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If you haven't heard of American Girl dolls and the historical fiction series starring each one, you probably don't have much contact with 3- to 12-year-old girls. Or girls now in their 20s. Since 1986, American Girl has sold 123 million books and more than 14 million of its pricey (usually in the $75 to $100 range) collectible dolls.
Given that level of brand recognition, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling. And after considerable success with three made-for-TV movies, the toy company chose the story of Kit Kittredge to take American Girl to the big screen.
It was certainly a prescient decision. The G-rated film (to be released nationwide July 2) opens in 1934 with 10-year-old Kit (Abigail Breslin) watching as bank representatives repossess her friend Frances' home and most of the family's possessions. Soon Kit's own father finds himself out of a job, and in an effort to keep the family's house leaves Kit and her mother (Julia Ormand) temporarily to look for work in Chicago.
The plot from this point involves Kit and her friends pulling together as a host of quirky characters rent rooms in the Kittredge house. The lineup of talent inhabiting these minor roles (Joan Cusack, Stanley Tucci, Glenne Headley, and Jane Krakowski) is impressive, and makes a series of one-note parts more entertaining than they have any right to be. But it is the setting of the story that is most likely to make an impact on viewers. In an era of record foreclosures and rising economic concerns, what might otherwise have felt like standard family-feel-good fare suddenly seems a bit more timely.
"I think there is a lot to connect to with this film for kids," agrees Chris O'Donnell, who stars as Kit's financially strapped dad. "If they're not experiencing the housing crisis personally, they probably have friends who are. At the very least they're probably aware of it from listening to their parents and the news."
But even if young fans can't relate the struggles in the movie to their own life, Kit still offers more than the shows and movies typically aimed at the tween girl market. Besides the simple educational value of giving them a picture to connect with their history lessons, the film also focuses on more significant themes than the materialism and prettiness championed in the Hannah Montana ghetto.
"We live with such crazy wealth compared to the rest of the world and our kids don't know that. They have no idea how shockingly rich we are," says director Patricia Rozema. "And most stories for little girls only involve 'Oh, I'm going to be a princess, and how will I wear all my jewels?' And that's okay, there's a place for that kind of fairy tale. But I don't think it should be the only kind. Girls' imaginations shouldn't be fed solely on a diet of wealth fantasies. They need to know that there can be something beautiful in hardship as well."
And there is indeed something lovely in scenes showing Kit overcoming her humiliation of wearing feed-sack dresses to school and selling eggs door to door to help her family survive.
Unfortunately, toward the end, the story veers away from an inspiring portrait of a community helping each other through hard times toward an over-the-top sleuthing caper. As Kit and her friends try to foil the plans of a band of robbers the movie begins to feel less like "Little House in Cincinnati" and more like "Home Alone in the Great Depression."
But by that point, the gentle humor and selfless sentiment of the film has done its work, and you're likely to walk away with some uplifting life lessons to discuss with your kids.