The quintessential Disney Channel Original Movie continues to be High School Musical. With a full concert tour and a theatrical release for the third movie, they will always have the top spot. It turned Disney Channel musicals into a world renowned genre. However, what if I told you that women of color did it first? To some that may come as a surprise because, let's face it how would they make an entire movie that focuses on someone not middle class, white, with banners of his face hanging from the rafters. To others it's not surprising because they treated them like guinea pigs and work out the bugs for the next time. You make the call, but as long as Troy Bolton gets to be a meme, there needs to be some growl power on the internet. Therefore, I present my unabridged thoughts on The Cheetah Girls (the whole trilogy)!
Let's start with the first one, which was made in 2003. I know that not only because it comes up on Disney Plus, but from the entire movie. Teenagers talking on house phones, not having card machines, their whole schtick. It's all from a simpler time. The main plot is Galleria's being a diva and bossing everyone around before they even get their actual big break. It's nothing a regular viewer wouldn't have seen a million times, and at all times I felt like this was supposed to be the launchpad for Raven-Symone's music career the same way it launched Beyonce. Props to Galleria's mom for having already watched the retrospective documentary and not just giving in to the record deal blindly. Warning though, the way that producer acts with the girls feels very problematic in retrospect.
The subplots prove to be more interesting. Chanel is trying to connect with her mother who is more focused on her new boyfriend than her. She learns from others, takes responsibility for her actions, and tries to correct her mistakes. Dorinda's antagonist is systemic poverty. She's can't afford to get the stylish clothes that the other girls wear to their elite Manhattan magnet school. She already has to schedule rehearsals around her job that she uses to afford dance lessons. Not to mention she gets dropped off at a rich apartment building around the corner from her foster home because she doesn't want anyone judging her for being poor and not having parents. Their stories make everything complete and prove that they might get lonely, but they're not alone.
Even in writing, it bears repeating that this is from 2003. The Cheetah Girls' whole aesthetic is from then. R&B girls could top the charts without looking like super models. The music numbers all look like 90s music videos, as in the quality got noticeably worse. Matching velvet sweatsuits and giant bracelets were all high fashion. I can't say they didn't commit, but twenty years later, Disney's attempts at being cool feel dated.
If it got made almost exactly the same today, it would still be pretty progressive for Disney Channel. Overall, it's still an interesting watch, just not for most of the reasons I watched it the first time.
Cheetah Girls 2 lets the girls out on the prowl. The entire movie was shot on location in Barcelona and it gives a world class feel. In the same year as the debut of HSM, the girls were taking Europe by storm. Against the incredible backdrop of Picasso's city, these young ladies got to live out a modern day fairytale.
A lot of growth had happened in the three years between the movies, even if in-story it's only been a few months. The girls have matured physically and emotionally. Cameras have improved and trends have marched on. They got Kenny Ortega this time. Disney increased the budget by a lot of euros. However, this movie proves to be iconic in its own right.
Cheetah Girls 2 gave each of the girls their own space to experience the city and grow. Chanel had to come to Spain to visit her mom's boyfriend's family, but a young voices contest stamps the other Cheetahs' passports. The contest gives Galleria something to fixate on and work towards. Meanwhile, Chanel finds a friend in local pop star Marisol as she slowly accepts Luke as a part of her life and her family. Dorinda finds love in a dancing count. Aqua is exploring her fashion talent alongside Europe's best designers (and testing everyone's patience with her AP Spanish skills).Even the moms have plot lines, Chanel's mom is waiting patiently on an engagement ring. Galleria's mom is rediscovering fashion design with Aqua after being on hiatus since having her daughter. In short, there is a lot going on, but it all works together. The complexity of the movie makes it feel like you are on the adventure with them.
The extra flavor in this movie comes from being immersed in Spain. They get their money's worth from this trip, shooting in the most breathtaking views and gorgeous buildings they could find. The score and soundtrack borrow elements from across the Spanish-speaking world. Anything that isn't said to one of the characters from the US is spoken in Spanish. For many of my (Latina) friends, Cheetah Girls 2 made them feel seen in the most valuable medium in our lives: a Disney Channel musical.
Cheetah Girls 2 was the highest-viewed Disney Channel Original Movie that year and it's the movie in the trilogy that is probably best remembered. This movie is just about as good as you remember it. It's not filled with camp that's aged poorly, it's still cheetah-licious.
Cheetah Girls: One World movie brings them halfway across the planet to India. This movie is remembered best as the one without Raven, who left for reasons. However, it's a very fitting goodbye for the trio who had been playing the role of the Cheetah Girls off-screen. By the time this movie rolled around, the Cheetah Girls had done a concert tour, parades, and two studio albums, all without Raven. This send off marks the end of their globe-trotting adventure and their multi-media careers. It's not a bad way to do it either: Bollywood-style.
The plot of the movie starts when Chanel gets a call saying that they want to make the Cheetah Girls Bollywood stars. Chanel has no clue where Mumbai is and confuses Bollywood for Hollywood. (This is a girl who two movies ago thought the Louisiana Purchase had something to do with Gumbo, cut her some slack.) One passport stamp later, they find out there's only enough room in the budget for one Cheetah to be the star. The Cheetah Girls haven't had a lot of luck in the fame department lately and they're all looking for an opportunity.
Since the long distance relationship with her Spanish boyfriend has gone south, Dorinda is the one trying to keep the trio focused in One World. The director has eyes for Chanel, and she's not saying no. Aqua was falling for a tech support guy who so happens to be Amar from India. If that wasn't enough, the male lead is in love with the choreographer and Dorinda has to play matchmaker. Romance is the order of the day, and there's a chance to earn your fairy tale ending.
I have no business judging authenticity when it came to Indian culture. Someone who does explained to me that the movie does an okay job. She told me it felt nice to be able to watch your culture in a tween girl's most valued medium- a Disney Channel musical. However, she felt that it wasn't as vivid as it could have been, and that's a sentiment I can understand. Cheetah Girls 2 had the benefit of a director/choreographer who was the son of Spanish immigrants, and worked from the understanding that both the audience and one of the main characters was somewhat familiar with the culture. One World had an outsider's view of India, which has never been the most comprehensive anyway. You can't use it as a guidebook the same way you can with Cheetah Girls 2 and the stories don't feel nearly as tied to the setting. It has the overall feel of a postcard instead of a full visit.
In the end, it really feels the teenage version of a Hallmark movie. It's a fun time, but it lacks the depth the others made you accustomed to seeing. Still more intercultural dialogue than Troy Bolton on the golf course, though.