To be honest, all I knew about the American Girl franchise before I picked up the press notes for Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is this: Every time I hit the outdoor mall here in Los Angeles, little monster kids dashing into and out of the American Girl store like to "accidentally" swing bags stuffed with American Girl dolls into my legs and then run off without saying "excuse me." Oh, and whenever my girlfriend talks about having kids, she mentions how she'd want her girls -- because she insists she's only having girls -- to own legions of these American Girl dolls. I'm not even going to try to understand this phenomenon except to say, I don't want my kids playing with American Girl dolls because then they'll be little monster kids who swing box-laden bags into people's legs at the mall. That said, Kit Kittredge, the first big-screen American Girl movie, starring Abigail Breslin, is considerably less obnoxious than the little monster kids who will probably make up the majority of the ticket-buying audience. In fact, Kit Kittredge is even kind of sweet -- a Depression-era family drama considerably more intelligent, sincere and profound than the traditional lowbrow schlock you usually get with G-rated flicks.
Kit is ten years old and dreams of becoming a journalist; in fact, she's convinced herself her writing skills are already strong enough to land her in the pages of the local Cincinnati paper. Why shouldn't she think so, too? Her father (Chris O'Donnell) has the utmost faith in her, despite conventional wisdom. After a clunky first act that meanders here and there, setting up everything from a tree-house gang to bullies at school to the Depression and the dangerous "hobo" it gave rise to, things finally start to coalesce into a discernible narrative when Mr. Kittredge loses his auto dealership to the bank and must head to Chicago to look for work. To do her part to keep the family afloat, Mrs. Kittredge (Julia Ormond, in a welcome return to cinemas) takes on boarders including husband-hunting Miss Dooley (Jane Karkowski, playing the family-friendly version of her 30 Rock character), mobile librarian Miss Bond (Joan Cusack), and traveling magician Mr. Berk (Stanley Tucci). To get help around the house, she also trades food for labor with two young hobos, Will (Max Thieriot) and Countee (Willow Smith, Will Smith's charming little girl); Will and Countee help teach Kit about the hobo life, a hard one of noble struggle not unlike the one the Kittredges and the rest of America are going through.
By the turn of the third act, though, Kit Kittredge turns into a goofy, albeit well-intentioned Nancy Drew novel when the lock box in which Mrs. Kittredge keeps all her money, not to mention the valuable belongings of her boarders, is stolen. Blame is immediately laid on the local hobos, Will in particular. It's up to junior journalist Kit to figure out who the real culprits are, a chain of events that will probably please your kids and a few slow adults, even if -- compared to the otherwise smart second act -- it will feel like a dramatic letdown for everyone else. Kit Kittredge is no family classic, but compared to other G-rated movies released in the past several years, I think it's about as "classic" as we're going to get anytime soon.