July 2, 2008
Abigail Breslin, Julia Ormond, Chris O'Donnell, Jane Krakowski, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Stanley Tucci, Glenne Headly, Zach Mills, Madison Davenport, Max Thieriot, Willow Smith,
Ann Peacock (screenwriter), Valerie Tripp (Kit book series writer)
Picturehouse and New Line Cinema
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Kit Kittredge: An American Girl
By Laura J. Bagby
CBN.com Sr. Producer
She's a 1930s young lady with her own adventure. Find out more about the film starring Abigail Breslin that opens today.
Kit Kittredge's bright, young future comes to a screeching halt when she discovers that due to difficult economic circumstances brought on by the Great Depression, her father (Golden Globe nominee Chris O’Donnell, Batman & Robin) has lost his car dealership and must leave Cincinnati to find work, forcing the family to take on several boarders to prevent the family home from foreclosure.
The slew of house guests includes Miss Bond, the zany librarian (two-time Oscar nominee Joan Cusack, In and Out and Working Girl); a vivacious dance instructor called Miss Dooley (Tony award winner and Golden Globe nominee Jane Krakowski, Ally McBeal); an overprotective mother, Mrs. Howard (Glenne Headly, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), and her sickly son, Stirling (Zach Mills); and a magician named Jefferson Berk (two-time Golden Globe winner Stanley Tucci, The Devil wears Prada).
Along with housing this maudlin group of renters, Kit (Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine and Nim’s Island) and her mother, Margaret (Julia Ormond, Legends of the Fall), find other ways to stretch their income by growing their own vegetables, selling fresh eggs, and living on less.
In the midst of this hardship, however, Kit, being the compassionate, inquisitive, and positive person she is, still manages to have a grand time with faithful friends Ruthie Smithens (Madison Davenport), Stirling Howard (Zach Mills, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium), Frances Stone (newcomer Brieanne Jansen), and Florence Stone (newcomer Erin Hilgartner) who enjoy tree house adventures and silly antics at school.
But then Kit befriends Will Shepherd (Max Thieriot of Jumper and The Astronaut Farmer) and Countee (Willow Smith, I Am Legend), a pair of young hobos who are willing to trade work for food, and everything is about to change.
All is well until a string of robberies seems to point to the hoboes, and it’s up to resourceful Kit and her friends to solve the mystery, save the day, and perhaps even convince a grumpy newspaper editor, Mr. Gibson (Wallace Shawn, Princess Bride), to publish Kit’s whole story in the Cincinnati Register.
From Books to the Big Screen: The Challenge of Adaptation
This isn’t the first time that one of the American Girl book characters has been made into a movie. Before Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, there was Samantha: An American Girl Holiday (2004), Felicity: An American Girl Adventure (2005), and Molly: An American Girl on the Home Front (2006) – all of which were made-for-television movies.
But Kit does mark the first major motion picture production for American Girl, teaming the talents of Julia Roberts’ Red Om Films and executive producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, who worked on the three TV films, combined with the efforts of HBO Films and Picturehouse and New Line Cinema.
With the success of the small screen versions of the American Girl characters plus the success of American Girl selling more than 123 million American Girl books and 14 million American Girl dolls since 1986, it wasn’t hard to predict a leap to the big screen, where the stories could live in movie theatres across the nation.
But whenever you have a movie based on a book series, you have the worry that the movie will disappoint those ardent readers because it wasn’t enough like the books or that those completely unfamiliar with the books won’t relate to the movie at all; thus, you have the potential of alienating both groups of moviegoers, even though your film might be a fantastic story. And that can spell box office disaster.
Being conscious of this potential dilemma, even before I attended the screening, I immersed myself in the first six books of the Kit series to get a sense of what the series was all about so that I could quickly identify whether or not the writer and director were trying to emulate the look and feel of the original stories written by Valerie Tripp in the major motion picture version or if they were professing “creative license” and enjoying taking liberties at the expense of the readership.
I can say with much relief that the movie tries to keep the same tone, the same central characters (Kit, her parents, Ruthie, Stirling, Uncle Hendrick, Mr. Gibson), and even some of the same plotlines as the books, while bringing in new characters and new subplots to round out the edges. It is a well-balanced endeavor. And I believe it will be accepted by both American Girl book fans and doll fans alike.
Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the movie’s main star, the talented Abigail Breslin, is a big American Girl fan.
“I love the American Girls. I collect them all and I have collected them since I was, like, eight or something,” Breslin told the table a journalists at the film junket last month in Beverly Hills. “Kit was always one of my favorites, so it is cool to get to play her.”
Breslin is believable as the spirited tomboy with an inquisitive mind. And she even looks a lot like her, which should do well with book and doll fans.
Adult and Kid Friendly: Possible to Have Both?
And as for being a relatable movie in its own right, I think Kit speaks to all young ladies who wish to be brave and compassionate problem solvers, the child hero who saves her family and her community through ingenuity and the help of her friends.
Instead of being a movie that idolizes shallow things like good looks and popularity or simply panders to some annoyingly childish, bratty state of mind, as some movies for children tend to do, this film tries to herald good in the midst of adversity, while trying to appeal to both kids and adults.
“That was my goal: to make a good movie that would not just appeal to kids, but would also to their parents, because kids don’t drive,” says director Patricia Rozema, who is probably best known for her work on the period drama Mansfield Park.
Originally drawn to the film project because of her two young daughters who were into American Girl books and dolls, Rozema said, “I wanted to honor them and make something that has some substance that I knew they would still get a kick out of – something with jokes that imparted values without being teachy, teachy.”
Rozema went on to say, “So many children’s films are ‘I am a princess. I own this country. What will I do with all my jewels?’ There is a place for fantasy, too, and that’s all right. But I don’t want it to be the only thing. I don’t want there to be a steady diet of just wealth fantasies. I like this idea that there can be something beautiful in a bit of hardship.”
Parents will be glad to know that this film isn’t about some lip gloss-toting, gossipy young lady who is only concerned about herself and the things she has.
As Breslin describes her film character, “I think that Kit is really cool. She is very brave and she really likes to help people. She does things that she doesn’t want to do, but she does it happily.”
Adds Madison Davenport, who plays Kit’s best friend, Ruthie Smithens, “The movie is all about staying yourself, being brave, and teaching you that things, they are just things.”
Even Chris O’Donnell, who has his own brood of five children, enjoyed sitting through this film. “What is great about this film is that it is really a G-rated movie, which is hard to find these days,” he said.
And it’s true. Parents don’t have to worry about hearing bad language or watching for blatant sexual innuendoes. And even the “magic” that Stanley Tucci’s character performs for the children is more about tricks and sleight of hand than it is about getting children interested in the dark side of the occult.
The humor refreshingly stays away from bathroom jokes. It is appropriately child-sensitive, but not so childish or gross that parents will be rolling their eyes. Parents and kids alike will find Joan Cusack’s antics as Miss Bond equally funny as well.
Plus, good overcomes evil. And, naturally, the bad guys are foiled once again. Yes, it’s very formulaic, but it tries to teach good morals. How many movies for young girls these days really do that anymore?
The second challenge of a film like this is trying to stay true to a particular time period in American history, namely the 1930s during the Great Depression, a fact that the director was very well aware of.
“I worked with three cameras, and I thought authenticity – make it real, real, real. Feel what it would be like to be a kid in 1934,” says Rozema. “I went as much as possible to things from the period, not the movies, because movies are famously wrong.”
Even Abigail Breslin, who plays Kit, was concerned enough about the film’s accuracy to consult a family member who lived through that harrowing time. “My grandmother grew up during the Great Depression, so I talked to her about that and she told me some things,” Breslin said. “She told me that the clothes looked really authentic, so that’s good.”
I appreciate the fact that Kit Kittredge is a movie with a good, strong central character, an all-star cast, and universal themes of kindness and goodness overcoming evil. I also appreciate the fact that they try to tie-in lessons from history and work hard to be historically accurate.
On the downside, I have to say that the film lagged in parts. And, of course, it’s very predictable. But then movies for kids often are.
This film touches on hardship and poverty, but doesn’t go as deep as I would have liked to have seen. I think the books do a much better job of showing suffering and character development than the film version does. But with only 101 minutes to tell the story, it’s hard to be all things to all people.
My recommendation is to view the film with your children and then enjoy reading the books. It’s a more well-rounded experience.
For what it’s worth, I give Kit an overall rating of a B-.
Kit Kittredge: An American Girl opens in your local theatre July 2. Find out more by going to these Web sites:
Kitt Kittredge: The Movie
The American Girl Site
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More articles by Laura Bagby on CBN.com
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