Bratz

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This review was written for the theatrical release of "Bratz." 

Finally, a postfeminist multicultural musical extravaganza for 8-year-old girls. Is "Bratz" not the most totally stylin' movie ever? Grownups won't think so, but for their daughters who share a "passion for fashion" with the dolls that are giving Barbie a run for her money, it will be the event of the season.

As the fab four fashionistas collectively known as Bratz enter the emotionally charged terrain of high school, the filmmakers have infused the girly glamour with broad Life Lessons about the importance of friendship and self-expression -- hard to argue with and, for nontweens in the audience, hard to care about.

It was just a matter of time before the multiethnic dolls (dollz?) received a live-action makeover, expanding their multibillion-dollar empire of magazines, books, a computer-animated series and videos with titles like "Rock Angelz" and "Passion 4 Fashion Diamondz." The same "nag factor" that drives sales of Bratz merch, despite many parents' aversion to the dolls' bling-bespangled stripper aura, will generate business for the film.

They may not be able to spell, but the Bratz are not bubbleheads. Dialing down the doll/cartoon characters' sass quotient and, to a lesser extent, their shopping obsession, screenwriter Susan Estelle Jansen ("The Lizzie McGuire Movie") has created some real-girl talents and problems for the central quartet of BFFs. Cheerleader Sasha (Logan Browning) is the subject of postdivorce joint custody. Science geek Jade (Janel Parrish), tragically, must hide her inner fashion diva from her academics-minded parents. The single mom of soccer star Cloe (Skyler Shaye) struggles to make a living. As these three pursue new interests and new friendships, Yasmin (Nathalia Ramos) goes it more or less alone, with the support of an exuberant Latin-Jewish household that boasts not only mariachis but Lainie Kazan.

Also on hand is Jon Voight, providing much-needed moments of comic subtlety amid the frenetic proceedings. As principal of Carry Nation High, he's in thrall to the real power behind the campus surveillance cameras: his daughter, Meredith Baxter Dimly. A familiar composite of every-uppity blond high school-movie villainess, she's played with apt over-the-top gusto by Chelsea Staub. Trailing an entourage that includes a dreamy but spineless boyfriend (Stephen Lunsford) and a pampered lapdog named Paris, Meredith has shrewdly divided her domain into neatly organized cliques, complete with lunchtime seating chart.

After the girls' head-turning high school entrance, the action jumps ahead two years, to the lead-up to the inevitable talent show. This might give adults the false hope that things will move along at a brisk pace. But for all the quick cutting, the story feels endless, much the way momentous adolescent experiences can look inconsequential to anyone out of their teens. Sean McNamara directs with a breathless, short-attention-span frenzy, backed by a wall-to-wall pop soundtrack, and the young actresses tend to deliver their lines with drama-queen urgency. Will Yasmin, Jade, Sasha and Cloe see past the comfort of cliques to once again be best friends? And how many shopping-at-the-Grove montages will it take to find out?

To its credit, the film makes getting the boy a bonus rather than the be-all end-all. Singer Yasmin overcomes stage fright with the encouragement of a cute guy (Ian Nelson) who happens to be deaf, and Jade's science lab partner (nicely played by Chet Hanks) turns out to be a key ally.

McNamara ("That's So Raven," "Beyond the Break") is most inspired in the set pieces, in particular a plot-point food fight set to Strauss. Bernadene Morgan delivers a profusion of spirited costumes, and production designer Rusty Smith balances institutional drab with effusive off-campus sets.

BRATZ
Lionsgate
Crystal Sky Pictures in association with Avi Arad Prods.
Credits:
Director: Sean McNamara
Screenwriter: Susan Estelle Jansen
Story by: Adam de la Pena, David Eilenberg
Producers: Isaac Larian, Steven Paul, Avi Arad
Executive producer: Benedict Carver
Director of photography: Christian Sebaldt
Production designer: Rusty Smith
Music: John Coda
Choreographer: Kishaya Dudley
Co-producer: Kyla Kraman
Costumer designer: Bernadene Morgan
Editor: Jeff W. Canavan
Cast:
Yasmin: Nathalia Ramos
Jade: Janel Parrish
Sasha: Logan Browning
Cloe: Skyler Shaye
Meredith: Chelsea Staub
Avery: Anneliese van der Pol
Quinn: Malese Jow
Cameron: Stephen Lunsford
Bubbie: Lainie Kazan
Principal Dimly: Jon Voight
Dylan: Ian Nelson
Dexter: Chet Hanks
Bethany: Sasha Cohen
Running time -- 102 minutes
MPAA rating: PG

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