In today's ADD-infested world of family entertainment, "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" is something of a relic. Directed by Patricia Rozema and based upon the popular doll series, the film slows things down a notch to tell a morally and historically educational tale appropriately aimed at the sophistication level of its young target audience. There are no special effects, no snarky one-liners, no pratfalls and, blessedly, no bathroom humor. The gentle screenplay by Ann Peacock (2005's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
") is paved with such good intentions that it's a shame to have to criticize it. Alas, said good intentions cannot stop the picture from being a decidedly dull and eventless experience.
In 1934 Cincinnati, 10-year-old Kit Kittredge (Abigail Beslin) is a plucky aspiring writer with a dream of being a published reporter. When her latest pitch to curmudgeonly editor Mr. Gibson (Wallace Shawn) is turned downshe has written a child's eye view of the Great DepressionKit's attention suddenly must turn toward her own family's financial troubles. With her newly unemployed father (Chris O'Donnell) off to Chicago to find work, her mother (Julia Ormond) opens up their home to boardersamong them, dance instructor Miss Dooley (Jane Krakowski), magician Jefferson Berk (Stanley Tucci) and mobile librarian Miss Bond (Joan Cusack)as a way to make ends meet. When hundreds of dollars in cash suddenly go missing from the house, the blame is placed on young hobos Will Shepherd (Max Thieriot) and Countee (Willow Smith). Kit, who has befriended these two, knows in her heart that they are innocent of the crime, and sets out with classmates Stirling (Zach Mills) and Ruthie (Madison Davenport) to find the real culprits.
"Kit Kittredge: An American Girl"and, more specifically, director Patricia Rozemadoes an admirable job of depicting the Great Depression in a relatively honest way and with only a modicum of sugarcoating. Likewise, Kit herself is a smart, resourceful, sympathetic heroine whose loyalty and perseverance are two of her greatest attributes. She is someone for little girls in the audience to look up to, and that is a rare quality to find in a family film marketed largely targeted toward boys. Unfortunately, the pacing is languid when it should snap and crackle, and the storyline emphasizing the plight of hobos simply isn't very involving. When Kit turns into an investigator in the second half and seeks to weed out the criminals involved in the money theft, a much-needed sense of intrigue is in low supply. In this way, 2007's "Nancy Drew
" did a much better job. When the identity of the thieves are finally discovered, they're not at all threatening, reminding of a cross between the bumbling bad guys in "Pippi Longstocking" and "Pete's Dragon."
For perhaps the second time in her career (after her Oscar-nominated role in 2006's "Little Miss Sunshine
"), Abigail Breslin (2008's "Nim's Island
") disappears into a character that doesn't once feel like the actress' real persona. Freckle-faced and sporting a blond bob, Breslin doesn't look or act like herself, capably and confidently transforming into 1930s-era Kit Kittredge with naturalism and effortlessness. She is superb in the part, nicely supported by the charming Zach Mills (2007's "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium
"), a vulnerable old soul as Stirling, whose father, like Kit's, left home to find a job but never came back. Joan Cusack (2007's "Martian Child
") is memorably offbeat as the flighty, loose-limbed Miss Bond, and has some nice moments near the end. As Kit's loving parents, Julia Ormond (2007's "I Know Who Killed Me
") and Chris O'Donnell (1999's "The Bachelor
") are capable but miscast; they do not look like a believable married couple, and the gray hair strategically placed around O'Donnell's temples fails to hide his still-youthful appearance.
The ending of "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" is saccharine and cornball, relying on a succession of coincidences occurring on Thanksgiving night that feel too contrived. Of course, one wouldn't expect or want anything less than a happy conclusion, but that still doesn't help to solve the film's most enduring problem: it's a bore. "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" strives for quality and substance, and that is all well and good, but those things regrettably don't mean as much when the proceedings are so apparently lacking in energy. It's a valiant slog that never takes flight.