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It's OK to be a good girl

Emma Roberts leads a run of tween films where heroines are real and character counts.

June 10, 2007|Sheigh Crabtree | Special to The Times

WITH former tween starlets in court and rehab, daily turning up in tabloid stories more suited to Tom Sizemore than perky pink Elle Woods, Hollywood is rediscovering the appeal of a fresh-scrubbed, wholesome face. As "edgy" heads over the cliff, it's time, it seems, to give girls a few new plotlines.

The good girl-versus-mean girl high school dramas that have played out at the multiplex over the last decade are being pushed aside in favor of stories that let their heroines do more than shop, snipe or try to throw the nearest rival in front of a bus.

Starting this summer, a new crop of tween movie characters with big-studio backing -- some endorsed by actress-producers Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster and Charlize Theron -- are emerging. There's a girl detective who runs circles around her local police force, a dancing high schooler who by force of sheer exuberance integrates her local TV station, and a little girl who survives alone on a remote island, a pocketknife around her neck, in the company of a sea lion and iguana. That last heroine, played by Abigail Breslin in Fox-Walden's "Nim's Island," planned for release in the spring, also has the distinction of being the first girl at the center of a kids' action-adventure film with a blockbuster budget.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 10, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Emma Roberts: An article in today's Calendar section about actress Emma Roberts says that the Nickelodeon series in which she appears, "Unfabulous," is ending its third season in July. The show's third season begins in September.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 17, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
"Unfabulous": An article last Sunday about "tween" films and heroines said that the Nickelodeon series "Unfabulous" would end its third season in July. Its third season premieres in September.

Andrew Fleming, co-writer and director of "Nancy Drew," the first of the films to test the waters when it opens Friday, thinks the generation of girls weaned on the spiritual worlds of "Harry Potter" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" is hungry for an alternative to the "umpteenth expression" of Madonna's material girl.

"Young female culture has swung so far out now, with Lindsay, Britney and Paris being the center of attention, in a very self-absorbed and worrisome way," Fleming said. "So many girls are more like Nancy Drew, but they're living in a world right now where they don't get any kind of validation for being kind or thoughtful or conscious of right and wrong."

It's not that the extreme-teen plots weren't classic, said Carrie Rickey, film critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer. "The whole mean girl-versus-nice girl drama has played out since Jane Austen -- they just weren't called queen bees and wannabes. But," she added, "The whole drive to pink up girl culture misses the mark since most thinking girls consider themselves tomboys who don't fit in."

The story lines in the new ripple of girl movies suggest that it's harder but ultimately more satisfying to do the right thing, and those behind the new films repeatedly mention their desire to offer better role models for children. Conveniently, there's also money to be made. After all, 6- to 14-year-olds represent about $51 billion in annual purchasing power, according to market research firm 360 Youth. Mainstream media executives have been all but bowled over by the phenomenal successes of tween fare such as "The Cheetah Girls" and "High School Musical," which began on TV. But studio execs have puzzled over how to parlay those titles and stars into big-screen fare that breaks out across age and gender lines.

One hope, with the upcoming films, is that they'll tap the mother-daughter and daughter-family market that made hits of "Freaky Friday," "The Princess Diaries" and "Legally Blonde." (Another desire is to reach into the fan bases built in the nurturing niche realms of television, young adult literature, music and graphic novels.

Warner Bros. Pictures is trying its hand with another installment of "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," which took in a modest $39 million internationally but was made for $15 million. "Traveling Pants 2," also based on a story by Ann Brashares about a pair of magical trousers, is budgeted at $10 million to $15 million, according to producer Debra Martin Chase. Three years after the original, the sequel was a no-brainer, she said, because a) the first film's sales in DVD and television are going strong; b) the original title has since been spun off into innumerable young adult novels, making it one of the most popular young adult titles next to "Harry Potter"; and, c) the movie's stars -- Amber Tamblyn, Alexis Bledel, America Ferrera and Blake Lively -- are hugely popular thanks to their TV careers.

"A few years ago, every studio had a girl movie on its annual slate," said Martin Chase, also the producer of "The Princess Diaries," from Greece where "Traveling Pants 2" is filming. But the desire for blockbusters that hit the "four quadrants" -- men, women, boys and girls -- seems to have supplanted that, she said. "The studios have been aiming for a four-quadrant movie every time out; they're much less interested in niche and character-driven movies in general. As a result, you have a chicken-and-egg situation where if you're not making girls' movies, you're not building stars."

Hitting the tween ground running

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