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Cinema in Focus: ‘Kit Kittredge, An American Girl’

The brand hits the big screen with the tale of child whose family and friends struggle through the Great Depression.

3 Stars — Wholesome

The American Girl phenomenon has reached the big screen. Started in 1983 by educator Pleasant Rowland, who wanted to create dolls that depicted various eras of U.S. history, the company was purchased by Mattel in 1998 and Rowland retired in 2000.

Before her retirement, Rowland created a series of books that told the adventures of the girls within historic moments of U.S. life. Expanding their dolls into the “Just Like You” series and marketing them through the American Girl Boutiques and Bistros, the company then moved into movies in 2003.

The first three films were not released to theaters, but with this fourth adventure — Kit Kittredge: An American Girl — set within the depression of 1939, the company has started a new venture. Unlike many films that create dolls and figurines to sell after the film is made, American Girl reverses the process with customers already owning the dolls and having read the books and now seeing the film.

The author of the book on which this film is based is Valerie Tripp. With a master’s degree in education from Harvard, Tripp weaves a story that has a clear purpose other than just to entertain. To create this film, American Girl brought together the very capable team of Patricia Rozema as director (Mansfield Park), Ann Peacock as screenwriter (The Chronicles of Narnia:  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and academy nominee Abigail Breslin as Kit (Little Miss Sunshine).

As in most children’s stories, the hero of this tale is a child. Living in a large home her father is buying from his success as owner of an auto dealership, Kit has led her neighborhood children into a tree house club. But into this idyllic life the larger world intrudes, when the Great Depression starts affecting her friends’ families and then her own. With this backdrop and the primary theme of how adversity must be faced and “not let it beat you,” Kit learns corollary lessons about prejudice, pride and courage.

One of the interesting things about this “tale placed in history” is that Kit’s family does not express religious beliefs. Though most people in that time period of U.S. history would have attended church and practiced prayer in their home, the Kittredges do not, nor does anyone else. Why this was omitted is unknown, but it weakens the story. Attempting to deal with human pride and prejudice without larger spiritual values that call us to be humble and accept others causes the story to lack the struggle needed for real-life applications.

In a similar way, rather than presenting an honest view of the poor “hobos,” some of whom are victims of unfortunate circumstances but others are dangerous individuals who cannot be trusted, the tale weaves a fairytale description which would leave young viewers unprepared for real danger or wise compassion of those who are homeless among us.

The wholesome purposes of this story far outweigh these shortcomings, and the film is a delight that we recommend to people of all ages, not just American girls.

Discussion:

» The comic portrayal of the thieves within this tale, similar to that of the Home Alone films, implies that such people are not dangerous. Do you believe this view is helpful or harmful to teach children?

» When Kit’s father (Chris O’Donnell) leaves his wife (Julia Ormond) and daughter to go to Chicago to get work, he abandons them in their hour of need. Why do you think the author chose to present the man in the story in such a negative way?  Do you think this was intentional or was just to add tension to the tale?

» Do you believe that the creators of this line of dolls, books, boutiques and films are helping American girls or harming them? Why?

Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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