial), gender, and disability, with strong, loyal friendships and respectful romantic relationships. Some audience members may be concerned by the “Parent Trap” problem — a child sucessfully encourages her estranged parents to get back together, which may be troubling for some viewers.
Families who see this movie should talk about what makes the Bratz’ friendship so strong and what they do to make their own friends feel supported. How do your clothes help to say who you are? Why is being in control so important to Meredith? Why do so many kids go along with it?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “The Baby-Sitters Club,” Aquamarine, Clockstoppers, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. And they will enjoy my interview with the actresses who play the Bratz.