At first, I pegged Kit Kittredge: An American Girl as having a rather narrow audience of girls age 8-12. But while the film is certainly aimed squarely at that crowd, adults will enjoy the movie through their daughters, on behalf of their granddaughters— warming to its humor, its pathos, and its socially conscious messages. What's more, boys should see this movie. In a culture that so often sidelines girls in favor of testosterone-drenched action movies, boys should get used to an idea of growing up in a world that's fifty percent female (plus, the filmmakers' mamas didn't raise no fools: boys figure prominently in the plot, as well). In short, this first feature film based on the popular line of American Girl books and dolls is a fine day out at the movies.
Kit Kittredge is a bit like Warner's recent Nancy Drew movie, with a more grown-up tone despite its younger heroine. Ten-year-old Kit (Abigail Breslin) is a plucky Depression-era girl with a yen to be a reporter. But when her supportive, seemingly comfortable family falls prey to the economy, Kit's father (Chris O'Donnell) hits the road in search of employment, and Kit's mother (Julia Ormond) turns their Cincinatti home into a boarding house. Kit's empathy for her poor neighbors turns temporarily into embarrassment, but then to resolve. The latter quality proves important to Kit not only for her self-esteem but for playing amateur detective when a series of so-called hobo crimes plaguing the region hits close to home.
Part of what makes gifted-child Kit special as a character is her ability to move fluidly between the world of children (where she is a natural leader) and adults, where she is a sponge for life skills. Naturally, she challenges her parents about how they're coping with the strain of the Depression, but she also goes toe-to-toe with Mr. Gibson (Wallace Shawn), the editor of The Cincinatti Register, while hustling to get an article into print (today of course, she'd be a blogger—but I digress). Kit is also the president of the Treehouse Club, which gathers friends Ruthie (Madison Davenport), Frances (Brieanne Jansen), and Florence (Erin Hilgartner), and a friend to classmate Stirling (Zach Mills), who pines for his absent father.
Kids will enjoy the historic trivia (like lessons in "hobo signs"), the mystery, and the humor supplied by character actors like Glenne Headly, Stanley Tucci, Joan Cusack, and Jane Krakowski (playing members of the community that springs up at the Kittredge house). At heart, the movie is sentimental as all git-out, and always a stone's throw from old-fashioned corn, but it's all part of the film's appeal. I mean, try not to smile when a bad guy yells in alarm, "He's got the loot!" In a more sophisticated vein, there's also unexpected and creative poignancy in screenwriter Ann Peacock's handling of Stirling's story and, of course, the expected drama in Kit's struggles to help her community and keep her family under one roof.
Girls and boys will get the message of the need for helping others up when they're down and how gestures small and large can keep hope alive in trying times. The plot turns out to hinge on a "hobo jungle," whose quietly dignified denizens include rail-riding work-"men" Will (Max Thieriot of Nancy Drew) and Countee (Willow Smith). They're an unlikely pair, the former a white teen and the latter a black child; as such, they illustrate the positive side to the survivalist social adaptations of the Depression. As a dramatic influence, the economy forces the characters—including, if not especially, the one girl immune to economic reversal—to face who they are and come into their own.
Peacock (who's adapting here stories by Valerie Tripp) and director Patricia Rozema (Mansfield Park) even find ways to take what I presume to be market necessities and turn them into narrative assets. Though Mills makes an age-appropriate male buddy for Breslin, Thieriot's on hand to be the teen heartthrob for littler girls to moon over; still, Rozema never "goes there" with the characters, and Will plays important functions to the plot and themes. One girl's book report on Grimm's Fairy Tales nods to the American Girl books and the film itself: "Everyone lives happily ever after, and often with some very nice outfits." True and true, but the Depression has a way of taking the edge off fashion: unlike in Sex and the City, labels are foregone in favor of handmade ingenuity. In a Barbie world, American Girl Kit Kittredge is a hero, and Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is heroic.
New Line brings American Girl to Blu-ray for the first time with Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. The image quality is unfortunately lackluster. One should keep in mind that the film was made on a budget, and the period picture isn't intended to look shiny; still, the dull image here does the film no favors. Detail is okay, and an improvement over DVD, but contrast and color come across hazy. Combined with the natural but conspicuous film grain, the resulting picture isn't very pleasing, and offers little of the depth one associates with the best Blu-ray transfers. The disc includes a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack.
Given the lack of effort in the "A" and "V" departments, one would hope for a stellar collection of bonus features to lure fans away from DVD and to the Blu-ray. Um, nope. The only extras here are a digital copy for portable viewing (an admitted draw for girls on the run) and an "American Girl Trailer Gallery" that runs less than a minute. The previews are for American Girl: Felicity (:17), American Girl: Molly (:22) and Samantha: An American Girl Holiday (:17). Plus, they're in standard definition. Someone seems to have been asleep at the wheel for this rush release, but for those committed to Blu-ray, it's a family film worth considering...once the price drops.
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