In an early scene in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, a girl standing up in class announces that her favorite type of story is the fairy tale: “No matter how scary it gets, everyone always winds up happy… often with very nice outfits.”
By that standard, Kit Kittredge isn’t exactly an archetypal fairy tale. Yes, the exigencies of the Depression-era story, adapted from the American Girl series of short historical fiction, do become distressing. Yes, in the end nearly everyone winds up happy. By that point, though, the very nice outfits have long since gone by the wayside.
Or have they?
Kit is still wearing nice outfits as the story opens, while her family is faring better than some of their Cincinnati neighbors. At school, though, snobby classmates regale Kit with ominous gossip about classmates sliding down the road to poverty; warning signs include selling eggs to make extra money, then wearing clothes made from chicken-feed sacks. Kit shudders, scarcely able to imagine such a fate befalling her family — yet with the passing of time Kit is gradually reduced to these very circumstances and more.
Yet the flowery sack-dress Kit is left with, far from a badge of shame, is cute enough that soon her friends at school want ones to match — and so her mother winds up making them for cash. By itself, this may be an inspiring twist to a story of accepting hardship, though I’m less edified to learn that Kit’s young fans in the real world can also buy matching Kit Kittredge outfits from Mattel — at a far more exclusive price than what Kit’s mother would have charged.
Kit Kittredge is a charming, wholesome, old-fashioned story celebrating perseverance amid misfortune, humility and courage in the face of diminished circumstances, and solidarity with social outcasts and others less fortunate. That this story represents the world of a high-end merchandising phenemenon that includes $90 dolls, $25 toy outfits, furniture, magazines, juvenile self-help books and much much more is certainly ironic, to say the least.
In principle, though, the story stands on its own, as it should. My daughter Sarah has always been a voracious reader and has never had any interest in dolls or clothes. She was probably eight or nine when she plowed through the short historical fiction of the American Girl short stories, meeting Kit and a dozen or so other characters set at different points in American history. However, we’ve been completely spared the rest of the “American Girl” franchise experience. She enjoyed the movie, and so did I.
For what it’s worth, this doesn’t mean that sophomore screenwriter Ann Peacock sticks particularly close to her text — not that the text here matters nearly as much that of as her first effort, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Still, the movie is best when it sticks to the basics about a girl coping with her father’s loss of work, the possibility of losing their home or her father seeking employment in another state, taking in boarders and other troubling developments.
The story is greatly aided by appealing players, including Julia Ormond and Chris O’Donnell as Kit’s loving, good-hearted parents, Stanley Tucci as a prestidigitating boarder and Max Theriot as the hobo boy Will. Best of all, tween actress Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) is refreshingly genuine and engaging as spunky Kit, and capably carries the movie in practically every scene.
Some of the other adult performers seem to be in a different movie entirely, including Joan Cusack as a ditsy mobile librarian and Jane Krakowski as a flirty dance instructor. In the last act, unfortunately, Kit Kittredge actually becomes that other movie, a goofy comedy–mystery in which Kit foils bumbling thieves, solving a crime wave and clearing the good-hearted hobo community that’s been falsely implicated in the crimes. (The socio-economic stereotyping here is a little heavy-handed: While the well-off characters aren’t all prejudiced snobs, the hobos are unfailingly courteous, honorable and gentle.)
These are modest flaws in a modest but honorable film. Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is uplifting entertainment worth seeing in the company of any American girl young enough to watch a G-rated movie in which the protagonist wants to be a reporter rather than get a makeover, become a pop princess or get the cute boy. If you can get away without shelling out for the matching dress, so much the better.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.