Kit Kittredge: An American Girl
This remind anyone else of bad blocking from a high school play?

Theatrical Release Date: 07/02/2008
Director: Patricia Rozema
Cast: Abigail Breslin, Julia Ormond, Chris O’Donnell, Jane Krakowski, Wallace Shawn, Max Theriot, Glenn Headly, Joan Cusack, Stanley Tucci

“Care Bears”, “Barbie”, “Strawberry Shortcake” … all of them started as toys which later found themselves adapted into direct to DVD cartoon films. For live-action theatrical films based on toys, it’s the boys that Hollywood figures will drive box office success with adaptations for iconic lines like “G.I.Joe” (coming in 2009) and “Transformers” (though I liked the animated film better).

Now you can add the American Girl doll line to the list with “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl”. Fans of the toys (though doubtfully fans of this site) already know that three other films centered on different dolls have been made – though those never saw the dark recesses of an actual movie theater, instead finding their way directly into the DVD players of 8 year-old girls.

The reason Kit seems to be getting her own film is the ability to attract a bankable cast, most notably in the title character with Abigail Breslin. She struck gold with “Little Miss Sunshine” and has since been seen in “No Reservations“, “Definitely, Maybe” and “Nim’s Island“.

Here, she gets the blond hair treatment (probably to match up with the doll) and is transported back to the era of the Great Depression. Kit has aspirations of becoming a newspaper reporter in her hometown of Cincinnati. Typing away on her typewriter and coming up with stories about the Chicago World’s Fair, her tenacity for reaching her goal is sweet and admirable, however the socio-economic situation around her causes a shift in her approach.

Like so much of America during that time period, the economic crunch hits home – her father (Chris O’Donnell) leaves town to find work after his business is repossessed by the bank and her mother (Julia Ormond) opens their house to boarders to make enough money to pay the mortgage.

The boarders (which include Jane Krakowski, Stanley Tucci, Glenn Headly and Joan Cusack) add a much needed lift to the film right about the time I had started to give up – ready to tap out in response to the saccharine, white-washed treatment of the Great Depression. I’m pretty sure John Steinbeck would be throwing things at the screen if he saw how this era was being presented in such a toned-down manner. Sure, it’s aimed at little girls and you don’t necessarily want to scare them with the harshest realities concerning the time period but the romanticization about being a hobo and the cleaned-up look to them seemed like something Disney would do for theme parks.

The central hobo to the film is played by Max Theriot, who looks like a hobo about as much as an Olson twin looks like a Rubens portrait model. He and his companion come to Cincinnati looking for work to put food in their bellies. Kit’s mother accepts their offer and watching Theriot struggle gives Kit the idea to write a story about hobos, hoping to dispel the notion that they’re untrustworthy and little more than thieves and ragamuffins. Of course, a string of burglaries occur that point to the handiwork of hobos and it’s up to Kit and her pals to solve the mystery and hopefully clear their new friends’ names.

In essence, the film goes from being a period piece, half-interested in educating viewers about the Great Depression, into this year’s younger version of “Nancy Drew” (which also had Theriot). The problem is that “Kit Kittredge” is so firmly aimed at the youngest possible mind able to comprehend moving pictures and words that it gives little opportunity for adults to find a way to enjoy it.

The junior detective element is relatively fun, especially with the precocious Breslin in charge. However, this element is tacked onto the last quarter of the film, marking an almost severe genre shift that wouldn’t make much sense if it weren’t for the fact that making this movie doesn’t seem to make much sense.

Breslin has gotten by on her charm and adorable naivety to this point but in the more serious dramatic scenes of the film, is completely exposed to criticism. Really, most of the cast seemed to lack direction (aside from Ormond and the boarders who are all too good to fall prey to this) and the heavy moments come off as over-handed and hammy. I’m sure having the poor man’s Robin play Kit’s father doesn’t help … I thought he had retired to a life of luxury counting the cash he banked? No? Why not!?!

Julia Ormond is the only member of the family to strike the right balance of tone in her character and she helps to ground the story somewhat. Still, the script is a complete mess of dumbed down Depression themes and over-the-top, unrealistic sweetness; especially in the end where everyone gets their just desserts in the cinematic equivalent of ‘See, good things DO happen to good people!’.

Director Patricia Rozema must also share the blame here. Her vision and style to the film very much looks like a Hallmark movie of the week and I can’t remember any shot that took advantage of the larger budget or opportunities a feature film provides. Add in all of the over-played and heavy-handed performances (especially by Breslin) and I can only surmise Rozema really sold herself well at the pitch meeting to select a director for this project.

The sad thing is that I really wanted to like this film. Between all of the great fun had with the boarders’ performances and the inclusion of Wallace Shawn as the Cincinnati newspaper editor, there were many scenes that helped to distract me from this third-rate version of “Nancy Drew” – but if you want that kind of film … go get “Nancy Drew“, it must be on DVD by now.

In doing a little research, I find it interesting that all of the dolls come from a specific time period and attempt to educate kids about the social issues surrounding those eras. Sadly, translating that onto the silver screen requires more than getting a few reels of 35mm film and it’s a shame producers didn’t shell out some extra cash to get a script rewrite and a new director.

Now, if you have really, really young kids … they’ll probably be happy with this. The few kids (all under 10) leaving the theater seemed to have enjoyed themselves. Then again, you could probably get the same reaction by dangling some shiny keys and have saved yourself $1,357 in tickets and candy. However, if you’re old enough to have noticed hair in funny places, “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl” is probably going to be too cloyingly sweet and pasteurized for your tastes and as such I can only give it a 2 out of 5. I did enjoy some of the performances and overall enjoyed the film … but I don’t know one friend I’d recommend this to … which probably isn’t a good endorsement.