In the beginning there were the Cheetah Girls.
Way back in 2003, when Hannah Montana was but a gleam in the Disney Channel’s eye, Galleria (Raven-Symone), Chanel (Adrienne Bailon), Aqua (Kiely Williams) and Dorinda (Sabrina Bryan) became a bouncy, lovely pop band. Their message was simple: Nothing can keep you from being a star, but only if you remember that friends are more important than fame.
Disney has since made billions embracing this creed: the “High School Musicals,” “Hannah Montana” and “Camp Rock” all celebrate the glories of stardom while admonishing their audience to always choose friendship over personal glory.
Which makes the third Cheetah movie, “Cheetah Girls: One World,” subtextually delicious. Debuting at 8 tonight on the Disney Channel, it seems, on paper, just another version of this same life-lesson: After successfully auditioning for a young Indian director, the Cheetahs giddily jet off to Bollywood only to learn that there is but a single female lead, for which they must compete. Which is, of course, so totally against the Cheetah ethos that it almost destroys the group.
Except, of course, it’s already been destroyed -- the film is one very significant Cheetah short.
Disney doesn’t often attempt irony, but occasionally irony is thrust upon them. As fiercely as the girls may fight for and sing about the power of the group, there’s nothing they can do about the gaping hole left by Galleria, the group’s writer and leader. Raven-Symone passed on making this third film because she is focusing on her solo music and film careers.
Even an 8-year-old can connect those dots.
Early on in “One World,” Galleria’s absence is glibly explained -- she has been accepted at Cambridge and is in summer school -- and then her name is Never. Mentioned. Again. No texting, no cellphonage, no hard feelings. Galleria is simply on permanent radio silence. Meanwhile, the remaining girls act like they always do, swearing eternal devotion one minute, then turning on one another the next, as they struggle to maintain their Cheetah identity. Oh and hook up with various super-nice guys.
Which is fine as far as it goes. Bailon, Williams and Bryan are lovely to look at and have the pacing of professionals, though not the sassy spark of Raven-Symone. The musical numbers are fun and bouncy if instantly forgettable, marred slightly by the unmistakable echo of a recording studio -- none seems to have a voice strong enough to go unsweetened -- but still they will pull their target audience out of their seats, and that is something. It’s also hard not to love a group of gals who will drop anything and fly to India; just as Barcelona was to the second Cheetah film, location is one of the biggest selling points of “One World.” That and Roshan Seth (Nehru to Ben Kingsley’s “Gandhi”), who plays the producer of the film within the film.
The general gorgeousness of “One World” -- the costumes, the swoony guys, the elephants -- almost but not quite distracts from what has become a tedious and increasingly disturbing narrative conflict. Yes, of course, one should be true to one’s friends, but adulthood requires a certain amount of autonomy and occasionally -- gasp, faint -- competition.
Telling kids over and over that to be good people they must continually bow to the power of the collective -- Troy, how could you choose a pick-up game with a college team over the employee baseball tourney?!? -- will not only send parents running for junior editions of “Atlas Shrugged,” it will make kids laugh, and not in the good way. They read the magazines, they know what’s going on.
How much better this film would have been if it had dealt with its main issue head on -- what happens to a group when one of its members decides to strike out on her own? Going Bollywood is not a bad idea, but how terrible would it have been if one of the Cheetahs got a good role and the rest of the group just said “congratulations”?