I’ve said in the past that 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. In case you don’t have a young girl (ages 6-10) in your life and aren’t aware of this marketing phenomenon, American Girl makes large dolls from different decades in American history. Julie, for example, is ‘70s girl, with long hair and flower-child accessories. Molly is from the ‘40s. More than 50 different dolls have been created over the years, each one accompanied by a fictional book that tells their stories.
But there are far fewer films. “Samantha: An American Girl Holiday” (2004) was the first in the American Girl series, and it showed young fans a glimpse of life as it was lived in 1904. That was followed by “Felicity: An American Girl Adventure” (2005), set in the days prior to the American Revolution. Next came “Molly: An American Girl on the Home Front” (2006), about life in the ‘40s, and “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl” (2008), who was a child of the Depression.
Each of the previous American Girl films had great costume and set design that conveyed an accurate impression of the historical period. The authors and filmmakers did their homework, and each film painted a broad picture of what life was like for both the upper and under classes; each contained a positive social message pertinent to the era; and each one featured a likable main character and best friend who were good role models for young girls and dead ringers for the dolls this corporation hopes everyone would buy.
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 any 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 and for that audience seem just perfect. Have a quick look at the official American Girl website and you’ll see what I mean.
I could be wrong, but I think American Girl took a misstep with “An American Girl: McKenna Shoots for the Stars” by making it contemporary. Without the historical aspect to create a focus for the film, the feel-good, giggly, all-girls vibe tends toward the cheesy. No parent can say something without their “cool” or upbeat smiling attitude, no exchange between girls can happen without a hug, giggles, or (when there are misunderstandings or falling outs) those lingering hurt-puppy reaction shots. I really missed the focus on recapturing a culture of a bygone era. Without it, this American Girl film seems like just another feel-good ABC Family or Hallmark Channel movie.
McKenna (played by the likable Jade Pettyjohn in her first big role) is a fourth grader and one of the top gymnasts at an after-school academy where the coach is real-life former Olympian Cathy Rigby. Her best friend since age three and friendly rival is Toulane (Ysa Penarejo), whose mother (Paula Rivera) exists in this “too easy” script just to sit in the stands and scrutinize her daughter, weighing her down with great expectations of following in her talented sister’s gymnastic footsteps. But while McKenna’s dream is to be an Olympic gymnast, as they’ve talked about, Toulane is less sure. She envies the dancers who perform without the same helicopter parenting.
There are two plot complications. The first is that McKenna has a problem with reading comprehension, and her teacher refers her to a tutor named Josie (Kerris Dorsey, “Moneyball”), who happens to be wheelchair bound and therefore provide both contrast and perspective when McKenna ignores her coach and attempts a dismount that breaks her ankle. But the problem is serious enough that if it were to occur in any school district in America, McKenna would work with a resource teacher, and not be assigned one tutor . . . then a montage of terrible tutors. Then again, logic isn’t at play much. It’s not logical that McKenna would get her cast off just three weeks before regionals and still get her strength and timing back to be able to compete.
Unlike Disney, who tend to make their parents either over-the-top or seldom seen, the American Girl series inserts parents who are a huge part of their daughters’ lives. But in this film, Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) and Ian Ziering (“Beverly Hills 90210”) seem to have prepared for their roles (or were directed as such) by watching all 199 episodes of “The Cosby Show” and trying to out-cute Cos and Phylicia Rashad in their parenting approach and banter. And Grandma (Talia Pura)? She’s just there to smile.
Previous American Girl films had enough of an authentic period feel that they held some appeal for parents as well. But without a strong young male character (I can’t think of any in this film) the boys will be off playing their video games, and the parents will be trying to keep from wink-winking at each other and making “gag me” gestures every time the cheese gets a little heavy.
The previous “Kit Kittredge” Blu-ray used a VC-1 encode, but this one sports an industry-standard AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB Blu-ray Disc. It’s presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, with a strong amount of detail, strong black levels, and natural-looking colors and skin tones.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that really doesn’t utilize the rear speakers much. Still, it’s a clear and resonant soundtrack that also features a Spanish DTS 5.1 Surround option, with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish and French.
This combo pack comes with a DVD of the film, a Digital Copy, and a UV copy. I personally don’t understand the push for Cloud-based movie collections. This one has to be streamed or downloaded by 4-15-14. Give me an old-fashioned disc that I can rely on and I’m happy.
Other than multiple copies of the film, there are no extras.
“McKenna Shoots for the Stars” is not nearly as good as previous American Girl films, because without a historical context to divert the writers and director, all that’s left is to focus on cheesy feel-good warmth and a formulaic plot. This one is strictly for the little girls—who will, by the way, still be happy to add it to their collections. As of now, it’s only available at Walmart.