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Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (2008)

Warner Home Video
DVD Released: 10/28/2008

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Video: 1/2
Audio: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 10/27/2008

In 2007, we got Transformers, which was a monster hit. In 2009, we will get G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra, which will certainly create a lot of fuss. What do these two films have in common? They are both based on toys. And what other additional trait do they share? Both movies are based on toys which were predominately aimed at boys. Where are the live action films which are based on toys for girls? Yes, there was Bratz: The Movie, but I'm sure that many would like to forget about that. It looks like it's up to Kit Kittredge: An American Girl to fill the void. Can a film based on a line of high-end dolls actually be entertaining?

(For the uninitiated, American Girl is a line of dolls which are sold exclusively through American Girl stores. The primary line of dolls features fictional characters which come from a specific time in American history. By playing with the dolls and their realistic accessories and by reading the accompanying books (which, conversely, are available at most any bookstore), children will learn about history.)

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl takes place in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1934, at the height of The Great Depression. Kit Kittredge (Abigail Breslin) is a bright and inquisitive 10-year old girl who lives with her parents (Julia Ormond and Chris O’Donnell). Kit longs to be a reporter and is always writing stories on what is happening around her. She’s very aware of the financial turmoil taking place, and sees it first-hand when her neighbors lose their house and have to move. Then, her father loses his car dealership. Determined to save his family, he goes to Chicago to find work. To make ends meet, Kit and her mother turn their home into a boarding house, and take in an eclectic group, including a magician (Stanley Tucci), a dance instructor (Jane Krakowski) and a mobile librarian (Joan Cusack). Kit and her Mom also befriend two hobos, Will (Max Thieriot) and Countee (Willow Smith), and allow them to do odd jobs around the house in exchange for food. However, many people distrust hobos due to a rash of robberies in the area, and when someone robs the Kittredge house, hobos are immediately blamed. Kit, ever the intrepid reporter, is determined to learn the truth.

In 1991, the film Body Parts barely got released as the Jeffrey Dahmer murders had just been discovered and the film’s title seemed to be in bad taste. The film Idle Hands suffered a similar fate in 1999, as it’s depiction of high school violence seemed to fly in the face of those morning the deaths at Columbine High School. (Trust me, I am going somewhere with this.) While Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is in no way controversial, the fact that it deals with the great depression in a realistic manner does make the timing of its release questionable. Given the current economic climate in America, and the fact that some economists say that we are teetering on the brink of another depression, this movie is much more frightening than Body Parts and Idle Hands combined.

To put it quite bluntly, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is a very depressing movie which will constantly tug at your heartstrings. Despite the fact that this is ostensibly a children’s movie, it doesn’t pull any punches in portraying the way that The Great Depression effected people, and it should be applauded for doing so. We see how the middle-class and upper middle-class lost their jobs, their houses, and their dignity. We also see how people pulled together to help one another and what they did to survive. The movie takes an unflinching look at the homeless or “hobos” and explains their culture. (For the record, the movie doesn’t attempt to explain what caused The Depression.) The movie could have also taken the easy way out by having Kit’s family be immune to all of this, keeping her in the role of observer. By having The Kittredge’s suffering the same fate as those around them, the film takes on a more realistic tone.

That’s not to imply that the entire film is a downer, but the first 40 minutes or so certainly delivers one emotional blow after another. The second half of the film still maintains a serious tone, but gently drifts in another direction. The eccentric characters who move into the Kittredge house take center stage, and then suddenly a mystery is introduced, which Kit must solve. This helps to bring some adventure and some plot twists into the movie.

Live-action family films don’t have the greatest track record as of late, but Kit Kittredge: An American Girl has a good pedigree. Along with the popularity of the toys, there had already been third prior American Girl movies which had aired on TV and done well on video. Julia Roberts is one of the executive producers of the series. And just look at the cast -- Abigail Breslin, Julia Ormond, Chris O’Donnell, Stanley Tucci, Jane Krakowski, Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn, and Glenne Headly -- which is full of familiar faces, and actors who are known for quality work. Given all of that, I was very surprised when the movie didn’t do very well at the box office. Perhaps word got around that it was too serious for young viewers...or it was simply bumming them out. But, I disagree with this. Yes, the movie is very serious, and again, have your Kleenex handy, but there’s nothing wrong with exposing kids to a little reality, especially when it helps them to learn about history. My girls have now seen the film twice and they like it. The situations in the film, especially the various attitudes which people have towards the poor, can offer a great opportunity for a family discussion. Whatever the case, if you’re tired of yet another CG animated movie on family movie night, then give Kit Kittredge: An American Girl a try.

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl makes us worry about the stability of the economy on DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video. The film has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. (I'm not sure what the aspect ratio is supposed to be, as it's not listed on the box, but it's definitely 1.78:1.) This is a brand new movie which just played in theaters a few months ago...but you wouldn't know that looking at this transfer. The image is sharp, but not always clear. There is visible grain in most every scene, especially interiors, but no defects from the source material. Video noise and mild artifacting at evident in nearly every scene. The colors are OK, but the image is somewhat dark and very flat looking. Didn't they think that viewers would want this movie to look good? The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. This is a fairly unremarkable track. There are some weak stereo effects and the score sounds fine, but that's about it. There are basically no overt surround effects.

The only extras included on the DVD are trailers for the other American Girl movies -- Molly, Samantha, and Felicity.

Warner Home Video has also brought Kit Kittredge: An American Girl to Blu-ray Disc. The film has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the Disc contains a VC-1 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 20 Mbps. The Blu-ray Disc case states that the aspect ratio is 1.85:1, but it's 1.78:1 on my screen. I wasn’t expecting this movie to be the home theater experience of the year, but for a Blu-ray Disc, I have to say that I’m disappointed. The image is sharp and clear, but it’s also grainy at times. There are no defects from the source material. The colors are good, but the image is also very flat looking. I noted mild video noise at times, as well as haloing around the actors. The image doesn’t provide much depth, nor is it all that much more detailed than the DVD. The Disc offers a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and a constant 640 kbps. So, this is essentially the same track which is on the DVD. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The in-film music sounds fine and there are some occasional lively stereo effects. These effects are detailed and well-placed. However, other than musical cues, we don’t get much in the way of surround sound, and subwoofer action is almost non-existent.

The Blu-ray Disc carries the same extras as the DVD.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long