If you're familiar with the American Girl franchise, you're probably most familiar with its reputation for being merchandise driven. Did your little angel enjoy reading about American Girl Molly's life during World War II? Then she'd probably love the $90 Molly doll. And maybe the Molly swimsuit ($24), Molly theater seats ($40) and bedroom set ($135 -- and it's only a single). And pray that she never learns about the American Girl Place in New York, where lunch alone will set you back $24. A person.
All of which is too bad, because the American Girl stories are timeless tales of girls growing up during trying times, both historically and socially. And they're quite well done.
Such is the case with "Kit Kittredge." Kit, like any American Girl, is an indefatigable youngster whose Cincinnati family is trying to weather the Great Depression. Her family is prosperous -- dad owns a car dealership -- and they live in an inside-the-beltline-neighborhood. But economic catastrophe is striking all around and it's not long before the bank takes over dad's dealership and he heads to Chicago to find work, leaving Kit and her mom to take in boarders to make ends meet.
The potential for sap here rivals the Maine woods. But that would not be the American Girl way, and director Patricia Rozema ("Mansfield Park") and screenwriter Ann Peacock ("The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe") appreciate that. The books are straightforward, so is "Kit Kittredge."
Which isn't to say it's dull. Especially when the boarders, portrayed by a stellar cast, begin to arrive.
We're already off to a great start with Abigail Breslin as Kit. The sweet cherub-turned-stripper in "Little Miss Sunshine" is more like her role in "Nim's Island": smart, persistent, compassionate. Mom (Julia Ormond) and Dad (Chris O'Donnell) are good, too.
But then comes Joan Cusack as a bumbling "mobile librarian" who has the gas pedal figured out but not the brake; Stanley Tucci as a captivating traveling magician; leggy Jane Krakowski ("Ally McBeal") as a blond (sorta) dance instructor with great lines ("Mail call," she chirps carrying a bundle of letters. Then, as an aside, "If only it were that easy") and Zach Mills, who brings his wry grin and youthful wit from "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" to his role as Stirling Howard, a classmate of Kit's who finds himself in the embarrassing (though not for long) position of living under the same roof with her.
And that's not all; like a clown car, the talented cast keeps pouring out: Wallace Shawn as the gruff city editor of the Cincinnati Register (where a persistent Kit is trying to get published), teen hobo Max Thieriot ("Nancy Drew's" quiet heartthrob), and Colin Mochrie of "Whose Line is it Anyway?" fame.
A whodunit occupies the remainder of the film, but it's the relationships, many forged by circumstance, that make "Kit" so engaging. Relationships that help tell the story of uncertain times in America -- the Depression -- in a much more gripping way than a textbook might.
Parental warning: The treehouse featured in the movie? The dollhouse version sells for $250.
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