A tween sensation many adults are unaware of makes the shift from the small to bigscreen with calculated assuredness with “The Lizzie McGuire Movie.” A daily attraction on the Disney Channel, “Lizzie McGuire” has been the biggest thing on cable TV for girls in the 6-to-14 age group for the past three years. With this film and a growing singing career, 15-year-old rising star Hilary Duff is moving quickly to fill the kids pop culture space being vacated by Britney Spears. Just two weeks after successfully targeting boys with “Holes,” Disney is giving girls something they want with this mild, quasi-romantic romp, which should pull a tidy sum theatrically before becoming a homevid fave.
Cute and self-possessed beyond her years, Duff has trouble convincing at the outset as a sometimes klutzy girl who makes a fool of herself at her junior high commencement ceremony. But she recovers in time to join a few of her classmates for a two-week tour of Rome, which, in a uniquely absurd bit of onscreen promotion, begins with a nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Rome on Lufthansa Airlines.
Successfully arriving in Italy rather than Germany, Lizzie and her pals, who include bushy-haired best friend Gordo (Alan Lamberg), are under the supervision of the all-seeing martinet Miss Ungermeyer (Alex Borstein). But once dreamy teen popstar Paolo (Yani Gellman) mistakes the blond Lizzie for his dark-haired singing partner/girlfriend Isabella, Lizzie begins a game of deception by posing sick each morning, then slipping out for rendezvous with Paolo.
For a generation that’s never heard of “Three Coins in the Fountain” or “Gidget Goes to Rome,” there’s the obligatory Trevi Fountain scene, a sightseeing tour on Paolo’s motor scooter and a romantic visit to the Tivoli Gardens, where the persuasive young Lothario convinces the apprehensive but dazzled Lizzie to fill in for Isabella at an upcoming music awards show. She left him in the lurch, he says, because of his desire to pursue a solo career.
Meanwhile, back home, Lizzie’s upstart little brother Matt (Jake Thomas) is miraculously able to document his sister’s association with the Italian rocker via Internet photos, and is pushed to cash in on them by an aggressive female friend (Carly Schroeder in a hilariously brash performance). By amusingly pretending he misses his sister, Matt convinces his parents (Robert Carradine, Hallie Todd) to jet to Italy (airline unknown) to join Lizzie, which they manage to do just before she’s due to go onstage with Paolo in a big show in the ancient Colosseum.
In the meantime, Lizzie’s attempt to fill Isabella’s shoes gives the film the excuse to stage an elaborate fashion sequence in which she tries on an array of outlandish designer creations, and for Duff to perform a dual role when the girls bond in mutual revenge against Paolo, who has deceived them both.
Script by TV series exec producer Susan Estelle Jansen, Ed Decter and John J. Strauss is clearly designed to get Lizzie out of the house and on her own for the first time, as well as to push her into the musical arena. Under the guidance of director Jim Fall (“Trick”), feature is less cutesy and mannered than the TV show, but retains certain trappings, most notably an animated Lizzie who voices the character’s inner fears and thoughts (and already seems like a remnant of an earlier, insecure Lizzie who is quickly vanishing).
Core cast of family members carries over from TV, as do Ashlie Brillault as Lizzie’s snooty roommate, Clayton Snyder as a pre-stoner and Lamberg as the dorky but loyal Gordo, whose affection for Lizzie is pushed to the brink of romantic infatuation by the challenge posed by Paolo.
Bland-leaning proceedings are nicely spiked at times by the broadly comic turn delivered by “MAD TV” regular Borstein, whose formidable character missed her obvious military calling but who emerges as an endearing figure in a “Shrek”-like kind of way. The Canadian Gellman is entirely convincing as a Latin teeny-bopper heartthrob.
As for Duff, most recently in “Agent Cody Banks,” she still falls back too often on a winsomely pained look whenever adversity presents itself, and her Italian impersonation as Isabella might just pass muster in a high school play. But she’s got the looks and unquestioning self-possession that are highly valued as commercial commodities, and the subdued trashiness of her wardrobe in the final concert extravaganza announces she is aiming for Spears-like status with pubescent girls — the difference between the two being Duff’s primary emphasis on acting (she’s got a couple of big mainstream movies in the works).
Made on a budget, pic takes touristy advantage of the Roman locations, although they look somewhat dark and grainy in Jerzy Zielinski’s lensing.