Usually when a movie springs from a line of toys, it's bone-chilling news for the parents who'll be dragged along for an afternoon of brain death -- "Bratz," anyone? "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl," however, while sprouting from high-rent dolls and a popular book series under the American Girl banner, doesn't feel like a mere marketing ploy. It appeals to kids while evoking genuine emotion without excessive sentimentality.
The series seeks to personalize history by telling inspirational stories set in specific historical contexts with young heroines whom today's girls might find relatable. With some settings, such as the Great Depression for Kit Kittredge, the proceedings can get pretty serious. But the movie admirably does not talk down to its intended audience, nor does it pretend that everything will be all right for these ordinary families losing jobs and homes.
Kit (Abigail Breslin) is a 10-year-old girl in 1934 Cincinnati with dreams of becoming a journalist. When the hard times sweeping the nation reach her doorstep, she must adjust to some harsh new realities as her family and neighbors suddenly find themselves struggling to get by. With her house teetering on the edge of foreclosure, the budding investigative reporter can save it only by solving a "hobo crime wave" with the help of her friends.
The mystery satisfies the movie's adventure quotient, but the film is really a kid-friendly family drama about sticking together and remaining empathetic during tough times.
Breslin is suitably perky as Kit, and as her parents, the fine Julia Ormond is warm and convincing and Chris O'Donnell's all-American persona serves him well as a struggling Everyman. The deep supporting cast includes Stanley Tucci and Joan Cusack, and while director Patricia Rozema ("Mansfield Park") shows a sensitive touch, comedic moments sometimes fail to click.
The movie has a surely unintended but inescapable current resonance in its tsunami of residential foreclosures. "Kittredge" personalizes the Great Depression in terms simple enough for young audiences by showing how loving families can be torn apart by circumstances beyond their control. This can be strong stuff for kids, but the film's humanistic approach preaches tolerance and hope.
"Kit Kittredge: An American Girl." MPAA rating: G. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Opens today exclusively at Pacific's Grove, 189 The Grove Drive, L.A., (323) 692-0829. In general release on July 2.