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Bratz as sweet tarts

The characters of a new film bear little resemblance to their toy-store counterparts.

July 30, 2007|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

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.' "

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 31, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
'Bratz: The Movie': A story in Monday's Calendar section about "Bratz: The Movie" said the character in the film named Meredith is played by Meredith Staub. The actress' name is Chelsea Staub.

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.

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