As someone who does not come into regular contact with girls ages 5 to 12, my personal experience with the "American Girl" phenomenon has been limited. As a sentient human being who happens to work in close proximity to a very large American Girl retail store, I am, however, well aware of the brand's peculiar hold over preteen girls. And if the number of red shopping bags on Michigan Avenue is any indication, the devotion to the "Girls" is on par with what my generation once felt for the inhabitants of a certain Little House on the Prairie (augmented by an epic marketing budget).
Armed solely with this anecdotal evidence, I predict with great confidence that the big-screen debut of the American Girl brand will be a resounding success. This rosy prediction is based partly on the fact that "Kit Kittredge" is a solidly made movie, chock-full of cheerful American can-do spirit, and partly on the fact that the American Girl brand is, essentially, bulletproof. Judging by the success of the made-for-TV movies already trotted out (starring American Girls Felicity, Molly and Samantha), the filmmakers could have drawn stick figures on a piece of construction paper and waved it around in front of a camera for two hours, and as long as they released the results under the American Girl banner, they'd have sold out matinee screenings for weeks on end.
Happily for Kit's fans, as well as parents, grandparents and baby-sitters who will spend this weekend in her company, director Patricia Rozema has taken great care with this movie, creating an earnest, heartfelt iteration of a world beloved by so many little girls. Less predictably, she and producer Lisa Gillan and executive producer Julia Roberts (yes, that Julia Roberts) have skillfully introduced messages of proto-feminism (send the men away, and let the women do the real work) and the best of America's leftist ideology (to each according to his or her abilities and needs) into a big-budget summer movie.
Having said that, there's nothing complex about this movie. It's all straight-ahead, clean-cut hijinks with absolutely no sense of humor about itself. That's not a requirement, of course, but for those parents and baby-sitters, a little bit of acid to balance the overwhelming sweetness might be just the thing. ( Stanley Tucci, as a magician, provides a welcome dose of sarcasm, but his screen time is far too brief and too often shared with Joan Cusack, who appears to be channeling a very drunk Carol Channing).
The Great Depression has hit America hard, and the residents of the Kittredge family's comfortable Cincinnati neighborhood are slowly succumbing to the financial crisis. Mr. Kittredge (played by Chris O'Donnell, whose ageless baby face makes him an unlikely father figure) is struggling to hold on to his job and his home. In desperation he leaves his wife ( Julia Ormond, looking impossibly glam) and daughter Kit to find work in Chicago. The ladies buck up and face their conundrum head-on, taking in boarders and tightening their belts. Kit is desperate to be a newspaper reporter, and so she's always on the lookout for a good story. This wide-eyed curiosity takes her—and her appealingly ragtag group of friends—on various adventures.
Abigail Breslin, so appealing in the whip-smart "Little Miss Sunshine," struggles a bit with "Kit's" hyper-earnest script, which requires her to perform a lot of long "reaction" shots, all of which make her look extremely uncomfortable. (That could also be blamed on her hair, styled into a blond bob that's wildly unbecoming).
Unlike Pixar's best offerings ("The Incredibles," "Finding Nemo"), this is not a movie that will appeal equally to adults and children. "Kit" is strictly a kids' movie—brimming with easy-to-swallow life lessons (to wit: "different" doesn't mean "bad," and sometimes even hard-working people need a bit of help) and all-American gumption. Golly, but those kids sure do know how to make the best of bad situations!
Make no mistake: Kids (boys or girls) looking for a role model could do a lot worse than Kit Kittredge. Defiantly her own person, she speaks when and to whom she sees fit—addressing social wrongs and speaking truth to power—apparently without fear of reprisal. The adults in her world seem to exist purely for her benefit, occasionally advancing the narrative or, less often, providing a moral barometer. This means the kids have complete freedom: to roam, to adopt homeless dogs, to find creative ways of saving one's house from a bank foreclosure. All before bedtime.