Galleria, Chanel, Dorinda and Aqua form a feline-themed teen girl group. They're busy polishing their dance moves and hip-hop-inspired grooves in order to win the Manhattan Magnet School’s talent contest. The grand prize is all they’ve ever wanted—time in a real recording studio to cut a demo. The Cheetah Girls are confident that they have the look, sound and attitude to make the big time.
Jackal Johnson thinks so, too. He’s the school’s most successful graduate, a big recording industry exec who just happens to pop in on the talent show auditions and discovers The Next Big Thing. But the road to divadom has more bumps than bling, including a protective mama cat, deceptive industry ploys and plenty of catfights. When Galleria emerges as alpha female and makes unpopular decisions without consulting the rest of the Cheetahs, the group begins to unravel. Faced with conflicts that put both individual mettle and group identity to the test, they quickly discover their greatest strength is the bond of friendship.
The girls sing loud and proud of their racial differences, sending a strong anti-prejudice message to young moviegoers. Chanel’s mom chastises her daughter for calling her beau “that French guy,” challenging her to think about, “How’d you like it if people called you ‘that Puerto Rican-Cuban-Dominican'?” Without pause, Chanel retorts, “They do! That’s who I am!”
When Jackal shows interest in signing the girls, Galleria’s mom objects (based on her own youthful experiences that the movie never explains), worried her daughter is too young to go into the music business. Her dad’s wise and gentle reply changes her mind: “No one is ever ready for their dreams to fall apart, but when she’s older, we won’t be there to help her put them back together.” Once she gets behind the girls, she’s a total Cheetah mama, right down to her spotted coat. Galleria’s parents also underscore the importance of setting priorities and taking responsibility for them.
Although overshadowed by Galleria and Chanel, Dorinda shines as the one Cheetah with real substance. When Chanel discovers "Doe" has been duping the girls about living in a luxury high-rise, Doe invites her to her real home—the superintendent’s apartment in the alley ‘round back, where she lives with nine other foster kids under the care of Mrs. Bosco, “the closest thing I’ve ever had to a real mother.” Doe works hard to pay for her own dance lessons, reaping the reward of an offer to go on the road with a dance troupe. Faced with the tough choice of earning sure money with the troupe or sticking with the Cheetahs, the impoverished dancer chooses ... friendship.
After the group breaks up, it seems like that supreme bond of friendship has been broken, too, but the girls quickly regroup and rally behind a “former” Cheetah Girl in crisis.
A pre-audition Cheetah huddle takes on the sound of a mock prayer: “May the growl power of all the fabulous divas who came before us be with us now—our hearts, our brains and our courage to reach our cheetah-licious potential—right here, right now!” Making a record deal for the wrong reasons is compared to walking with the devil.
To its credit, Disney avoided the stereotypical traps this story line could have fallen into: the "big bad recording industry guy" doesn’t try to turn the Cheetahs into sex kittens and there’s not a male groupie in sight. The Cheetah Girls are refreshingly innocent both on and off stage. While costumes fit snuggly, short skirts are worn with tights and very little stomach and cleavage is shown. And when Chanel’s mom raids her closet and comes out wearing a belly top, Chanel offers her one that’s more befitting. (The girls do admire the poster of a bare-midriffed video model, and a talent show volunteer sports a crop top.)
Not only do they not flirt, they’re either oblivious or disinterested when they’re the focus of male attention. Galleria’s at her sassy “finest” when rebuffing the lighthearted advances of Derek, who wants her to be his “boo” (urban slang for guy or girlfriend). Some good-natured rivalry exists between the two—he’s competing in the talent show, too—prompting her to quip, “If he can’t respect my art, he can’t have my heart.”
Galleria receives a celebratory kiss from Derek at the end of a performance. In the DVD’s “Behind the Spots” segment, star Raven tells us that she couldn’t stop laughing during the filming of her first onscreen kiss, much to the chagrin of both the director and the young actor playing Derek.
Confusing camerawork makes it hard to tell whether a student backs into or is struck by a lunch tray, but he doesn’t seem hurt by it. Galleria’s dog, Toto, falls down a hole in the street and creates a citywide media drama akin to the 1987 Baby Jessica story (with the same happy ending). One of the girls pushes her little brother away.
Crude or Profane Language
“My goodness!” is the strongest exclamation used, although it’s tempting to include “cheetah-licious” in this category merely in terms of where it registers on the gag-o-meter. Some potty humor is exchanged between Jackal and the girls when one of them dashes in to a meeting with dog doo-doo on her shoe.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The school talent show director is named—no kidding—Drinka Champagne (maybe because back in the day she had a hit song called “Champagne Bubbles of Love”), but none of the bubbly adult beverage or any other type of alcohol is consumed.
Other Negative Elements
Music, attitude and conversation are all about girl power. “We call ourselves cheetahs because they’re the fastest and fiercest feline in the jungle,” boasts Galleria. From the opening song, “We Can Do Anything,” to their final victory over the music industry, these young ladies make no bones about wanting it all ... on their own terms. (They sometimes come across as show-offy.) And, as if they don’t have enough of the stuff already, Galleria proclaims to her Cheetah sisters, “We have what it takes, now all we need is the attitude.” Girl talk is rife with trite comments and oozes with ego.
Galleria and Chanel’s sass spills out and makes a mess of parental relationships at times, although the girls clean up their act when called on it, albeit grudgingly at times. Galleria sashays around Mom to get to Dad for what she wants, and her leadership qualities quickly turn domineering when subjected to the pressures of success. Once the news is out at school that Jackal intends to sign the Cheetahs, the four freshmen’s instant popularity quickly goes to their heads. Galleria’s conceit is obvious to everyone but her when she advises the group, “Now that we’re stars, we need to start acting like it!” (Their fellow students get so sick of the feline queen holding court that they set up a Cheetah-bashing Web site.) At the height of her “stardom,” Galleria puts the well-meaning Drinka in her place with a particularly catty remark. Admittedly, most of Galleria's snottiness is presented to make the point that teens who act that way won't win friends or influence people. But she's never seen turning the corner, and there are no clear repercussions assigned to her behavior.
In real life, if students don’t show up for rehearsals, they’re not allowed to perform in school activities. Not so at Manhattan Magnet. When the Cheetahs appear for a last-minute performance at the talent show (after ditching it for a better deal), Drinka not only lets them have the stage, but also awards them first prize.
Chanel’s mom, a single mother with an over-active social life, repeatedly disses her daughter in favor of her boyfriend. Mom attempts to make amends by offering to take Chanel shopping, only to stand her up again. Chanel retaliates by overheating her mom’s credit cards. I should note that the confrontation that follows leads Mom to an awareness of her neglect and forgiveness on both sides.
While the movie avoids most hip-hop stereotypes (excepting corny incorporation of the lingo), it sharply points to one of its most destructive: materialism. From the get-go, the girls are motivated by the things success will bring, dreaming aloud of “jugglin’ all the hot producers,” “wearing Prada or nada,” sharing a penthouse, “needing buckets to bring in the duckets,” “cha-ching, cha-ching, bling, bling, bling,” and having “’yes sir, no sir’ butlers and maids.” Jackal caps the cliché, replete with diamond-stud earrings, multiple chains around his neck and tight black clothing. (At least he treats the girls respectfully.)
The lesson Disney should have taken from hip-hop culture is the importance of “keepin’ it real.” Instead, there’s bad lip-syncing throughout—a major stumble for a youth-oriented musical. Toto emerges from the street hole episode tired and covered in grime, then reappears moments later on stage with the girls, fluffy and white, dancing on his hind legs.
The Cheetah Girls is a Disney Channel original movie based on the bestselling 16-book series by Deborah Gregory. It's aimed squarely at the tween girl market and does a fine—if cheesy—job of hitting the bull's-eye. (Anyone over the age of 14 will want to quietly exit the room when this DVD’s playing.)
Because the film is squeaky clean when it comes to the big issues (sex, language, substances), parents who decide to OK it can play off its solid core of positive values—loyalty, responsibility, valuing friends and family, and pursuing dreams—to balance discussions about this otherwise unbelievable, attitude-laden tale.
Materialism, greed, big egos and sassy talk may be the norm in this urban fantasyland, but most families wouldn’t tolerate that kind of über-hip posturing. Yet for all their bluff and bluster, when the going gets tough and dreams shatter, the Cheetahs take their broken hearts home for mending, setting a pretty good example for young teens struggling to find their own special place in the world.