American Girl Phenomenon Comes to the Movies
by Phil Boatwright

Amid today’s narcissistic iPod society, American Girl devotees stand out as supporters of the belief that a caring character is more important than material possessions.  And at last one of their most admired heroines, Kit Kittredge, makes her cinematic debut on July 2.

For those still unaware of this subculture phenom, the American Girl company has sold more than 123 million books, their stories incorporating real life people and dealing with poignant life situations such as slavery, or the lost of a parent, or surviving the nation’s Great Depression.  But the books are only one arm of that company’s outreach.  There have also been 14 million namesake dolls sold since 1986, and their award-winning magazine has a circulation of more than 620,000, making it the largest publication dedicated exclusively to girls ages eight and up.

Of utmost importance to the intended readership is the central female lead in each tale, usually a cross between Shirley Temple and Nancy Drew.  But what excites parents and educators is the nature of these characters.  Invariably, the sensitive and inquisitive little girl is faced with the realities of an unjust world and always manages to meet those challenges with compassion and confidence.

Working in partnership with the American Girl organization, Goldsmith-Thomas Productions and Red Om Films have received nominations and awards for their telefilms Samantha: An American Girl Holiday, Felicity: An American Girl Adventure, and Molly: An American Girl on the Home Front.  But of the eight or so American Girl central figures, Kit Kittredge is the first to have her saga adapted into a major theatrical release.  Scripted by Ann Peacock (The Chronicles of Narnia) Kit Kittredge: An American Girl stars Academy Award nominee Abigail Breslin as Kit.

Bob Berney at Picturehouse, who developed the project along with HBO Films, says, “Kit is a wonderful character, a spirited, ambitious young girl living in very difficult times.  Her story is inspirational in the way it teaches the importance of giving to those who are less fortunate.”

“It was my two daughters who introduced me to American Girl books,” adds president of HBO Films, Colin Callender. “I was struck by what wonderful stories they were – they were celebrations of different times in our history yet they dealt with real challenges of everyday life that young people today can relate to.  When you combine these great characters and stories with the remarkable marketing machine behind American Girl it seemed like a natural theatrical franchise.”

Ironically, the justly termed “marketing machine” may be what prevents Kit Kittredge from becoming a classic along the lines of To Kill A Mockingbird or Anne of Green Gables.  Though those two films were also taken from literature, they were conceived without the marketing tie-ins that often make films for today’s children seem a mere excuse to promote a toy line.

It’s somewhat disingenuous that while the movie downplays materialism, the American Girl Dolls tie-in factor is inescapable.  Think the littlest fans of the movie aren’t going to want the dolls and the books and the magazines?  Think that wasn’t brought up when the movie was in development?

But America’s daughters could do worse as they seek adolescent champions, and often do.  Director Patricia Rozema, and mother of two young girls, says, “So many kids’ movies are about, ‘Oh, I can have love, I am a princess, I own the world now.’ There aren’t many that show kids and adults trying to hang on when material goods aren’t flowing their way, and showing that what’s valuable is not material.”

Producers of the film Lisa Gillan and Julia Roberts (yes, that Julia Roberts) are sisters and supporters of the American Girl philosophy.  Ms. Gillan believes that Kit’s story has a very timely message for modern girls: “I think Kit has an almost Churchillian point of view about life.  He said ‘Never, Never, Never Quit’, and Kit doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the word.”

While the corporate suits may be looking at Kit with $ signs in their eyes, the cast at the press junket seemed thrilled to be associated with a production wherein family and neighbors are presented as the real worthwhile possessions.

Character actor Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride, Clueless, My Dinner With Andre) who plays the meanie newspaper editor who later reforms under the influence of this young girl.  He says, “It’s optimistic in the sense that the lead characters are likeable.  You feel some hope for humanity despite the ordeals we have faced and may face in the future.” 

Each of the adult actors professed a similar appreciation for the film’s message.  But what was most uplifting was its effect on the younger members of the ensemble.

Said Jordan Rackley, who plays one of Kit’s classmates, “It made you look at things a lot different.  I know going home I was thankful for a lot more…like…cereal.  You know, things you take for granted.” 

“I don’t really like those Bratz dolls and Barbie dolls cause they’re so about being popular and pretty and stuff,” added Erin Hilgartner, a sweet-spirited and verbose young 8-year-old, who plays little Florence Stone, the newest member to Kit’s tree house club.

Forthright and grateful for the experience, little miss Hilgartner responded to the inevitable question, “What’s it like to get all this attention?” with a pithy “It’s really cool.” Her elaboration quickly won over the press, “I was inspired by my brothers.  They both act.  They’ve been in like about a million plays.  And I wanted to like be like them sort of.  I always thought it would be cool to be up there on stage or behind the camera.  Then when this came along, I said, well,…I…well, I didn’t think I was ever going to get it, but I thought that maybe on the off chance that I would that that would be just so cool.”  And when asked how important the film’s theme about helping others was to her, she responded, “I really like that aspect of this movie.”  (By that point this interviewer wanted to adopt her.)

Brieanne Jansen (Frances Stone), who professes to be an American Girl junkie, hooked on checking that website every day, claimed her inspirations were Michael Landon, Michael Landon Jr., and Milie Cyrus.  If you’re wondering is this young lady might be a Christian, you’d be right.

“The American Girl Dolls have always been focused on being a real girl and stuff, says the mature-for-her-preteen-years Ms. Jansen.  “And I just think that helping your community is one of the best things you can do in your life.  It’s not about being popular.  It’s about being out there and helping others and what you can do with what you have.  I’m putting on a food drive for my local food bank and so far I’ve raised about $1,400 and 650 pounds of food.   The inspiration from the dolls and what they do to make the world a better place – and the stories are amazing.  It’s just so inspiring.”  (I wanted to adopt her too.)

In an era when schools are prevented from teaching ethics and morality, children’s books and films aimed at youngsters are a needed saving grace.  And though older sisters may prefer Nancy Drew, and film buffs the aforementioned To Kill A Mockingbird, this is a film that will entertain and educate an often neglected portion of the movie-going audience.  Kit Kittredge deals with serious issues, causing kids to ask, “What was the Great Depression?” and their folks to quietly ponder, “Are we heading for another?”

Phil’s reviews of Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl