by David Cornelius
If you’re the parent of a girl of a certain age, you’re all too familiar with “American Girl.” To the uninitiated, the franchise is a series of dolls, doll accessories, books, videos, magazines, and whatever else can drain a parent’s wallet, all revolving around preteen girls living in various key times in American history. Felicity lives at the dawn of the American Revolution; Addy is a Civil War-era slave; Molly struggles through World War II; etc. While the dolls themselves have become a parental punchline due to their high prices (ninety bucks is the going rate for a single doll - I have yet to meet a fellow parent whose response has not been a suggestion for which body cavity the company can place such overpriced toys), the books themselves do a fine job of getting girls interested in history, and that’s good stuff.After several direct-to-video live-action adventures starring various American Girls, the franchise has finally landed on the big screen, with “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl.” Far from being a cash-grab tie-in, director Patricia Rozema and screenwriter Ann Peacock give their adaptation a great deal of heart. “Kit Kittredge” is as sweet and as huggable a movie as its title character, a gal so plucky that she could only be played by Abigail Breslin.
"Ninety minutes of total charm."
It’s 1934, and Kit lives with mom (Julia Ormond) and dad (Chris O’Donnell) in Cincinnati (if by “Cincinnati” you mean “Toronto,” this Reds fan says as he takes a long, sad sigh). As the film opens, their family is one of the few in their well-to-do corner of the city not yet hit by the Great Depression, but times are tight, and soon not even the Kittredge clan can remain afloat. Kit’s dad leaves to find work in Chicago, while mom opens up the spare rooms to boarders.
That, in turn, opens up the film to a bevy of quirky characters who lend a pleasant charm to the proceedings. There’s Miss Dooley (Jane Krakowsi), the leggy dance instructor; Miss Bond (Joan Cusack), the clumsy librarian; neighborhood friends Mrs. Howard (Glenne Headly) and her son Stirling (Zach Mills), also hit by hard times; and the strange showman Jefferson Berk (Stanley Tucci), a down-on-his-luck magician eager to perform for Kit and her friends. Purses might be empty, but the Kittredge house still looks like a cozy place to be.
There’s also Will (Max Thieriot) and Countee (Willow Smith), two underage hobos eager to work for food; Mrs. Kittredge obliges, and the duo help introduce Kit to the hobo lifestyle, where train hopping may offer easy adventure, but it doesn’t fill one’s belly. Kit offers a gentle understanding of these kids’ plight, as she’s wise enough to realize that with so many struggling, even those that are getting by are only a missed mortgage payment or two away from eating at the local soup kitchen.
When word gets out that hobos are responsible for a chain of robberies from Cincinnati to Dayton and beyond, anyone who’s read a Nancy Drew book or two will realize that a mystery will soon land in Kit’s lap. Sure enough, the third act finds our heroine fighting to prove Will’s innocence when he’s framed for stealing the house’s lockbox. (The original subtitle for the film was “An American Girl Mystery,” taken from a line of more action-oriented books in the franchise.) Kit’s the perfect detective, as she’s an aspiring reporter who faithfully takes notes, which she uses to find the real culprit.
But more than just the simple thrills of junior adventure, “Kit Kittredge” weaves themes of tolerance and charity into the proceedings. Whereas most of the film’s grown-ups look down on the hobos for their dirty boots and unshaven faces, Kit and her friends take the time to meet them, to empathize with them. Where others see bums with their hands out, Kit sees folks in trouble willing to band together to help each other out. Meanwhile, despite her own needs, Mrs. Kittredge is never one to turn away a fellow in need, and by the movie’s heartwarming closing scene, the favor is returned in kind, and then some.
It’s a wonderful lesson, but more wonderful is the fact that the script never forces the message into the story. There’s no stopping for Kit to tell us what she learned from her adventures, no clunky pausing of the action to reinforce the moral.
Let’s turn, finally, to a member of the target audience and my moviegoing companion, my eight-year-old daughter, Grace. She applauded loudly at the end - always a sure sign of her approval - and talked long and loud for quite some time after we left the theater. When pressed for more critic-y commentary, she added that Breslin did a perfect job as Kit, that she loved the happy ending, that she hated how everyone was so mean to the hobos when they were such nice people, and that her favoritest of favorite parts was when Kit talked her mom into adopting a basset hound someone abandoned.So there you have it: a cute dog, feisty kids, and a great big happy ending, everything an American Girl fan would want out of the movie. Come to think of it, that’s enough to please the parents, too.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=17045&reviewer=392
originally posted: 07/08/08 01:23:56