'Kit Kittredge' has solid message for kids
Thursday, June 19, 2008
So at least "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" has a lot more on its mind — and a much more beneficial message for girls — than last summer's candy-coated movie-based-on-a-doll, "Bratz."
Heck, "Transformers" did, too, for that matter.
That's also precisely why it's such a letdown when this tale set in the Depression rushes to wrap things up with a neat, pretty bow at the end.
It is encouraging, though, to see women in lead roles both in front of and behind the camera. Patricia Rozema ("Mansfield Park") directs a script by Ann Peacock ("The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"), based on Valerie Tripp's stories; Julia Roberts and American Girl president Ellen R. Brothers are among the producers. And Abigail Breslin stars, again proving she's wise beyond her years but with a childlike innocence that can melt your heart.
Breslin's Kit Kittredge is a 9-year-old aspiring reporter, living comfortably in Cincinnati with her mom (Julia Ormond, weirdly cast) and dad (Chris O'Donnell) even as her classmates' families are selling eggs to get by. Then Dad loses his car dealership and moves to Chicago seeking work; Mom starts taking in borders for cash (an eclectic mix played by a strong supporting cast that includes Joan Cusack, Stanley Tucci and Jane Krakowski).
Plucky, big-hearted Kit, meanwhile, befriends a pair of poor, young wanderers — Will (Max Thieriot) and Countee (Willow Smith) — at a time when hobos are suspected of crimes throughout the state. She's also the kind of girl who'll bring home a sad-faced basset hound who has been abandoned on the street. But, being a young journalist, Kit is sharp enough to observe her surroundings and ask the tough questions; she also won't take no for an answer, especially when that "no" comes from the Cincinnati Register's cantankerous editor, played with — well, typical cantankerousness — by Wallace Shawn.
It's impossible to dislike this character, and easy to see the world through her eyes. That's one of the script's great strengths: It tackles tough subject matter in a way that's accessible to young people without ever condescending.
OK, so maybe some of the humor is a little corny. Will mends a fence at the Kittredge home to earn some money, then Cusack, as a wacky mobile librarian, plows right through it with her clunker of a truck because she can't figure out the difference between the brake and the clutch. And some of the musical cues are a bit hokey and obvious.
Still, most pop culture aimed at tween girls seems to do little more than extoll the virtues of beauty, popularity and materialism; "Kit Kittredge" contains useful lessons about decency, charity and perseverance. Previous movies based on other dolls in the American Girl collection — Samantha, Felicity and Molly — have gone straight to television. This ought to do just fine in theaters, though. Families will find it refreshing to see a film they can all watch together that isn't overloaded with cheeky pop culture references.
It would be too easy to argue that there's an audience for female-centric entertainment by comparing "Kit Kittredge" with the success the "Sex and the City" movie has enjoyed. And yes, you could say that Kit is a pint-sized Carrie Bradshaw, sitting down at her keyboard to synthesize and make sense of everything she sees around her. (She's also quite the fashionista with her flowered dresses and cute knit caps. Even when money gets tight, and Mom has to make her a frock from a feed sack, Kit still turns out to be a trendsetter — simply because she wears it to school with such confidence.)
Loyalty among friends is one admirable trait both movies share; unfortunately, so is a wildly happy ending. After depicting hard times with such an eye for truth for so long, "Kit Kittredge" turns so unrealistically feel-good, you'd almost think it's a parody of "It's a Wonderful Life."
The packaging looks good for the most part. But there's still some assembly required.
"Kit Kittredge: An American Girl," a Picturehouse and New Line Cinema release, is rated G. Running time: 100 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.