Rival sisters. Challenge of a lifetime. Let the games begin!
"Okay," I say, in way of coaxing myself to action, "just pick it up, put it in your DVD player, watch it, and write a scathing review."
This is me, staring in horror at a Mary-Kate and Ashley DVD that has just arrived in the mail for review. "Nobody will see you," I said. "You won't lose any cool points. It's okay. Be a man. Suck it up. Just watch it, and then write a bitter, angry review. Tear the film to high heaven, and that will be that," I said.
So I took a deep breath, and put it on. And, to my eternal shame, The Challenge turns out to be a rather cute film, in a watered-down G-rated sort of way. It is hard to be angry or critical of a film that has so much gosh darned stupid jerk-faced irritating cuteness.
Facts of the Case
There's a hot new reality television show in town called "The Challenge," where teenagers compete in tests of physical and mental endurance in exotic locations, competing for college scholarships.
Lizzie (Ashley Olsen) is the epitome of a Type-A personality—ambitious, motivated, uptight, and strung out. Sharie (Mary-Kate Olsen) is a vegetarian, into meditation and yoga, is a free spirit, and something of a hippie. They are twin sisters (of course), and both apply to be on the show.
Problem is, the sisters hate each other. Each lives with a respective parent; one in D.C., one in Los Angeles, and neither has spoken for two years. And neither one has any idea that the other applied to be on the show!
But to the producers of the show, having rival twin sisters apply for a game show unbeknownst to each other means only one thing: ratings!
For all those die-hard Olsen twins fans out there, know that this movie marks the end of the "made-for-video" run of Mary-Kate and Ashley movies, "before they continue their big-screen careers in 2004"—or so declares the DVD packing. The verdict will be out on that one, I am sure, but if they're going out, The Challenge is a cute-enough film to do it on.
This is G-rated entertainment to a tee—there is nothing even remotely suggestive, violent, dangerous, threatening, or otherwise compromising about this movie. Part of me thinks this is a shame—these young actors and actresses could do with some genuine excitement in their lives.
Both of the Olsen twins are charming enough as teen actresses in a mundane sort of way, and the rest of the cast is typically annoying in predictable teeny-bopping fashion—you have the brain-dead surfer who says bizarre anachronistic surfer catchphrases; you have the icy, stuck up, highly competitive girl, who will sabotage anybody to get what she wants; and of course, the soft, sensitive, puppy-dogged young boys who fall head over heels for the Olsens.
It makes you feel good, in a painful sort of way—you know, not having to waste an iota of energy actually worrying about whether the Olsens will get the boys, which team will win, et cetera.
The premise, of course, is a blatant Survivor rip-off, and even the fake game show host manages an eerily passable Jeff Probst impression. Shot in the very scenic resort of Cabo San Lucas, the location is scenic and beautiful and quite spectacular.
This is a cute movie. It makes you feel good, in a pasteurized, consumable sort of way, and it has "FEEL GOOD" written all over it in gigantic letters. There is never any confrontation that has any feeling of being genuine, because everything is too lovey-dovey and happy-go-lucky. For a children's movie, there's nothing really wrong with that, but the movie would be fairly bland for anybody else to ingest and take seriously.
Though I admit, I did like the ending of the film. And not just because it ended, either, or anything sarcastic like that—the ending was a riot, and sure to delight long-running Mary-Kate and Ashley fans.
The "extras" constitute little beyond aggressive product placement. The "behind-the-scenes" footage is comprised of lots of teens yammering about nothing in particular, in quick-edited MTV-style, talking about the shooting in ten-second sound bites. After seven minutes, absolutely nothing of any significant worth has been conveyed to the viewer, but you do get the sense that the Olsen girls and company have a lot of fun shooting their movies.
An astonishing amount of trailers are included, almost all of which advertise either a Mary-Kate and Ashley movie, or Mary-Kate and Ashley action figures, make-up, or Mary-Kate and Ashley exorcism kits, or…wait, never mind. There is even an advertisement for the Cabo San Lucas resort location the movie was filmed at—something I have never seen on a DVD before.
Likewise, the "trivia quizzes" feature offers Mary-Kate and Ashley-related trivia questions for die-hard fans to navigate through using their DVD remote; a clever idea in execution, and also, clever in the product placement advertising disguised as extra features.
No wonder these girls are multi-millionaires—they have enough cross-promotion and product placement to choke a marketing executive.
For all you aspect-ratio preservationists out there, there is much to weep about here, for like all Mary-Kate and Ashley films, The Challenge comes squashed into a full-screen aspect ratio. After an inordinate amount of DVD and video releases, you would think they would just start shooting in 4:3 aspect ratio, but oh well, whatever. The footage looks good, to be sure, with nice crisp visuals and pleasing colors and black levels, but the butchered aspect ratio makes me annoyed. Somebody somewhere decided that all children-related movies should never make the transition into widescreen, and it stuck somewhere. I never did get the memo on that one.
The sound, likewise, is well done, with dialogue coming across clean and un-muddled, and utilizing decent sonic space between its two channels. Bass response is fine, I suppose—you know, for a Mary-Kate and Ashley movie. The subtitles are quite well done, grammatically correct with few condensed sentences or alterations.
The soundtrack contains a wide cross-section of teeny punk rock and pop bands (many of which I was surprised to see on an Olsen twins movie, and makes me question whether these bands have any idea their songs are scoring a Mary-Kate and Ashley production). Everything sounds quite nice, and the inclusion of three audio tracks (English, French, and Spanish) is modestly impressive.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This movie is aptly named: as a twentysomething male, it was a challenge not to turn it off. But darn it, I rose to the challenge.
Much to the chagrin and disappointment of slobbering males everywhere, it grows less and less likely that the Olsen twins will somehow lose their gigantic media empire at the age of eighteen, become destitute, thereby forced to pursue…less wholesome avenues of gainful financial employment in the film industry.
Irritatingly, not only do they have more money than any of us will ever get near in our lives, but they have had cameras pointed at them since the age of…well, Full House, which is long enough ago that none of us want to remember. One day, in adulthood, with effort, they could actually probably become decent, well-respected actresses.
Frustrating, isn't it? Personally, all I wanted to do was tear into this movie; just go all out and write the most scathing and debilitating review, to sink these two wholesome fools forever. Turns out, The Challenge is decent, quality entertainment for young teens.
Now I'm seething, and have nowhere to properly vent my anxiety. Dang.
The Challenge is vacuous wholesome entertainment at its best (or, worst, depending on where you sit on the age/gender scale). It shames me on so many levels to admit it, but it ain't terrible. As reasonably priced, full-screened, quality young adult entertainment goes, you could do a lot worse.
Let me summarize: were I a parent, rest assured, I would not ground my children if I caught them watching this. You know…ground them, then take them to the basement, force-feed them beer, nickname them "Horse," and force them to re-shingle my roof.
I assure you I would not do that. That's just crazy talk.
In retrospect, that is about as close of a recommendation as I can actually muster. It'll have to do.
Grumble, grumble…not guilty. Though it pains me greatly to say it, if I were in my early teens, I think that The Challenge would be an enjoyable movie experience.
That is, only if Dad left the adult channels scrambled that night.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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