A personal essay about the cinematic experience that defined a generation (and my childhood), from Whitt Laxson, host of Duff Enough podcast
For millennials who grew up with the hit sitcom Lizzie McGuire, there’s a childhood experience we share beyond watching Disney Channel. In 2003, at the peak of Lizzie‘s success, Disney took the beloved series from TV to the big screen, releasing The Lizzie McGuire Movie in theaters. As a mega-Lizzie fan (and host of the ultimate Hilary Duff fan podcast, Duff Enough), it’s a moment in time I remember vividly. And as we celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary, I’m reflecting on what Lizzie meant to me then and what she still means to me now.
When the trailer for The Lizzie McGuire Movie first premiered on Disney Channel, I was speechless. If my memory serves me correctly, it aired in full one night after a DCOM around 9:55/8:55c. The network typically filled the time in between DCOMs and other shows with full-length music videos or interstitial series like Movie Surfers. This night was different, and instead, Hilary Duff appeared on screen to introduce a sneak peek of Lizzie McGuire’s first big screen adventure. Today, trailers tend to drop on social media before ever being shown as a preview in theaters. Back then, we didn’t have social media, so getting to see a trailer at home on TV felt like a very big deal. I even remember it starting with the traditional green rating screen and white text (“the following preview has been approved for all audiences by the motion picture association of America”). For whatever reason, I was watching all alone upstairs in our family’s bonus room. I’ve since watched the trailer many times on YouTube over the years, and I’m sure my eight-year-old brain was going through a sensory overload. The visuals, the music, the narration, all made this seem like the can’t-miss motion picture of a lifetime. At least that’s how I viewed it. “On May 2nd,” the narrator says, “an ordinary American girl is getting the chance to become Europe’s hottest new singer!” My love for movies and my love for Lizzie McGuire were coming together in the ultimate fan event, complete with new music from Hilary Duff. The release date of May 2nd just couldn’t come sooner.
My love for Lizzie was well-known among my family, friends and anyone who knew me. That’s because I never shied away from expressing it. Unfortunately, growing up in a small, rural town in the South, not everyone encouraged the love I had for the show. I was told that boys didn’t watch Lizzie McGuire. And in regards to seeing The Lizzie McGuire Movie, I was told I shouldn’t go because I would be the only boy in the theater. In reality, most kids my age were watching Lizzie, but I doubt many boys at my school were willing to admit it. The early 2000s was an era of “girl power” in tween entertainment, which I’m sure was long overdue. Though it was confusing and challenging to navigate, I’m thankful to have been a kid when such strong female characters were being portrayed on screen. I’m glad to know now that I don’t need permission to like something, such as a movie or TV show, based on whether or not other people like it too. I wish I had known that then, but nevertheless, I was not about to miss The Lizzie McGuire Movie. I convinced two other boys to go with me, so this was actually happening.
The film’s soundtrack came out the week before the movie opened, and I had to go to Walmart to get my copy. Of course, it was a CD, and I played it in our car right away. That was the first time I got to hear “What Dreams Are Made Of,” which had been in commercials on Disney Channel. Disney was sparing no expense in promoting this movie on their cable network. There were so many ads and numerous segments with the Movie Surfers. There was also Hilary’s music video for “Why Not,” her new single featured in the film. Another behind-the-scenes promo I watched was on TV Guide Channel. The clock had died in my classroom at school, and the teacher turned on TV Guide so we could keep up with the time. For what seemed like weeks, I got to watch Hilary Duff being interviewed on the set of The Lizzie McGuire Movie. The volume was turned down, but obviously, I was still distracted.
I remember certain things about May 2, 2003 very clearly. I was counting down the hours, and a second grade field trip to a train attraction was keeping my mind off the endless wait. Still, passing a movie theater while riding on the school bus was torture. I looked out the window to see if I could spot The Lizzie McGuire Movie poster as we drove by. I couldn’t see it. I remember kids talking about the movie and a teacher telling us it was rated PG. If she was trying to rain on my parade by saying we weren’t old enough to watch, try again! I made it through the field trip, and it was finally time to go see Lizzie on the silver screen. I know it didn’t mean as much to the other two boys who were coming along, but in that moment, seeing this movie was everything to me. I soaked in every second of Lizzie’s grand adventure. I felt her embarrassment from falling at graduation. I shared her excitement for having adventures in Rome. I was torn between her new love interest and her lifelong best friend. I cringed as she tried on goofy outfits. I laughed as she stumbled on a red carpet. I felt her pain as she learned of betrayal. I cheered as she shined on stage. Thankfully, The Lizzie McGuire Movie had lived up to the hype and surpassed my highest expectations.
Today, I often get asked about my fandom for Lizzie McGuire and why I fell in love with the show and its title character. Like most kids and tweens at the time, I related to Lizzie. Still, I must have felt a deeper connection. Lizzie wanted to fit in like any pre-teen, but she was different. She was clumsy, quirky and awkward. She wasn’t an all-star athlete or a straight-A student. She didn’t quite fit in, and neither did I. Lizzie McGuire brought me comfort during a time when I was made to feel different. The Lizzie McGuire Movie took that emotional connection to the next level, giving me a cinematic experience I’ll never forget. When I was in college, I noticed the film got a lot of attention when it was added on Netflix. A generation had been re-introduced to a movie from our childhood. That might have been the first time I realized so many people connected to this film in the same way I did. And not just girls. Boys too. I once joined a group of college friends for a movie night, and yes, we watched The Lizzie McGuire Movie.
Lizzie McGuire is an iconic Disney franchise that’s as relevant as ever thanks to early 2000s nostalgia. With my podcast, I’ve been able to connect with Lizzie fans from around the world. I even had the opportunity to interview the director of The Lizzie McGuire Movie, Jim Fall. I still see a lot of myself in Lizzie, and I’m thankful for the positive impact the character has had on my life. I’m certainly curious if we’ll ever see Lizzie McGuire all grown up. If it doesn’t happen, I’m grateful we have The Lizzie McGuire Movie as a send off for the characters we know and love. Unlike the show that’s mostly rooted in reality, the film is pure fantasy, and that’s why we love it. It’s a form of escapism through a beautiful, heartfelt movie. Even twenty years later, it’s still what dreams are made of. And for those of us who were lucky enough to share that joyful movie-going experience, it always will be.