For a TV video series that's based on a collection of books solely designed to promote a line of dolls and accessories, the American Girl films are really quite good. Each one has great costume and set design that conveys an accurate impression of the historical period; each one contains a positive social message pertinent to the era; and each one features a likable main character and best friend who are good role models for young girls and dead ringers for the dolls this corporation hopes everyone will buy.
And for a series like this, the American Girl films are also consistent in quality, running in the 5-7 out of 10 range--a 5 if you're a curmudgeon, a 6 if you expect a film to appeal to adults as well as children, and a 7 if you understand that these are targeted at girls age 8 and older. Have a quick look at the official American Girl website and you'll see what I mean.
I visited the American Girl Place in downtown Chicago and saw this phenomenon up close. In addition to a store that was set up like a museum, this Place had a theater with a live performance of an American Girl revue, and girls were cradling their favorite American Girl dolls as they walked out of the matinee. They carried them throughout the crowded store as they looked to buy more. These dolls aren't cheap, either--roughly a hundred bucks a pop. That's especially ironic, given the current economic crisis and the time period in which this latest American Girl movie is set: 1934, during the Great Depression.
Four is an important number in this series. In "Felicity: An American Girl Adventure" (2005), the setting is Colonial Williamsburg in 1774, and young girls not only get a lesson in daily life in pre-Revolutionary War America, but a lesson in Tory and Colonist politics as well, because Felicity's father is for revolution while her grandfather is a loyalist. But politics don't divide the characters irreparably; they're just used to teach a lesson to young girls about the time period.
The same was true of "Samantha: An American Girl Holiday" (2004), which was set in 1904 and featured a two-tiered society where Samantha lived with her grandmother but her best friend ended up in an orphanage. Directed by Nadia Tass, who handles behind-the-camera chores for all the films, this one most sensitively portrays relationships that persist under difficult circumstances--a them that's common to the series.
Joyce Chopra took over the direction in 2006 with "Molly: An American Girl on the Home Front," which was set in 1944 and offered a strong story involving the children from London who were relocated because of the bombings.
For the 2008 installment, Patricia Rozema ("Mansfield Park") directed the talented Abigail Breslin ("Little Miss Sunshine"), who plays the title character. We watch as young Kit and her friends Ruthie (Madison Davenport), Frances (Brieanne Jansen), and Florence (Erin Hilgartner) live what looks to be the good life. Their moms have fashionable tea parties in 1934 Cincinnati, and everyone but Kit's mother (Julia Ormond) seems to look down on those who are less fortunate--particularly the hoboes who camp near the river underneath the railroad tracks and who are mistrusted, thought to be thieves and one reason why the country is in a depression.
Into their lives comes two young hoboes, a tall white teen named Will (Max Thierot, "The Astronaut Farmer") and a tiny black boy named Countee (Will Smith's daughter Willow). These two are looking to "barter," meaning they'll work for food, and Mrs. Kittredge gives them something to do. But before long, it's not just the hoboes who are the unfortunates. First Ruthie's father, a banker, is forced to foreclose on Frances' family's home next door to Kit's, and all of their possessions are taken from them and sold at auction, leaving the family to live with relatives. Besides the will-work-for-food crowd and hobo camps, there are abandoned pets, and Kit takes in a sad-looking basset hound wearing a sign that says "can't feed her any more." Soon, the economic problems hit closer to home, as Kit's father (Chris O'Donnell) loses his car dealership and the family car, and is forced to board the bus for Chicago to look for work. In short order, Kit is informed that her things have been moved to the attic so that her mother could rent her room to one of her classmates and his mother (Zach Mills, Glenne Headley) who've lost their home. Soon other rooms are rented out, common living space is partitioned, and more boarders are taken in, all in an effort to keep from losing the family's house to the bank.
The boarders are a colorful bunch. There's a dancer (Jane Krakowski, "Allie McBeal") who's constantly practicing, a magician named Jefferson Jasper Berk (Stanley Tucci) who tries to amuse and amaze his fellow tenants, a mobile book librarian whose erratic driving matches her personality (Joan Cusack), and eventually the magician's cousin, Freidrich (Dyklan Smith) and his monkey.
Like the other films in the series, this one documents the age pretty well--a task made easier because young Kit is determined to be a reporter. With her tiny camera she takes pictures of scenes of the Depression, including a hobo store (where people take/leave things they need/don't need), hobo stew, and signs that hoboes left on houses to alert others to whether the person was caring, whether they had good garbage, or whether there was danger there. Some of the humor comes from Kit's visits to the Cincinnati Register, where she confronts the blustery-but-lisping editor (Wallace Shawn) with her stories, telling him he should publish them.
Where this film deviates from the others, though, is that there's a mystery to be solved (who's taking valuables from the neighbors and boarders, and who stole the Kittredge family money?) and three villains will remind viewers of live-action Disney films because their characters are drawn so broadly. But there's warmth, there's the same pathos that characterized the other films, and the young girls in the film are engaging. The message embedded here is that you need to take care of those less fortunate than you, because there, but for an act of God, go you. The most annoying boy in Kit's class (Austin Macdonald) dresses like a young Republican and spouts rhetoric he heard from his father, free-market nonsense about the poor just not wanting to work hard enough, and that you make your own luck. There's more compassion in this message than that, and it couldn't come at a more appropriate time, when history is threatening to repeat itself.
As with other titles in this series, "Kit Kittredge" has solid production values, with the film playable in 1.85:1 widescreen or pan-and-scan full screen (1.33:1). Pop the disc into your computer and you can also download a digital copy. It's a fairly clean and grain-free print that has strong colors, with the film "antiqued" in post-production to give it an older, warmer, softer look, and also to convey the absence of wealth.
The audio is an expressive English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, which makes good use of effects speakers to capture ambient sounds in outdoor scenes, but otherwise stays pretty close to the center speaker with all the dialogue. There are no glaring weaknesses to the soundtrack, nor is it anything special. It works.
Aside from the digital copy, there are a few short bonus features, but you can't access them via stand-alone DVD or Blu-ray player. You've got to pop the disc into your DVD-ROM on your PC. Mac owners, you're sucking eggs again.
Breslin delivers a more restrained performance than in "Nim's Island" or "Little Miss Sunshine," but she remains a young force who's capable of holding your attention in every scene. Despite some broad comedy, "Kit Kitttredge: An American Girl" is a worthy edition to the series. But what do I know? Here's what my six-year-old daughter had to say: "All the American Girl movies are great." Pressed to say which one was her favorite, she declared, predictably, "All of them." But when I asked her which one she'd take with her on a long trip, without hesitation she said, "Samantha." But I got the feeling that "Kit Kittredge" wasn't far behind.