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Annie meets Nancy Drew in the likeable first American Girl movie
Let's Hear It for the (Little) Girls:
Kit Kittredge: An American Girl
7-4-08 "Knight Thoughts" web exclusive review
By Richard Knight, Jr.
Abigail Breslin, the child actress who so memorably shook her moneymaker at the climax of the black comedy Little Miss Sunshine,
now gets top billing in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. That subtitle is a none too subtle reminder for those in the know (read:
millions of little girls and their indulgent parents) that here at last is the first in what promises to be an assembly line of movies
focusing on The American Girl doll line. By now, of course, those that haven’t purchased a doll or a myriad of teeny weeny
accessories that include clothes, furniture, miniature ponies and dolls for the dolls, or a book detailing the back story of each of the
hand sculpted dolls with the long eyelashes or taken tea and seen the show and had the full experience at one of the American
Place stores are aware of the movie, too.
After having been inundated with a marketing blitz shrewdly conceived and helped along by the success of the female centric Sex and
the City, the movie after carefully building word of mouth in select cities, is finally here for all the little girls and the rest of the world
to see. In what was once a rare reversal (but now increasingly commonplace), here’s a case where the merchandise preceded the
movie. So how do the goods hold up? Will the little darlings clutch the movie metaphorically to their breasts as surely as they do
those ubiquitous, emotionless dolls?
In a word: yes. As for the rest of the movie going audience, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is a notch (just barely) above any number
of other kid movies inspired by toys. I’m thinking in particular of the Halloweentown movies made for the Disney Channel as a prime
example. These movies usually star interchangeable child actors that producers surround with expert name players (like Debbie
Reynolds) sure to deliver laughs or villainy on cue. The plots usually have a hint of mystery with the solution fairly simple to solve, a
share of cutsey poo sight gags, and lots and lots of emotional turmoil. Every heartstring will be tugged at along the way and
everything will work out just fine in the end. Empowerment is the ultimate message here. Director Patricia Rozema, doing a
competent if not exactly noteworthy job, ensures that.
What elevates Kit a tad is the sumptuous budget which allows the 1934 Depression era settings and costumes to be authentically
realized, the music score to be played by a real orchestra instead of one of those cheesy synthesizers (you can always tell the
difference – listen to “the horns” in the cheapo TV versions), and most importantly, money to buy a really terrific supporting cast.
Kit's includes Joan Cusack, Stanley Tucci, Chris O’Donnell, Julia Ormond, Glenne Headley, Jane Krakowski, Wallace Shawn, and the
excellent teen actor Max Thieriot who made a strong impression in The Astronaut Farmer.
The producers of Kit (including Julia Roberts) have spent their money well for it’s the sturdy cast, along with Breslin that leaves the
strongest impact. The movie has the languorous pace of a summer day – a pace captured in To Kill a Mockingbird – and it also has
some of the nostalgic charm and sass of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memories and sections of Woody Allen’s Radio Days. But unlike
those two examples of the Great Depression filtered through a Manhattan sensibility, Kit Kittredge is seen through the eyes of a
relatively affluent neighborhood in small town America (in Ohio).
In essence, the story follows young Kit who is mad to become a journalist. Each day she retires to the spiffy tree house (built by dad
we assume) to pound out her stories on her typewriter. Kit, who sports a blonde pageboy, is determined to get into print so she
keeps pitching stories to any one at the local paper who will listen. But it’s 1934 and no one wants to hear a junior journalist’s ideas
or read her stories. The Depression has come to Ohio and things have gone from bad to worse for Kit and her immediate family.
To the point where dad (Chris O’Donnell) not only loses his job but can’t find another. He strikes out for Chicago hearing of
possibilities there. Meanwhile, Kit’s mother (Julia Ormond) is forced to take in boarders to keep up with the mortgage. This plot
point also allows a slew of wacky characters – a myopic librarian, a shifty magician, a temptress, a snooty lady with airs, etc. – into
the story bringing plenty of vitality with them. Drifters of all ages, especially two young ones who the mother hires to do odd jobs,
also come into the story.
All these elements provide Kit – especially the mystery of who’s committing the local robberies – with more story material in her
quest to get published. Like Hope and Glory, the great British film about children finding fun during the London Blitz of WWII, Kit and
her comrades find plenty of magic even as crippling adversity is engulfing their elders.
The result is a very sweet family film, a cross between Annie (without the songs, natch) and Nancy Drew, that goes down as smoothly
as a root beer float on a hot day. The film’s one misstep for me was Ormond as the mother. Now I love Julia Ormond – especially
in the unfairly overlooked Smilla’s Sense of Snow – so much in fact that her work there has almost ruined her in every other role for
me (go back and take a look at it, she’s devastatingly good and it’s a terrific film) and I had trouble believing her as the wife of
cutie pie O’Donnell and mother of Breslin. She does fine work but something about her doesn’t fit the small town milieu. Are her
looks too exotically beautiful? Her manner too edgy and impatient for the sleepy surroundings the character inhabits? Yes and yes
again. If anything, I imagine her leaving home – not the father – to seek fortune in the Big City (and finding it, surely, in
Hollywood). But this is the kind of movie that bored adults will easily enjoy more readily if they move the characters at will around
the board. Isn’t it much more likely that she and not Joan Cusack would indulge in a little hanky panky?
But I digress and really, Ormond is only there to support little Kit/Abigail – as are the rest of the cast. And that’s as it should be,
this being a pint sized star vehicle for Breslin. I expect Kit Kittredge: An American Girl will officially launch a movie franchise for the
doll company and with a slew of other dolls and back stories waiting in the wings, said movies, TV shows and Broadway musicals are
sure to follow. The cups of little girls are sure to overflow with all these girl empowerment messages.
One question, however, kept nagging at me throughout the movie (the same one I heard all during the pre-teen stage sensation
“Wicked”) – what about little boys? Where’s their American Boy franchise? How come they get stuck with the guns-hunting-violence-
killing characters and stories? How about a series where the boys use their brains instead of their brawn, too? How about some
more movies to empower the little boys – something along the lines of Billy Elliot, say?
That’s not asking too much, is it?