“The Cheetah Girls,” the latest in a battalion of original movies from Disney Channel, aspires to be a culturally diverse morality lesson disguised as musical fantasy. Instead, it’s a diva training film with a plot about as memorable as a Kelly Clarkson pic. Based on the books by Deborah Gregory and produced by Debra Martin Chase and Whitney Houston, the pic is all about the hair, the look, the attitude. And like hungry cheetahs on the prowl, teen audiences will probably eat it up.
This urban fairy tale about diverse high school girls coming together in a singing group should be a sendup of today’s cult of celebrity. But any lessons about the evil trappings of pop stardom — not to mention lip-synching –most definitely will be lost on the “American Idol” generation, since they totally escaped the filmmakers.
Ironically, “Cheetah Girls” supposedly denounces manufactured pop music and marketing over artistry, yet it plays like a two-hour fashion commercial and culminates in a ridiculous lip-synching extravaganza.
Pic does have a few things going for it, namely Raven, an appealing and versatile young actress who has charm and skill, and Emmy winner Lynn Whitfield as the fiercely protective Cheetah mom, Dorothea Garibaldi. Then there’s the squeezably cute Toto, the Cheetah Girls’ Bichon Frise mascot, who nearly steals the show.
Raven stars as Galleria Garibaldi, an outspoken songwriter who, along with her fellow Cheetah Girls, hopes to win the school talent show. The group, including the feisty Chanel (Adrienne Bailon), transplanted Southern belle Aqua (Kiely Williams) and the shy but driven Dorinda (Sabrina Bryan), share performing duties, although Galleria is the self-appointed leader. The girls, each representing a slice of the New York cultural experience, believe “all Cheetah Girls are created equal, but not alike,” and prowl the halls with intimidating confidence decked out in more animal prints than you’d see at a Liberace convention.
To hone their performance, the girls are coached by disco queen-turned-drama teacher Drinka Champagne (Sandra Caldwell) and closely supervised by the protective Dorothea. Although Dorothea supports and even encourages Galleria’s dreams of a music career, the former supermodel worries that her daughter will suffer the inevitable pitfalls of fame.
The girls score a huge break when they catch the attention of Def Duck Records music mogul Jackal Johnson (Vincent Corazza). But the idea of pop stardom sends the Cheetahs into hyperdrive, especially Galleria, who gets so out of hand that the girls spawn an anti-Cheetah Girls Web site before they even sign a record deal.
Writer Alison Taylor has got the attitude and diva slanguage down with dialogue like, “If he can’t respect my art, he can’t have my heart,” but she somehow fails to make the distinction between girl power and just plain obnoxiousness. The subplot about Dorinda’s foster-parent upbringing is used more for sentimental purposes, as opposed to the self-empowering overtones of Deborah Gregory’s books.
And it doesn’t help that director Oz Scott reduces the full range of human emotion to a single formula: start crying, cue music.
Scott hurriedly and rather inexplicably wraps things up with a ludicrous Toto rescue story. Despite bad behavior all around, the girls are rewarded in the end, because, as “Cheetah Girls” would have it, winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
As musical performers, the young stars would easily make the “American Idol” semifinals –Williams and Bailon have the edge as real-life members of a pop group, 3LW. As actors, however, no one but Raven really shines. Caldwell as the disco queen throwback is a delight in an otherwise fairly humorless movie.
Music composer John Van Tongeren provides a collection of radio-ready pop songs, particularly the signature number “Together We Can,” while choreographer Troy Liddell offers all the moves that every aspiring girl group should know. Costume designer Resa McConaghy clearly has fun with the animal theme throughout the pic, but makes an unfortunate choice in the finale, dressing the girls in color-coordinated outfits that make them look like the Wiggles in sequins.