Judge Gordon Sullivan shot for the stars, but his slingshot broke.
"This heartwarming story will have the whole family cheering"
History is a vast and rich tapestry of stories, but if you're going to call your company American Girl, you're kind of limited in which stories you're going to tell right off the bat. Still, the folks at American Girl milked it for all it was worth, starting with the pre-Revolutionary War period, and hitting pretty much every major American milestone since. There was a Civil War-era character, a Depression-era character, and even a Summer of Love-era character. Sure, it was drive-by history, but the company deserves credit for creating a diversity of girls and at least trying to wrap their stories of wholesome values in historical clothing. Still, all that had to come to an end at some point; I doubt we'll see a Whiskey Rebellion or a Teapot Dome Scandal American girl. I also doubt that we'll see a 9/11 American girl, either, but the company has gradually moved into telling contemporary stories. The centerpiece of that movement is McKenna. Now she has her own feature film, McKenna Shoots for the Stars. It's a surefire win for American Girl Dolls fans, but won't travel far outside that circle.
McKenna (Jade Pettyjohn) is a young gymnast who wants to compete. The only problem is that her grades aren't where they should be—if they're not brought up, she can't compete. If that weren't enough, she becomes friends with the tutor her parents (Nia Vardalos, My Big Fat Greek Wedding; Ian Ziering, Beverly Hills 90210) hire to help her, which causes her gymnast friend to get jealous.
I am very, very far outside the intended audience for an American Girl adventure. With that said, I kind of get the appeal of historically inflected tales that teach young girls about self-reliance, hard work, and the value of friendship. I hope that everybody learns these things growing up. However, I always thought that what made American Girl films and books special was the historical aspect. I mean they're all basically the same story (at least in the books); the only real differences are the historical details. Thus, I was willing to overlook the basic similarities of Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl and Felicity: An American Girl Adventure because of their hundred-plus year difference in time periods.
The problem with McKenna is that she's a contemporary girl. I'm sure that helps some young viewers identify with her, but for me it makes Shoot for the Stars utterly indistinguishable from anything that might be running on the Disney Channel right now. It reduces an interesting series of historical stories into a contemporary story of a young girl. Without the historical detail propping up the slight "message" of the films, McKenna: Shoot of the Stars simply drowns in the saccharine side of its "work hard and value friendship" morals.
Of course, that's purely from the point of view of an outsider to the American Girl culture. I'm not a young girl, nor the parent of a child in the target age. I can't imagine having to watch this flick over and over again with children, but I'm sure it will appeal to those in the target demographic. Young girls can enjoy seeing another young girl struggling with things like schoolwork and friendship (while learning valuable lessons), and parents can be content that their children aren't watching anything too objectionable. Parents will also likely be pleased to see actors they recognize (Nia Vardalos and Ian Ziering). I can also say that the film is technically fairly accomplished as well. The gymnastics scenes are well shot, and there's a professional air to everything despite this being a direct-to-video production.
McKenna Shoots for the Stars (Blu-ray) is also pretty solid. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is bright and clean, with decent detail and solid black levels. It's not a "wow" kind of transfer but it handles the material appropriately. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is similarly fine. Dialogue is clean and clear from the front, while the surrounds get a bit of a workout due to crowd noise during competition.
This set includes a Blu-ray disc, a standard def DVD copy, and an UltraViolet digital download. Though I usually find such inclusions kind of "eh," it makes sense here for a children's film where it can be enjoyed on a variety of platforms to keep the kids happy while travelling (or to bring the DVD over to the house of a family member who doesn't have a Blu-ray player).
The lack of any other extras is a bit disappointing, and not on par with other American Girl releases, though I guess the triple format of the set mitigates that problem somewhat.
Though I prefer their more historical offerings, McKenna Shoots for the Stars is a fine entry into the American Girl collection of doll-inspired films. It won't win any awards for originality, but parents can buy this for their children without fear, knowing they'll get a good message about friendship and working hard.
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