You Could Search the World and Never Figure It Out

The Lizzie McGuire Movie (2003)

Hilary Duff as Lizzie McGuire wears a hat and a light blue shirt and sings into a microphone.
Walt Disney Pictures

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist. To learn more, visit the WGA strike hub and the SAG-AFTRA strike site.


When I saw
The Lizzie McGuire Movie (2003) in theaters in 6th grade, I processed it the way it was almost certainly intended to be processed—that is, I saw it as a splashy, big-time feature-length finale to the television series I adored. But watching it again recently, exactly 20 years later, it felt different. This time, I saw a dark, surrealist thought experiment, a bizarre cinematic dream sequence about betrayal and replacement. Yes, if you look closely, The Lizzie McGuire Movie is a Hoffmannian nightmare fantasy, a deeply uncanny psychological thriller—the Vertigo of the Disney Channel 90-minute TV-show tie-ins.

Watching it now, I’m struck by all the reckless stuff that goes down. And that makes perfect sense. The Lizzie McGuire Movie was never a movie for adults. It’s a movie about a child’s fantasy that operates on a child’s logic. It’s about how a 13- or 14-year-old Lizzie (Hilary Duff, reprising her role from the series) goes on a summer trip to Rome for two weeks with her classmates—and repeatedly runs away from the group to gallivant around the city with Paolo (Yani Gellman), a 17-year-old pop star she’s just met who has asked her to impersonate his ex-partner Isabella, a famous Italian singer for whom she is a dead ringer. It should almost be prohibited to watch this movie as an adult. The film does not make sense on a terrestrial level, to the point where taking it at face value reveals glaringly massive red flags. Every time Lizzie hopped on the back of Paolo’s Vespa, I longed for someone in the background to call the carabinieri on his ass.

If The Lizzie McGuire Movie is never regarded as anything more than a hastily written, glorified TV movie, I don’t suppose it would be a crime. I saw it the day after it premiered and for me and the others who made up its $55.5 million worldwide gross, it fulfilled its purpose. I even bought the DVD.

But I do think the movie’s high-stakes, absurdist turn is revealing in regards to a certain trend of feature film adaptations of kids’ TV shows. In a vacuum, the movie suggests that everyone in the Lizzie McGuire universe is an amoral, irresponsible weirdo—but placed in a larger context, The Lizzie McGuire Movie lays bare the ludicrous exertions that go into making a TV character from a show about ordinary life seem worthy of a big-screen installment. It reveals how movies adapted from grounded shows can become inflated into elaborate, nonsense adventures that grow dissonant from the original series’ tone, and feel flat-out strange, especially if you’re watching as a grown-up. 

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 Lizzie McGuire—which ran on Disney Channel from 2001 to 2004—is a show about the daily tribulations, embarrassments, and triumphs of an ordinary, middle-class, junior-high-age girl: the titular Lizzie. The show’s big hallmark is that the outwardly shy Lizzie has a boisterous inner monologue delivered by a cartoon version of herself. Basically, the craziest thing to ever happen in the show is Lizzie clandestinely buying a $65 pair of pants after her mom says they’re too expensive.  

Conversely, The Lizzie McGuire Movie is about how, while traveling abroad for the first time, Lizzie is mistaken for a celebrity and is cajoled into publicly stealing that woman’s entire identity. Not only does Paolo want Lizzie to pretend to be his ex-partner Isabella in everyday life in front of her colleagues and associates, but he also wants her to present an award and perform their single onstage at a giant music festival in the Colosseum the following week. He convinces Lizzie to do this by bemoaning how Isabella is mad at him for wanting to go solo and won’t leave her holiday to appear with him, blah blah blah. But Paolo clinches Lizzie’s help by pointing out that she’s on a vacation in Rome and “some people, when they come to Rome, hope to find adventures.”

Lizzie’s like, won’t Isabella be mad? Good question, Lizzie! Paolo explains that Isabella, resting on an island somewhere, won’t know what they are up to, but, like… she’ll find out eventually! Isn’t that the most obvious excuse for a lawsuit you’ve ever heard? If I left my island vacation and discovered that a blonde American had been cajoled into impersonating me and made public appearances as me, including ones that might undermine my hard-earned brand, I’d sue them both deep into the ruins of the Forum. 

Anyway, in terms of continuity, The Lizzie McGuire Movie is a total failure; blatant contradictions between the movie and the TV show abound, and prevent it from being a cohesive experience. First of all, Lizzie’s best friend Miranda (played in the series by Lalaine) is completely absent from the movie (with the excuse that she’s on a family trip to Mexico City). Also missing? The series’ best B-character, the geeky Larry Tudgeman III (Kyle Downes). But, crucially, the movie, which was supposed to conclude the franchise, was released before numerous episodes aired—including some that contained valuable pre-movie information! Never mind the fact that by the time shooting began, most of the cast was considerably older than middle school age. And don’t get me started about how, in The Lizzie McGuire Movie, Lizzie is accused of wearing the same dress to graduation that she wore to the spring dance—but in the show, she is banned from going to the spring dance!

 What is going on here? Does this movie take place in an entirely different reality? Is it deliberately disorienting, signifying to us from the very beginning that soon we will land in a Freudian nightmare in which our beloved hometown protagonist is convinced to steal the identity of her European doppelgänger? 

As long as I’m yelling, I’ll add that the entire movie also seems to have a very weird understanding of its Lazian setting. Sure, Miss Ungermeyer takes the kids to places like the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps while loudly describing the historical significance of those sites, but the movie seems to be a bit off, culturally. None of the Italians in this movie speak with Italian accents or talk with their hands, including Isabella, since she’s played by Duff in a brunette wig. Molto misterioso, if you ask me.

Anyway, to spend time with Paolo, Lizzie must evade the one (literally only one, why is there only one?) chaperone who has come along: their future high school principal, Miss Ungermeyer (Alex Borstein). So, every day, she pretends to be sick and then steals away to go Roman Holiday around the city with Paolo and his adult bodyguard, Sergei (Brendan Kelly), while Gordo covers for her. But not even he knows where she is during the day; it’s 2003, so she doesn’t have a cell phone. No one knows where she is going! Is this technically kidnapping? Can a 17-year-old kidnap a 14-year-old? Legally, is the adult Sergei aiding a minor in the kidnapping of another minor? Whatever it is, it isn’t good! If Liam Neeson showed up right now to drag Lizzie’s disobedient ass back to the States, I wouldn’t exactly disapprove. 

And it’s when I start thinking about Liam Neeson and his very particular set of skills that I realize I’m now watching the whole movie from the perspective of a parent. I’m not a parent myself, but I’m certainly closer to that mindset now than I was the weekend I turned 11. The film keeps any responsible adult perspective at arm’s length, though it does seem to understand that Lizzie’s parents (Hallie Todd and Robert Carradine) should be involved somehow. Back in America, Lizzie’s weaselly brother Matt (Jake Thomas) sees photos of her in Italian tabloids online and, wanting to get her in trouble, persuades their parents to book last-minute tickets to Rome.

Matt’s a narc, to be sure, but his surveillance-happy nature provides a bit of reassurance; at least someone on the outside can figure out that something strange is going on with Lizzie. Actually, only kids are able to figure out Lizzie’s secret. Indeed, it’s not long before Lizzie’s Popular Girl bully Kate (Ashlie Brillault), and Kate’s affable ex-boyfriend Ethan (Clayton Snyder), learn what she’s up to—and then surprisingly agree to help cover it up. Why can’t Miss Ungermeyer figure this out, if two recent junior high graduates—one of whom (Ethan) was unsure if his room assignment was in “English or Italian numbers”—can? 

Turns out, the flirtatious, devil-may-care, Vespa-driving Paolo is not to be trusted. I mean, obviously… anyone who tries to solve problems using impersonation is not to be trusted! None of these preteens see it coming, but Lizzie eventually learns that he is using her as a kind of analog deepfake, trying to get her to sing in front of a gigantic crowd as Isabella so he can humiliate Isabella. In both Isabella and Lizzie’s stories, one’s look-alike appears to destroy one’s life.

At this point, you might be compelled to ask, what is the Lizzie McGuire saga doing, becoming Dostoevsky’s The Double during its (nominal) last installment? The fact that it does recalls how many Disney Channel movie sequels to beloved TV shows do somehow become much more complicated and darker than their source material; The Even Stevens Movie (2003) is about how the Stevens family is invited on a mysterious vacation that is actually a Battle Royale-style reality show, while The Proud Family Movie (2005) is about how the Proud Family is lured on an all-expenses-paid tropical vacation by a mad scientist who secretly kidnaps all members of the family except for the daughter Penny, and sends her back home with cloned versions of her parents, grandma, and siblings. I’m sorry, what? WHAT?

I wondered for a moment if all millennium-era movie adaptations of famous children’s TV shows tell stories of vacations gone haywire. Rugrats in Paris (2000) is about a European trip gone wrong. The Wild Thornberrys Movie (2002) is about an African trip gone wrong. Kenan & Kel: Two Heads Are Better Than None (2000) is about a cross-country road trip gone wrong (mostly because, along the way, they encounter a literal ghost who decapitates people). And remember that movie-ish three-episode super-arc of The Brady Bunch from 1972 where they go to Hawaii and mess with that tiki idol and awaken an ancient curse? These movies seem to play with the real illusion that life becomes more interesting on vacation—that our existing relationships will strengthen, that we experience things that we simply can’t in our lives back home. 

But more than that, in these movies, “vacation” seems to be an excuse to leave behind the quotidian conventions of the show and bring the characters into a new kind of plot. All these movie versions represent grounded TV shows with dependable settings becoming impossibly big-screen-ified, a process which makes the final product feel disorienting and potentially unlikable.

The interesting thing about The Lizzie McGuire Movie, though, is that this kind of escapism is not debunked, thus subtly encouraging a return to the status quo… rather, it triumphs, even amid the unpleasantness and awkwardness elsewhere in the plot. Unlike the vacations featured in the other films, Lizzie’s Italian vacation does provide a better, more special existence than her American one. She performs a showstopper with Isabella and then becomes famous herself. She and Gordo, the guy who loves her right, share a rooftop kiss. She might be grounded for the remainder of the summer, but she’s had a magical experience. 

And truthfully, despite the far-fetched nature of the enterprise, The Lizzie McGuire Movie does provide a fair place for the Lizzie McGuire saga to end, emotionally. I mean, the Lizzie McGuire TV theme song goes “…sometimes we make it, and sometimes we fake it.” And yeah, I guess we do! The show began with Lizzie nervously buying her first bra, and the movie ends with her bringing the house down at an Italian awards show. Kids, they grow up! They accomplish stuff! Lizzie does not have to learn a lesson about how “there’s no place like home,” only that there’s no place like Rome. It’s in this different setting that she discovers just how brave, confident, and self-possessed she has become.

This extremely happy ending is strange, because The Lizzie McGuire Movie offers one of the darkest conceits of all these movies (well, except for the mad scientist clone thing and the decapitating ghost thing). If you’re Lizzie, The Lizzie McGuire Movie is a conspiracy thriller about discovering you are being controlled and manipulated by a guy you have fallen for and trusted and gone to great lengths to help at tremendous personal risk. If you’re Isabella, it’s a horror movie about coming home from your island vacation and realizing that your identity has been stolen by a blonde doppelgänger being puppeted by a guy who once loved you but now wants to discredit you. But it’s all okay! Lizzie and Isabella find each other and team up and beat Paolo, and then Isabella’s happy to share the spotlight with her “new American friend.” 

It’s sort of insane to me that, after all of this, Lizzie has to 1) get back at Paolo, and do so by 2) singing and dancing to a bubbly pop song in front of thousands of people. The song is called “What Dreams are Made Of.” Is it intended to be the movie’s thesis statement, that this web of trickery has been worth it for stardom? Is this an inane testament to the resilience of children’s psyches, that the things that would send an adult straight to their therapist (or the police) can be waved away for a child by a catchy pop song? After all, there is no trauma to be had for either one of these surprise twins. 

Doppelgänger stories rarely end so positively; often, in tales where someone discovers they have a double—especially tales in which the doppelgänger becomes more well-liked than the protagonist—both cannot exist in the same world. Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson, the protagonist of the short story of the same name, kills his double only to realize that his double has been himself all along. In the aforementioned Dostoevsky story, Golyadkin has a psychotic meltdown and is carted off to a sanitarium while his double takes over his life. In Vladimir Nabokov’s Despair, Karlovich has killed his double to make it seem like he has been killed, only to discover that his double bears no resemblance to him at all. Even in Mark Twain’s novel The Prince and the Pauper, which, unlike all of these examples, is about a consensual swap of identities, the prince—the real-life Edward VI, son of Henry VIII—dies at age 15, while his friend, the pauper Tom, lives to a ripe old age with the royal title that Edward has bestowed upon him. Conversely, in The Lizzie McGuire Movie, the accidental twins seem cool about their identical appearances, despite acknowledging how it is “freaky… way freaky… way, way freaky.” (No one tells them that their names, Elizabeth and Isabella, share the same linguistic root, or maybe they’d be a little more freaked out?) But no, there is no mortal or existential threat to their blurring of identities. 

Oh, and another thing about that title “What Dreams Are Made Of”: it’s basically the last line of the classic noir film The Maltese Falcon. And like… is this a thing I should be noticing, or no? I’m not even going to talk about how The Maltese Falcon, which is a little bit about doubles and sneaking in and out of hotels—and a lot about scheming—underscores that The Lizzie McGuire Movie is about a literal conspiracy, a flamboyant, vengeful violation that would almost certainly be covered on the news and investigated by the police. 

But perhaps The Lizzie McGuire Movie makes more sense if you don’t close-read it. In taking a show about the drama of everyday junior high life and inflating it to ludicrous standards, The Lizzie McGuire Movie begins to reject the conventions of movies entirely, making up its own rules as it goes along, becoming ungovernable by film logic. Lizzie asks in that same song: “Have you ever wondered what life is about? / You could search the world and never figure it out.” Is this a promise, or a taunt? If you’re looking for meaning, The Lizzie McGuire Movie proves to be a series of metaphysical fake-outs. Its happy ending seals the movie in its blissful ignorance against all the genuinely weird and bad things that happen in its world—and also cements its aggressive rejection of convention, suggesting to the viewer a sense of futility in deriving expectations from narrative signifiers at all.

In The Lizzie McGuire Movie, adults are irresponsible, Italians are fake, rules don’t exist, vacation is life-changing, and everything turns out great. Cinematically speaking, it’s a grab-bag of tropes that plays fast and loose with their implications, making up things as it goes along and contradicting whatever it wants, because who cares? Who honestly cares? 

Watching this funhouse mirror of a movie, I could feel myself losing my mind, trying to make sense of it all. But maybe The Lizzie McGuire Movie doesn’t make sense because nothing does. Maybe, instead a movie so deeply about a conspiracy that it’s almost a conspiracy itself, it’s the greatest work of bubblegum nihilism the world has ever seen. Or, you know, maybe it’s a thing that only makes sense if you’re 11 years old.