Remember Tiger Beat magazine? Sean McNamara is the Tiger Beat of Hollywood, and he knows his audience. He's directed 13 films, delivering television hits such as "That's So Raven" and "Even Stevens" to Disney and was astute enough to give youngsters named Jessica Alba, Shia LaBeouf and Hilary Duff some of the first big roles in their careers. Still, when McNamara was approached about making a live-action film based on the wildly successful dolls called Bratz, he had to admit he was out of touch.
"I have to be honest, I had never heard of these toys. So I did research." McNamara trundled off to the Toys R Us in Culver City with his 5-year-old son. "We checked out the Thomas the Train aisle, and then I went looking for Bratz. I was blown away. There were two full walls of Bratz stuff. But when I saw them I thought, 'These aren't cute dolls -- they look like sluts.' "
And there you have it, the unique challenge of McNamara's new film, "Bratz: The Movie," which opens nationwide Friday. Like the filmmakers behind "Transformers," McNamara and company are looking for an instant audience by riding a hugely successful brand name from the toy stores up to the silver screen. The movie they have made is a fairly wholesome affair, but the brand they picked clearly has a checkered past. Simply put, parents pay for the movie tickets, and a lot of parents think the Bratz dolls look like 10-inch-tall hoochie mamas.
The dolls have dewy lips, fishnet stockings and barely-there miniskirts -- a creep-out factor for a lot of moms. Earlier this year, a report from the American Psychological Assn. even mentioned the Bratz dolls by name and said "it is worrisome when dolls designed specifically for 4- to 8-year-olds are associated with an objectified adult sexuality."
Those young doll owners may not recognize their beloved Yasmin, Jade, Sasha and Cloe when they sit down in the theater with a bucket of popcorn. The film gives the Bratz a complete makeover that takes them from nightclub sexpots to flirty schoolgirls -- it's like watching a retrospective of Britney Spears music videos in reverse.
Like the dolls, the film characters are four BFFs (that's "best friends forever," but you knew that) who are ethnically diverse but share "a passion for fashion." Really, though, beyond that, the film has very little connection to the toys; in fact, the screen quartet doesn't even call itself "the Bratz" until the film is almost over. "Bratz: The Movie" seems more indebted to "The Cheetah Girls," "High School Musical," "Clueless" and, oddly, the subversive "Heathers" than it does to its namesake source material. The name's the thing, though. The "Bratz" brand is a stunningly potent one; the dolls first caught the imagination of young girls in late 2001, and by the end of 2005, Bratz products had topped $2 billion in global sales. They are especially popular in England and Australia.
Bratz versus Barbies
In elementary schools in the Los Angeles area, there is a divide that separates girls as surely as the Beatles and the Stones once polarized music fans: You are either a Bratz girl or a Barbie girl -- you'll find some girls who are neither, of course, but very few who claim allegiance to both camps. They are just too different, and, besides, their accessories aren't interchangeable.
There's plenty of bad blood between Mattel Inc., the maker of the venerable Barbie collection, and MGA Entertainment Inc., which makes the Bratz. There have been lawsuits and a nasty feud as MGA has cut into Barbie's plasticized hegemony, and the rivals vie for the hearts of girls with Internet social sites, fashion accessories, video games, lip gloss, cartoons on DVD, pajamas and CD players.
Barbie is country-club white (although she shares her shelf with plenty of diverse Barbie pals), while the Bratz are the urban poly-hues of a Benetton ad. This makes it easy to assume that consumers are divided along race lines, and although that certainly is part of it, the assumption doesn't hold up all that well. There are far too many white kids playing with Bratz. One of the big determining factors may be the age of the parents or elders who are actually buying the toys; if they were born in the hip-hop era, they are more likely to consider the toys to be cute versions of the MTV images of Mariah, Missy or Fergie, music artists they play in their car on the way to work. Barbie, meanwhile, is so not hip-hop.
The problem presented by "Bratz: The Movie" is that some loyalists may wonder if their sassy and urban heroes are sliding a bit toward the white, suburban Barbie ethos.
To keep the separation line clear, the filmmakers decided early on that a Barbie-esque character pretty much had to be the villain in the movie. The heavy in the film is student-body president Meredith, who is platinum blond, affluent, haughty and in possession of both nefarious plans to rule the school and a pampered pooch named (ahem) Paris. The role was the first to be cast by the filmmakers, and the girl who got the job, Meredith Staub, brought a Barbie doll to the script readings just in case anyone missed the mojo she was channeling.
Avi Arad has a unique point of view on this contemporary valley of the dolls. The Israeli American made his name as a toy designer and executive of note in the 1980s and 1990s, and he worked on the Barbie line for a time. By the end of that decade, he was leading Marvel Enterprises, where he was instrumental in clearing the way so that longtime properties such as Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four could finally see life as big-budget Hollywood films. Now Arad has his own production company, and he has been the driving force behind "Bratz: The Movie."
"The genius in Barbie is that they made her belong to no one," Arad said. "And she had an aura of perfection about her. But then the world changed. Perfection is imperfection. Not everyone is going to look like the cover of the fashion magazine. It's not going to happen. And now people know that is the kind of aspiration a child shouldn't have."
Arad said that "the Bratz are the X-Men for girls," an allusion to the struggle against the establishment and the outsiders' stigma that are key in the story of the mutant superheroes. That's quite a leap from the toys (and their adventures in animated movies on DVD, where the characters are more focused on shopping for the shortest miniskirt possible). Arad nodded in agreement on that point and said that, for the film, the clothes had to cover more and so did the story.
"The first thing I saw in them was diversity," Arad said. "I really liked the idea that they had a Latino girl, an Asian girl, an African American girl and a lily-white kid. They show that your color is not going to set up your path in life. And I think that works because, among kids, it's becoming more and more of 'one world for a change.' The rest of us have a ways to go. But we had to put a lot more into this. We had to have struggle and find that friendship is the key
Like the superheroes, the more you beat them up, the more you test them; the more you know their quality."
A message of diversity
The actresses who play the Bratz are Nathalia Ramos, Logan Browning, Janel Parrish and Skyler Shaye. Together, they are a pretty impressive group: In a recent interview, each was bright, engaging and relentlessly polite as well as quite lovely and athletic. They shake hands firmly, and each said she was eager to become a role models for younger girls. "And we've all become best friends," said Ramos, whose parents are a Spanish Catholic and an Australian Jew. "With my background, I can really relate to this character and the messages in this movie about diversity."
There are plenty of those messages, some of them a bit odd. They veer from the angst of the Chinese American character named Jade, who excels in academics but still chafes under the pressure of her parents, to the loopy vision of a Jewish grandmother who, with no explanation, has a mariachi band strumming away and munching on bagels in her kitchen. McNamara, the director, laughed and said he was trying to portray the "L.A. melting pot" without "using predictable and stereotypical images." Well, that one qualifies.
Arad said the images of diversity are to show that everyone is different, but the plot of the movie -- four lifelong friends who are pulled apart by the rigidity of high school cliques but then reunite to find their own style and substance -- shows that everyone is the same.
"Being a tween is very difficult. It's an age when you can feel alone and the school can be a jungle," Arad said. "This story is about remembering that friendship and self-identity and empowerment are what is important. At that age, the way you dress is extremely important. The social activities are very important. We forget as we get older how it was then. How many friends do you have now that you had in high school? Not many, probably. For the kids that are there now, it's their life. Our lesson here: Chase your dreams, really live, but be yourself."
Arad thinks it's a lesson with legs. The screenplay is already being written for a sequel to "Bratz: The Movie," and he is sizing up a venture that would adapt the property for a Broadway musical. Arad also said a line of Bratz dolls and tie-in products would be launched based on the film's imagery, story and less-saucy characters.
Arad said his favorite line in the movie is when Cloe, the daughter of a struggling single mother, defends her in front of the school: "My mom is my hero." Arad said parents have cheered in screenings for that one. He hopes that will win over moms still worried about the fishnet stockings on those dolls.
"I wanted a movie with the kind of kids I would want my daughter's friends to be like," Arad said. "They ended up being the kind of people I would want as my daughters."