I don't envy eleven-to-fourteen year-old ("tween") girls in this day and age. On the one hand, they are bombarded with corporate media pleas to consume what may already moderately interest them -- clothes, pop music, boy idols, and accessories. On the other hand, media watchdogs decry such bombardment as the marketing of shallow values. But what's the alternative? One of the more popular ideas offered -- girls should be encouraged to play sports -- is commendable, but I can't help feeling this confuses some girls into believing they should act more like boys. When can a girl be a girl? When can she just be herself?
One of the virtues of Lizzie McGuire, the popular Disney Channel show starring Hilary Duff, is the way it tackles this confusing world head-on. Lizzie (Duff), a junior high every-girl, mainly wants to have a fun, normal life. However, she's often forced to face up to her fears, dreads, and peeves, many of which have to do with just plain growing up. She's kept grounded by two best friends: the slightly more cynical Miranda, portrayed by single-monikered Lalaine, and the worldly realist Gordo, played by Adam Lamberg. On the surface, the show has several annoying qualities, including cheesy sound effects and a little brother who knows way more than someone his age should know, but its primary device -- intermittent commentary by an animated Lizzie that reveals what she's really thinking -- is the entrance to the show's heart. Lizzie's subconscious goal involves wading through all the crap that's out there on the way to finding her self-esteem.
I'm disappointed that The Lizzie McGuire Movie doesn't take advantage of what substantive momentum the TV show has built up for it. Part of this couldn't be helped -- at some point late in the show this year, Lalaine disappeared from the cast, thus ensuring her absence from the movie and robbing Lizzie of her most effective sounding-board peer. The movie then squanders its use of the wiser Gordo by dropping him into the thankless role of "the plain boy whose affections for the girl are real and therefore unrequited." Gordo doesn't participate in what essentially becomes Lizzie's solo adventures. Of course, said adventures take place in a foreign city -- a school-sponsored class trip to Rome -- revealing the creative team's mindset to be stuck in the same mold as those who brought us stuff like Family Ties Vacation, in which a trip to England served as a good enough excuse for a TV movie based on a sitcom.
Still, the theme of "Lizzie finds her self-esteem" is intact for the ride, albeit in a rather muted mode. Our heroine finds herself swept off her feet by a young Italian pop star, who needs her services to fill-in for his absentee partner, a brunette Lizzie look-alike. Will Lizzie find the courage to go onstage before an international audience? Maybe, as long as she convinces herself the audience is seeing the person she's replacing, and not Lizzie McGuire. In the meantime, the movie finds time to play out a consummate tween-girl fantasy -- becoming a star, trying on new fashions, and being romanced in Europe.
I know all this sounds cheesy. Still, it could be worse. Fans of the TV show are charmed by Lizzie, and the movie is definitely all hers. They probably won't notice the rather dingy cinematography or chuckle as much as I did when Duff appears as Lizzie's Italian doppelganger. I myself found a few things to enjoy including: the film's overall goofy tone inherited from the show; Alex Borstein (from Mad TV) as a school chaperone you actually want to cheer on instead of ridicule; a surreal-bizarro ending that somehow features two Hilary Duffs; some gratuitous career-bolstering for Duff in the form of singing and dancing; and a plot twist borrowed straight from Singin' in the Rain.
If she looks hard enough, a tween might find positive messages about confidence and identity in The Lizzie McGuire Movie. But I suspect all this flick really tries to say is "girls just wanna have fun."
(Released by Walt Disney Pictures and rated "PG" for some thematic elements.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.
Read ReelTalk interviews with Hallie Todd and Robert Carradine, the actors who play Lizzie's parents.