Friday, July 3, 2020

The Cheetah Girls: One World Review

I don't want to be snarky, but there's a reason why Miley Cyrus and Vanessa Hudgens are household names, while Adrienne Bailon, Sabrina Bryan, and Kiely Williams are not. And it has nothing to do with nude photos, or Billy Ray.

Bailon, Bryan, and Williams are "Cheetah Girls," and Disney's girl group reminds me of all the concept bands that have come out of studios, not garages. You know the type: the "Johnny Bravo" approach to packaged music in which talents are deliberately recruited and trained in order to produce such groups as 'N Sync, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, or even Menudo, the Latin version from many years ago. Some cigar-chomping exec gets an idea of what's going to sell, then they teach the kids the basic dance moves, put their voices through more processing than Velveeta cheese, and spin out a generic-sounding (and looking) techno/dance-pop brand of music performance. These kids are so similar in their voices (at least the heavily synthesized studio version we get in the movies) that if you close your eyes you can be hard-pressed to tell them apart. And "The Cheetah Girls: One World," when the girls sing with female Indian choreographer and she starts belting out her own lyrics in a dance-off dripping with American-style attitude, this young Indian woman sounds just like the rest of them.

So that's my first caveat. I'm no fan of artificial anything. The songs struck me as being so alike that they cover this production like wall-to-wall carpeting. I didn't have that same reaction with the "High School Musical" films, though in both cases the songs are recorded in the studio and lip-synched by the actors. It's just that the lip-synching is better in the HSM films, and it really stands out that these Cheetah Girls aren't singing while you watch them strut their stuff on-set or on-location because there's more studio in their songs than in the other Disney musical offerings.

But of course I'm not the target audience for the Cheetah Girls, who have three films under their belts now, along with albums, perfume and doll lines, video games, and a book that's popular with six-to-'tween girls--the same target audience that goes for American Girl products. So I'd really have to adopt the mindset of an eight-year-old girl if I wanted to write a fair review of this title.

Since I can't write from any other perspective but my own, I'll at least give the Cheetahs their due. They grossed more than $26 million on two nationwide tours ("Cheetah-licious Christmas" and "The Party's Just Begun"), so they're obviously popular. Their album of Christmas songs reached the number five spot on the Billboard chart, and they've been a mainstay on Radio Disney. What's more, the premiere of their second Disney Channel Original Movie, "The Cheetah Girls 2," drew some 8.1 million viewers, which was a record at the time. And before that, "The Cheetah Girls" 2003 debut movie was a monster hit for the Disney Channel. So these kids have an audience, no question about it.

But members of that target audience tell me this third Cheetah Girls movie isn't as good as the first two, and that the second is by far their favorite. Where's Raven, they want to know? Disney Channel star Raven-Symone played the fourth Cheetah girl, Galleria, in the first two films, but is no longer Cheetah-licious. She's too busy with her hit TV series "That's So Raven" and a solo career. That's too bad, because the rest of these girls look and act so clone-like that you really miss Raven's stand-out personality and distinctive body type. The other Cheetahs are body-perfect kids who are into spray-tans and thick applications of lip-gloss, and the way they move, dance, and talk seems pretty much same-old to a casual observer. But Raven bailed in 2005, and these three are still going strong three years later, so what do I know? Then again, the second Cheetah Girls film was directed by HSM guru and dance-master Kenny Ortega, so maybe there's something missing after all.

An original plot is one of those things. The Cheetah Girls are all about "making it." They dream of being gigantic pop stars, and they say things to each other like "Come on, Cheetahs," "Cheetah-licious," and "Amigas Cheetahs," which sounds a lot like the Three Musketeers "All for one, and one for all" or "Wonder Twin powers, ACTIVATE!"

A fantasy about "making it" kicks off the film and gives you an idea of what you're in for: a techno/dance-pop female version of the old Elvis movies that uses plot as an excuse for song and dance numbers. In one scene especially, where the girls are eating at an Indian restaurant, it's hard not to think of those Elvis films as they start doing their highly processed song and strutting their dance moves up the aisles while a few confused and annoyed customers look at them as if to say, "What are you doing?" Now that's funny. Unfortunately, that's also the extent of the humor.

This outing, Aquanetta (Williams) has a thing for a phone tech guy named Kevin whom she wishes to meet in person, Dorinda (Bryan) is dealing with being dumped by her boyfriend, and Chanel (Bailon) just wants someone to love. But things change for them in that Indian restaurant, where a prayer offered to Ganesh, Hindi god of poets and lost causes, quickly leads to a job offer. A cute looking Indian man named Vikram (Michael Steger) is doing a contemporary remake of his uncle's most famous film, "Namaste Bombay," and is in America looking for his female lead. He sets his sights on the Cheetah Girls, though Unc only told him he'd bankroll one star. So the girls are off to India.

After seeing Roshan Seth in so many serious roles ("Passage to India," "Gandhi") it's almost a shock to the system watching him try to add goofy reaction shots to his repertoire of acting chops, but he does a decent job as Kamal Uncle, a role that really doesn't ask him to do much of anything.

The concept from writer Nisha Ganatra was a good one: Have the Cheetah Girls go to India to star in a Bollywood film? It could have been great fun, and with Ganatra having directorial experience ("The Real World," "Chutney Popcorn") it's a wonder why they didn't give her a shot at directing this. Instead, Paul Hoen ("Even Stevens," "Jump In!") got the nod, and the chance for a blended cultural experience seems to jump out the window.