Such are the cultural contradictions of corporate capitalism: As Disney is to tales of plucky small-town proles hurdling adversity through hard work and decency, so the American Girl franchise, a subsidiary of that mom-and-pop outfit Mattel, is to our nation of happy rainbow families, celebrating our shared values while honoring our differences. Could be worse, I guess, but with their sturdy ethnic heroines — African-American, Native American, and every other American you can think of — overcoming poverty and discrimination, the American Girl books are as predictable as they are protofeminist and inclusive.
A trial balloon sent up to test the ether for extending the franchise, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is no exception. Based on several American Girl stories by Valerie Tripp about a 1930s cub reporter in Cincinnati, this dull theatrical debut especially disappoints because I'm fond of those square, character-based, sepia-toned, period-costumed kids' movies (like Fly Away Home and A Little Princess) that critics love and go nowhere at the box office. This one could go somewhere: As the boffo box office for Sex and the City showed, gee whiz, there's a distaff market out there, so why not tap the little ones?
With Julia Roberts as executive producer and her sister Lisa Gillan coproducing with American Girl and Mattel executive Ellen L. Brothers, among others, Kit Kittredge has some heavy female muscle behind it, and they hired what ought to have been a creative class-act team. Written by Ann Peacock (The Chronicles of Narnia) and directed by Canadian indie filmmaker Patricia Rozema (Mansfield Park), the movie stars Little Miss Sunshine's bankable Abigail Breslin as Kit, a feisty, can-do Midwesterner from a comfortable family who's covered every surface of her bedroom with pictures of role models like Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart. Kit is a girl reporter in search of a subject; one quickly presents itself in the form of the Great Depression, which here falls on rich and poor alike, as Kit discovers when — a touch improbably — she bumps into her car-dealer father (what, Chris O'Donnell, playing Dad already?) lining up at the soup kitchen where she volunteers. With noblesse oblige no longer an option and Dad off to Chicago to seek work, Ma Kittredge (the oddly cast Julia Ormond, not everybody's idea of a folksy Frau) starts renting rooms to the poor, the needy, the jug-eared, and the charismatically colorful of all classes and races.
Slow, deliberate, and pretty as a picture in butterscotch lighting and period dress, Kit Kittredge spins its wheels for close to an hour, waiting for something villainous to show up. When it does, in the form of a bunch of profiteers reliably led by Stanley Tucci and Joan Cusack, the movie's pulse quickens ever so slightly as Kit and her rag-tag new friends get on the case — but not enough, unfortunately, to get a serious plot afloat. Instead, widespread worthiness ensues: An American community is born, Kit gets a byline, Mom invites the unwashed to stay for Thanksgiving, and poof goes penury, taking racism and class inequality with it.
That resolution brought tears to the eyes of my two tween companions, who liked the movie much better than did their crabby chaperone. She continues to cling stubbornly to the dowdy notion that kids deserve better than a sugarcoated portrait of our past or, for that matter, our present. Talk all you like about sisterhood and national solidarity, but I'd love to know what it's like to watch Kit Kittredge when your house has just been foreclosed on or your credit jacked up without warning — or, like the movie's distributors, New Line and Picturehouse, you've just been handed the pink slip from the parent company.