In Defense of Bratz
It’s easy to explain to someone why you love a movie if say, it’s The Godfather or Jurassic Park. Drama, intensity, visual spectacle. But what if the movie you like isn’t quite at that level? Well, you might say, mediocrity has gotten its fair play as ubiquitous TV rerun staples like Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile both occupy IMDB’s top 50 movies of all time. I’m not talking about inoffensive mediocrity, however. I’m talking about Bratz.
Sean McNamara’s 2007 serenade to self-absorption, Bratz holds a place near and dear to my heart. As a bad movie fan, well-versed in the shoddy auteurism of The Room or Troll 2, you never stop looking for the next great bad movie to pass around your group of friends. Sometimes they’ll be promising like your Birdemic: Shock and Terror or your Dangerous Men, but often they’ll lean too far in the try-hard or winking direction. I don’t want your Syfy original movie. The hollowness of something like the Sharknado franchise plays on expectations of inferiority — ribbing its audience with cinematic elbows as it attempts to woo them with premeditated silliness — without capturing any magic. The beauty of the perfect bad movie lies in its enthusiastic and unintended unpredictability. You can’t set out to make a Z-movie.
Z-movies, often heralded as the misfortunate, homeless cousins of B-movies, eschew their relative’s money-grubbing exploitation in favor of dream fulfillment at any cost, usually meaning non-professional actors and sloppy auteurs wearing multiples hats. However, a so-bad-it’s-good movie isn’t contingent upon a director with no experience moving halfway across the world so that s/he may breathe life into his/her talentless fantasies. The fortuitous flukes that endure beyond their quality capture an honest madness that’s very opaquity grants them timelessness.
Bratz, a live-action movie based on a line of sassy dolls, twists and turns maniacally like Buñuel with Barbies. Each plot point, line of dialogue, and character moment is like watching someone translate Degrassi through several different languages on its way back to English. Written by the Harvard-educated scribe of The Lizzy McGuire Movie, Susan Estelle Jansen, and produced by toy magnate and founder of Marvel Studios, Avi Arad, the Bratz movie could do nothing but succeed, right?
From the bright purple Comic Sans opening credits over our four main girls picking out their outfits in tandem over Skype, relishing in their lavish wardrobes — including one’s false-doored second closet activated like a secret agent’s arsenal — our Bratz come to us with something like the one-trait standard often seen in sub-par cinema. But it’s just a little off. The traits aren’t quite stereotypical, rather they’re the bizarre near-misses of an aggregation software’s attempts at human mimicry.
Yasmin, Sasha, Jade, and Cloe are the best of friends in this bizarro mirror world, and like you may expect in a subpar teen movie, we meet them as they begin their school morning routines.
A mariachi band simply lives in the kitchen of Yasmin, our Hispanic lead who trades conjured chocolates to her mom (Aunt? Grandmother? She’s only ever addressed as Bubbie, which is the Yiddish term of endearment for one’s grandmother but that raises even further questions) for a never-ending supply of new shoes — exactly the kind of Frankensteinian madness cobbled together by marketing executives. “OK, she’s ethnic but not too specifically ethnic and she loves shoes.” “How does she get them?” “Her Bubbie buys them of course” “But why?” “Chocolate? Magic? Who cares?! Sell shoes!”.
Second of the Bratz is Sasha, a black girl defined by her financial exploitation of her divorced parents and whose breakfast scene involves her dad failing to use a toaster. Not that he burns toast, mind you. No, nothing so easy and semi-relatable. He simply can’t get the bread to stay in the toaster. It’s hard to believe his marriage had problems.
There are two more members of the titular squad of Bratz, but we meet them as the Bratz reach their school. Jade, the (of course) half-Chinese science and fashion wiz with the subterfugal decoy closet, feels suppressed by her family. The movie seems to want us to believe it’s from her mother’s traditionalism, but it’s also easy to make a case that it’s because her mom’s a racist caricature. All we know about Cloe is that she’s a clumsy blonde somehow great at soccer.
The first day of school opens with a rousing fanfare, the soundtrack exhorting us to embrace the limitless opportunities of the new school year, that is until we see that the music is in fact supposed to be diegetic, as a five-member marching band marches through the parking lot, uniformed, as is apparently tradition in the Carnivalian high school of the Bratziverse. Later we see the same band kids at a party, still in uniforms.
Same with the strange cliques introduced in tandem with the standard goth-and-jock fare, like disco kids, mimes, and kids dressed like dinosaurs, which in some movies would be a tongue-in-cheek gag about niche groups. In Bratz, they’re all too real, popping up as extras for the rest of the film. Mixed in with the American Eagle model extras are a few sporting dinosaur onesies or bell-bottoms. That’s commitment to the dumbest bit in the movie, and you have to respect that. Little idiosyncrasies like this make you wonder if the film was shot in one day, if the costume designer just thought it would be funny, or if nobody cared one way or another.
You see, it’s not just heightened reality or a cartoonish depiction of high school brought to life. We’ve been delivered a 110-minute fever dream. Impossibly frenetic, we’re inundated by a blistering explosion-free Michael Bay movie of 5 second shots and carousel cameras. The school, Carry Nation High School, named for the hatchet-wielding temperance leader, even features an imposing statue of the bar-attacking Bible-thumper. Why is the high school named for this eccentric Prohibitionist? No idea. Does alcohol ever appear in this film at all? Not a drop. And yet Nation appears as a mascot even on the bathroom signs denoting that only paper should go in toilets, a stick figure with a hatchet and Puritanical bun.
Snippets of reality come and go, but you always have the sneaking suspicion that this was all put together from surreal Adult Swim clips that aired at 4:13 AM on a Tuesday. Banners and signs hanging from flagpoles and awnings read “Obey” and “Submit”, while the stammering, vaguely intoxicated principal (Jon Voight in a droopy silly-putty nasal prosthesis and later in Hugh Hefner red velvet) reads a book titled “How to Run a Prison”; the school’s primary-colored bacchanal flits between Orwellian surveillance state and ultimate rager.
Rounding out the supranormal cast of any stereotypical high school movie tinged by madness would be a love interest and a snooty villain. Yasmin’s love interest, introduced by the two literally bumping into each other, is an allegedly deaf DJ. “You don’t sound deaf.” “You don’t look ignorant, but I guess you can’t judge a book, right?” This may be a sick burn, but the initial query is pretty sound, considering the guy speaks with perfect enunciation, is played by a non-deaf actor, and HAS A JOB AS A DJ. He also signs about half the time he speaks, which makes him look like he’s in a collection of increasingly lazy gangs throughout the film. Our villain, the daughter of the principal and apparently eternal class president, pushes the popular girl into the realm of the weird by commanding the totalitarian regime and holding not one, but two Super Sweet 16s.
The Bratz woo over their specialized cliques: Cloe scores a goal, Sasha performs a strangely hostile cheerleading routine to a wonderfully almost-hip song called “Take it to the Maximum”, Jade has her chemistry class fireworks described as a Bernoulli Effect (which has to do with why your shower curtain gets blown inward with a running shower, not chemical reactions), and Yasmin has her journalism subplot (I guess) cut from the movie.
Then the first really unexpected thing happens. A title card, twenty minutes in: TWO YEARS LATER. What?! This is almost mid-montage. Two years later they all have cars and motorcycles and the plot begins.
There are actual jokes in Bratz, but they’re not the parts that we’re laughing AT. Jocks flexing in “O’Doyle rules” poses after their pick-up lines flounder don’t play like jokes, but rather as the just-off depiction of real male ego. Often, the references are so out of place that they gain meaning from their stupidity. “I love the smell of retail in the morning” and the surprisingly violent pratfalls push a strange darkness over the bright pink happenings of the film.
Characters put into place for comic relief, two younger siblings of the dueling duo at the center of the film, seem like bad bits from early ‘80s rom-coms. They contribute a Lynchian otherworldiness with their disturbing precociousness. Hearing lounge lizard lines spew from a ten-year old only get weirder when the nine-year old rebuffing his advances speaks like she’s lived in a sitcom bar all her life. Sharknado, shuffling out its groaners and non sequiturs like ironic bullet points on a Hot Topic t-shirt, doesn’t have the same oddball verve.
Never boring, constantly shifting, the film decides — an hour in — that Cloe, the Brat we know least about, should take over the plot. She’s poor, and there’s nothing sadder than being poor in this capitalist revelry. Her sick catering mom, who the movie treats like a drunk, is suddenly catering the Second Super Sweet Sixteen, which the Bratz MUST attend. An example of the rabbit hole you can go down when there’s nobody with any sense saying “no”, this means they have to cater this party as waitresses, which means for some reason have to be dressed up like clowns.
They then tailor their outfits into weird sexy clowns in one of the most disturbing and entertaining montages of all time. Mix the tone of Willy Wonka’s horrible ferry ride with Tim Curry’s snarling Pennywise and a romantic comedy makeover and you’ll get the gist. In response, the evil queen bee starts throwing around a lot of class trash that seems like the movie’s first insightful commentary until you realize most of the Bratz are equally guilty consumers. It just adds to the chaos.
Scenes seemingly have no purpose, not like Sharknado’s B-movie survival bent, but the glorious passion project’s gleeful delight in aimless ludicrousy. Certainly these scenes meant something to someone at one point in time — a producer, the director, the writer — but they now exist as tantalizingly indecipherable hieroglyphics, mapping out a forgotten and foreign society. Why is the John Cena-cloned vice principal named Rollo Sludge? And I don’t know what school district they’re in, but there’s definitely some embezzlement going on because that principal has a cocaine kingpin’s mansion.
The songs have the over-the-top theatrics of a scrubbed-clean Magic Mike, with a attention-deficit camera flying all over the place. Always close to parody, but never having enough bite that you’re completely sure they’re not just trying to sell egomaniacal vanity to their target audience, the musical numbers often blur the line between Katy Perry and a mirror-double devised by the South Park guys. And Jon Voight’s principal, somewhere between dementented and amnesiatic, dances to these weird intensely escalating pop songs MULTIPLE times, including one that scours the dictionary looking for any and all words that could rhyme with “Bratitude”. Somewhere between Not Another Teen Movie and Any Another Teen Movie, Bratz never slows down in its bid to be a caterwauling cavalcade of craziness.
Delivery as inhuman as The Room, logic as incongruous as Troll 2, all packaged in the guise of a tween toy romp, Bratz rides its merchandising maelstrom with the optimistic insanity of artists that know they’re getting paid no matter what. If you turned off the sound and only caught glimpses of it as you say, made yourself dinner or kept an eye on your young child, you’d see what seemed like a perfectly normal film. Mediocre at best, but with all the expected acts and plotlines of its ilk. Friends grow apart then make it work. You wouldn’t get that with Sharknado, a series designed to make you exclaim, infomercial-like, “A Shark-what?!”. Sharknado, like a Youtube stunt or depressing meme begging to be reblogged for attention, aimed to go viral from stage one. Its meticulous craftsmanship not a display of misplaced heart, but of a subculture’s corporate exploitation. B-movies can be cult hits? How hard could it be to crank one out?
But that’s never what these movies are about. They’re about passion and weirdness and everything but calculation. It’s about what the Japanese call kintsugi, the artfully broken. Sharknado and it’s ilk, the movies incorporating what would’ve been their Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffs into the movies themselves, have everything go the way they’ve planned. That’s simply not what makes a bad movie fun. The simple pleasures of ironic mocking are quickly surpassed and overcome by the slack-jawed awe of proto-ironic fandom. The greatest trashterpieces emerge from serendipitous ruins, powered by the perverse energies of their creators, refusing to die despite every indication that they deserve death thanks to the cults they inspire.