Sunday, February 9, 2014

Movies Based on Toys and Where Bratz (2007) Fits in

Modern cinema is a land of merchandising.  It’s a land of making money off of established brands.  It’s a land of using anything that is known in any way whatsoever to make more money.  Hollywood is greedy and will cash in on whatever you might be nostalgic for.  There are a slew of remakes and sequels that get released into theaters each year.  Then there are movies like Battleship and Clue, which are based on games.  Or movies like Transformers and Masters of the Universe that are based on toys.  This week, I delve into this kind of movie making as I take on Bratz.

Bratz is a 2007 movie based on the MGA Entertainment line of dolls.  That’s right.  It’s a movie based on some dolls.  It is about four girls: Sasha (Logan Browning), Jade (Janel Parrish), Yasmin (Nathalia Ramos), and Chloe (Skyler Shaye).  The girls have just entered into high school and must overcome the clique system, headed by the evil daughter of the principal, Meredith Baxter Dimly (Chelsea Kane).  Their rebellion leads to many things, including a food fight, an episode of My Super Sweet 16, and a talent show.

If that storyline sounds like they just threw a bunch of stuff together and called it a movie, that’s because it’s basically what they did.  Movies based on toys and board games typically don’t have a great storyline to them because the toys and board games don’t usually come with good storylines.  There is a very basic template upon which the writers can make the story, but at the same time, they have to stay true to the source.  It makes the story feel disjointed because you need to try and keep the ideals of the toy/game you are making a movie about.  In the case of a movie like Battleship, it needs to be about destroying enemy ships without being able to see and properly target them.  In the case of Transformers, it has to be about alien robots fighting.  In the case of Bratz, it needs to be about teenage BFFs and friendship.  Most of all, you need to try and make the movies fun, but you can’t get too deep or else you will lose the fanbase that the toys have.

Why would you lose a fanbase of a bunch of toys by writing depth into the characters?  As a child, you probably played with toys all the time.  You made up your own stories and had different backstories for the characters, built upon those given by the toy company.  Maybe there were some cartoons that helped you along the way.  But when you were playing with the toys, it was all you.  You put yourself into all of the action going on.  When the movie was made, your nostalgia for the days when you played with your Transformers, Bratz, or He-Man toys came back in heaps and you remembered the stories as you had played them.  You might expect the movie to give the characters the same personalities that you had built upon them.  However, the scriptwriter cannot read your mind.  Instead, he simplifies the characters back to their basic cookie cutter personalities so that you can continue to put your personality upon them.  If they had not done that, you would have felt cheated.  You would like the movie less because it didn’t hit that nostalgic feeling inside you.  Eliminating the character depth allows you to feel like they are still the characters that you built them up to be.  It has a better chance of keeping you on as a fan instead of alienating you based on your memories of growing up.

Upon this very flimsy, unemotional character writing, the story of a movie based upon toys tends to fall apart.  Since there is no depth to the characters, you tend to feel very little about what happens to them.  The spectacle might be interesting to look at, but very rarely is there an investment in what is going on.  This is why a movie like Transformers feels so empty.  It’s nice to look at, but the characters are so poorly defined that you can’t feel anything for them, and thus don’t care about their struggles.  It’s all in the name of letting people’s nostalgia take over.  For the people without the nostalgia for the source, the movie feels like a hollow shell of nothingness.  Or even worse, it feels like something very dumb and not worth the time spent watching it.

Since this week’s movie is Bratz, I feel like I should go through how the adaptation of this line of toys into a live action film was a failure.  I don’t intend to complain about how much I disliked the movie.  What I want to do is highlight what makes the movie unsuccessful, and how that relates to the rest of the movies based on toys and board games.

Let’s begin with the nostalgic aspect of the movie.  I cannot imagine there was too much nostalgia for a movie based on the Bratz line of dolls.  The movie was released only six years after the release of the line of toys.  The toys were marketed toward young girls.  So, say a nine year old was playing with the doll when it first came out.  She would have been fifteen when the movie came out, and she wouldn’t have cared about the dolls all that much anymore.  At least, from what I know, she would have outgrown them and become interested in the football players at her school.  Okay, that’s a little bit of a generalization of teenage girls, whom I don’t completely understand.  Oh well.  I don’t believe a fifteen year old would be interested in the dolls anymore.  You lose the nostalgia factor.  Yet the filmmakers still made the characters as blank as other toy movies which must deal with nostalgia.

Each of the four main characters barely have any personality to them.  The black girl wants to be a cheerleader.  The white girl is a soccer player.  The Asian girl is smart and likes fashion.  The girl of Spanish decent is shy but can sing.  And minus a couple of things to deal with parents, that’s all of the character depth you get.  Wait, I forgot one thing.  They are friends.  That’s important because it’s the entire crux of the plot.

Like I said at the beginning of the post, Bratz is about the four friends overcoming the clique based school setup to show that true friendship can overcome anything.  That idea is a nice idea, and a good lesson to teach to children.  I would give respect to the movie for that idea, if only it wasn’t executed so damn poorly.  There are two different moments in the movie where the friendships fall apart.  One instance is an extended scene where, after being apart for an extended period of time and leaving Yasmine with no friends, all four end up with spaghetti on their faces.  They incite a food fight throughout the schoolyard and end up in detention, where they make up for how poorly they’ve treated each other.  The other instance in which they stop being friends is when Yasmine decides she isn’t going to participate in a talent show because she wants to protect the reputation of her friends.  They don’t trust her and declare the friendship over.  If friendship can truly conquer all, you would think that they wouldn’t have stopped being friends at two different times during the movie.  The idea might have good intentions, but due to the lack of depth in the characters and the writing, the way they go about showing the moral is detrimental to the final product.  The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.  This movie is Hell.

I would like to blame the poor quality of Bratz upon the fact that it is based on a line of toys.  I can only do that to a certain extent.  The director, writer, actors, and producers are just as much to blame as the source material.  They couldn’t make the movie come together in a satisfying way.  With enough talent, you should be able to overcome any obstacle.  They were not able to overcome how bad Bratz is.

All in all, movies do come down to the talent behind them.  Whether they are original stories, adaptations of books, or movies based on toys, it is up to the people making the movie to craft something good.  For whatever reason, this doesn’t seem to happen with movies based on toys or board games.  Why is that?  Is it the nostalgia that I was talking about?  Is it about staying true to the ideals of the source?  Something must be preventing a great movie based on a toy or a game from happening.  I hope that we eventually find out what that obstacle is, and how we can overcome it.
No Sunday “Bad” Movie post is complete without some notes:
  • Bratz features Jon Voight and Skyler Shaye, who were both in Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2.
  • If you have any suggestions for the Sunday “Bad” Movies, you can leave them in the comments or contact me on Twitter.

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