All for one, one for all? That's been the mantra of the Cheetah Girls—Disney's very own four Mouseke ... er, musketeers—for the last five years. Ever since Galleria, Dorinda, Chanel and Aqua bounded on the scene in 2003, the Cheetahs have told their tween girl audience that anything is possible—as long as you stay true to your dreams and each other.
But the times, they are a' changin'. The quartet's down to a trio now, what with Galleria having the gall to graduate high school and go to Cambridge. And, while the girls still sing with gusto about standing together, all those girl-power platitudes are running into some real-world interference.
Not that The Cheetah Girls: One World opens on such a sour note. Sure, the Cheetahs are struggling through some Disney-fied tough times. They're auditioning without much luck. One of them breaks up with her boyfriend. They fret as to whether they'll ever make it big. But before the first commercial break, the Cheetah Girls seem to have landed the lead in a Hollywood movie. "It's Cheetalicious!" Chanel says.
Only, it turns out not to be a Hollywood film at all, but a Bollywood film—Bollywood being a blanket term for the Indian film industry that churns out scads of relentlessly cheerful musicals halfway 'round the world from Los Angeles. Oh, and only one of the girls will get the part. Suddenly, the Cheetahs' all-for-one ethos smashes headlong into a winner-take-all contest: One will get the grand prize, and the other two will be sent home without so much as a lovely parting gift.
"What if this was your only shot to be a star?" the film's director asks Chanel. "Don't you think you'd give it everything you've got?" Disney's translation: Would you risk your friendship for fame?
A Bit More Meat in This Delhi
I don't think I'm spoiling anything by telling you that there's a happily ever after ending in store for the girls (well, a happily until the next sequel ending, at least), and the moral-lite lessons the Cheetahs have long taught their audience are, more or less, on fine display. The power of friendship still reigns supreme.
But the story pairs that song with a more mature, bittersweet note: The relentless reality of change.
"Change will take place, whether you like it or not," an Indian sage tells one of the girls. Another character dares to voice the unthinkable: "If the Cheetahs don't work out, there are a million things you can do," he says. "You can make your own decisions."
These are important realities for the Cheetah Girls, and for their young fans, too. While the movie never explicitly lays a heavy hand on what changes may be in store, everyone understands that the Cheetahs might, eventually, go their separate ways. For tween girls who regularly trumpet their BFFs and sometimes plot out their entire lives by the time they're 12 , it's probably good to gently remind them that change is life's only real certainty.
We Never Forget Elephants
The Cheetah Girls were designed from the beginning to be good Disney role models, and, on the surface, One World is pretty clean. The girls don't curse, don't drink, don't smoke. They do not visit any opium dens or get into any gunfights. They do wear a handful of outfits that accentuate their curves and/or bare bits of cleavage/midriffs. There's one quick onscreen kiss and some typically Cheetahfied sultry dance moves. Still, the movie serves up very little that would make parents blush.
Let's applaud the fact that the Cheetahs—all three of them—give up their immediate dreams of fame for the sake of their friendship. Indeed, due to their shared loyalty and love, the movie's lead winds up going to a bashful choreographer.
But it's a backhanded lesson, because fame is largely considered the only career choice of merit here. And that's a subject that's worth a little more exploration:
Practically every character in One World wants to be famous. "I want the world to see my films," proclaims a young Bollywood director. Chanel commiserates, telling the director that, for her, singing is "the greatest feeling in the world—and I just want to share it." That is, she wants to share her gift with stadiums full of people who pay 60 bucks to see her—not including the obligatory souvenir T-shirt.
The choreographer, it's suggested, no longer has that dream of fame and, in Disney's ethos, that's a bad thing—a recipe for a bitter life filled with ulcers and cats. When Dorinda tells the choreographer to buy a nice, bright dress, she says, "I could never pull that off. Something plain for me."
Dorinda disagrees. "When you're on the dance floor, it's pretty clear you are a star" (and thus capable, apparently, of wearing red).
And, while the girls sing about keeping their egos in check and working hard to achieve their dreams, the script sometimes suggests that those dreams are not beholden to any dues-paying or practical compromise. When the young director clashes with his penny-pinching producer (uncle) over the direction of the movie, but then backs off—fearing he'll have to quit directing and become a dentist—Chanel sets him straight:
"It's not your [big] chance if it's not the movie you want to make," she says, urging him to never settle for less than the perfect plan that's already in his head.
(I can only imagine that Disney's One World writers—familiar as they must be with the give-and-take compromises that take place behind the Mouse House's cheerful facade—must have had a hearty laugh over that one.)
But do you have to be a star to be successful? There are only so many spots available in front of the Bollywood (or Hollywood) cameras, after all. Following your dreams is a fine thing, but it'd be nice if the movie acknowledged that there's no shame in being a choreographer, or a dentist, or a key grip for a Cheetah Girls movie, for that matter. God has plans for all of us, and we shouldn't feel cheated if they don't wind up involving fame and fortune and Grammy nominations.
In One World, there's no one to remind the Cheetahs of this salient fact. Parents, mostly positive presences in the first two movies, are all but absent in this one. (An ancillary character is encouraged to stand up to his unseen, overbearing father.) The film replaces their sage advice with that of Ganesh, an elephant-headed Hindu deity known as the "remover of obstacles," and an Indian swami who sits underneath a ribbon-festooned "wishing tree." And, while the girls don't actively take to worshipping Ganesh, he becomes something of a good-luck charm, with Dorinda actually "thanking" a pocket engraving of the god for her good fortune.
Pondering the Cheetah Playlist
Unlike many entertainment creators, Disney takes its role as teacher seriously. And this third Cheetah movie does what it can to burn the mega-company's ethical lessons into the minds of its young viewers. "It's always awesome to have [parents] talk about the, like, messages that we're sending and how it's affecting their kids in a positive way," says Sabrina Bryan, who plays Dorinda.
She's right, so long as the positive messages last. But One World should be a reminder that Disney's ethics may not always line up comfortably with yours.