Warner Bros. // 2008 // 100 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 28th, 2008
The first-ever American Girl theatrical movie!
Over the last several decades the American Girl company has quietly infiltrated American culture, starting as a small mail-order company and growing into a subsidiary of toy giant Mattel. Although the company began in the 1980s, it didn't take the usual route to selling its dolls by creating a kids' television show. Instead, the American Girl dolls were packaged with and around books which told the doll's story. Each doll came from a specific moment in American history and revealed what a young girl's perspective on that era might be. Although the dolls are expensive (and the books formulaic), the American Girls built a successful empire (including large retail outlets in places like Manhattan's Fifth Avenue). As the early 21st century rolled around, the company decided to branch out and produced three made-for-TV movies featuring Samantha, Molly, and Felicity. These films met with enough success for the company to decide to branch out into its first theatrical feature: Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. Although not a film for all tastes, Kit is a worthy entry into the American Girl legacy.
During the Great Depression, young Kit Kittredge (Abigail Breslin, Nim's Island) has dreams of being a great reporter. Although her dad (Chris O'Donnell, Scent of a Woman) has left for Chicago, Kitt divides her time between reporting on local events and helping her mother (Julia Ormond, Inland Empire) find ways to be frugal. On her travels around town, she befriends a pair of hobos, which causes quite a stir because everyone seems to blame the hobos for the Depression. When a string of robberies comes to Kit's small town, the hobos are accused, and only Kit Kittredge believes in them enough to get the scoop.
Unsurprisingly, as a childless twentysomething film scholar, I have some criticism of Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. However, for the target demographic, Kit is a triumph. The story is a wholesome tale that imparts valuable lessons to its young audience, like frugality and tolerance. Amazingly, it manages this feat without resorting to preaching or moralizing. The good characters are admirable (without being entirely one-dimensional), and the bad characters are surprisingly sympathetic.
I also want to laud the film for being so brave in its depiction of the Great Depression. No, it's not a Works Progress Administration film featuring starving children and poor farmers, but it doesn't shy away from the consequences of the Depression, like tension and violence. It was also interesting to see the Depression so effectively filtered through the eyes of a young girl, for whom selling eggs and wearing a feed-sack dress are the true horrors of deprivation. In other hands, these feelings might seem superficial, but in Kit they only bring the more horrific aspects of privation into sharper relief. Also, although I wouldn't call the film a masterful piece of political filmmaking, the repeated use of house foreclosures as a motif brings significant gravity to the film. Likewise, the focus on hobos seems brave, given their obvious relationship to the current problems surrounding immigrants.
Overall, the acting is pretty strong. I'm amazed at how earnest Abigail Breslin can seem as Kit. Chris O'Donnell is at his most sincerely charming and modest as Kit's father. Julia Ormond is the soul of the film as Kit's mother, offering a fine performance as a woman doing her best to shield her daughter from the ravages of the Depression. Also, Joan Cusack gets to play a wacky mobile librarian, offering some fine slapstick for the film.
All is not, however, sunshine and roses in the world of Kit. I found the film's first half to be an engaging look at an interesting young girl during the Great Depression. However, once the film switches gears into mystery mode, I was less happy. My young viewing companion (who's a huge Kit fan) didn't seem to mind, but unlike the revelatory beginning, the mystery aspects of the film are at least as old as the Depression.
Kit Kittredge is the first American Girl movie made for theatrical release, but you wouldn't know it just from watching. I haven't seen all of the previous American Girl films, but the snippets I saw featured production values that aimed for the high end of miniseries quality, with interesting use of costume and production design. In contrast, Kit seems to be aimed squarely at the direct-to-video market. None of the colors, costumes, or sets seems to break out of a very small box, which makes the film feel slightly cheap in a way that's new to the American Girl movies. This feeling is maintained by the merely average video transfer on this DVD. It's a little too soft and occasionally noisy to earn high marks.
Continuing with the cheap feel, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl offers no supplements besides the trailers for the other American Girl films. Each of the other American Girl films featured interesting, informative extras that supplemented the historical aspects of the film. Not so with Kit Kittredge. I'm not sure kids need a documentary on the Great Depression, but one on journalism would have been nice, as would a compendium of Kit's tips for being frugal or anything that would have connected to the film beyond its 100-minute running time.
For American Girl fans, Kit Kittredge is sure to please. It's got the historical perspective, audacious pluck, and female lead that fans have come to expect from the franchise. For adults, the film is likely to be pretty entertaining (at least the first time through) for its perspective on the Great Depression. Despite a so-so technical presentation and a lack of supplements, this DVD is easy to recommend for children.
I've got the scoop: Kit Kittredge: American Girl is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated G