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'Gyrls' adds sass in class

The Nickelodeon tween fest may seem like a marketing ploy, but its girl-power spirit shines through.


Like much else in modern entertainment, "School Gyrls," a new "movie" premiering Sunday on Nickelodeon, is an element in a cross-platform marketing plan. (It is a movie in the sense that it is a stand-alone talking picture, not that it is any longer than your average hour of commercial-filled television.) That's fine: I have no problem with being marketed to across platforms, as long as it's done with verve and personality, and that's the case here. It's not as if show business has been ever an exercise in altruism.

Directed and co-written with visual and verbal wit by Nick Cannon, himself a product of the Nickelodeon star-making machinery and now the host of a New York City radio show, "America's Got Talent," and chairman of Teen Nick -- an executive, not an honorary title -- "School Gyrls" will also come at you as an eponymous urban-bubble gum group, a novel and a comic book. A single is already available for download from the usual places. Corporate pop constitutes a tradition now, and though the songs here may be calculated to a sonic millimeter, that doesn't mean they aren't also authentic.

The story is so thin as to be nearly invisible and peremptorily collapses into a weak ending -- notwithstanding the inevitable Battle of the Good and Evil Dance Teams and an appearance by tween idol Justin Bieber, whose charm, to paraphrase an old blues line, the men don't know but the girls 9-14 understand. And even by the standards of these things, there is a marked lack of interest in character development or emotional depth.

But all that really matters here are sass, sisterhood and not letting the cheerleaders grind you down. With its endorsement of flamboyant individualism and a cartoon cast of obstacles standing in the way of its expression, including a headmistress (Angie Stone) whose ever-present twin daughters speak in unison, the whole thing is closer in spirit to "Rock & Roll High School" than it is to "High School Musical."

The School Gyrls themselves are fresh and appealing; I especially liked Mandy Moseley, reminiscent of a Nick heroine from the golden age of Clarissa explaining it all for you. "Look around, why doncha?" she says of her new school, a place that "specializes in turning out a bunch of cookie-cutter Martha Stewarts" (little Marthas suddenly appear) whose "idea of creativity is writing in cursive."

She and fellow Gyrls Jacque Pyles and Monica Parales are cut from more colorful cloth. They customize their uniforms, dance in corridors and library stacks, sing into hairbrushes, paint a rainbow in their room, and do a lot of detention.

Is there a contradiction in stimulating young people's rebellious independence even as you are manipulating them into buying your products? Possibly. But it's better than merely manipulating them into buying a product, since in the deal you may help them grow up to be the sort of person you can't manipulate into buying anything at all.



'School Gyrls'

Where: Nickelodeon

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Rating: Not rated

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