For veteran Hollywood director Sean McNamara, there's an interesting challenge behind his new film, Bratz: The Movie. 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 final product - which opens tomorrow - 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.
"I have to be honest, I had never heard of these toys. So I did research," McNamara said. "I was blown away. There were two full walls of Bratz stuff. But when I saw them I thought, 'These aren't cute dolls.'" 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 Association 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.
In elementary schools across the country, 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.
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 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 and haughty. The role was the first to be cast by the filmmakers, and the girl who got the job, Chelsea 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, with his own production company, Arad has been the driving force behind Bratz: The Movie.
"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."
Geoff Boucher writes for the Los Angeles Times.