'American Girl' Heads to the Big Screen For more than 20 years, American Girl dolls and books have been big sellers. Now the series is going to the movies. Kit Kittredge: An American Girl opens this week in selected cities — and nationwide on July 2.
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'American Girl' Heads to the Big Screen

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'American Girl' Heads to the Big Screen

'American Girl' Heads to the Big Screen

'American Girl' Heads to the Big Screen

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For more than 20 years, American Girl dolls and books have been big sellers. Now the series is going to the movies. Kit Kittredge: An American Girl opens this week in selected cities — and nationwide on July 2.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This summer, the American Girl doll is going where Barbie's never been: to the big screen. The film "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" opens nationwide July 2nd. Jesse Baker has more.

JESSE BAKER: Kit Kittredge is only 10 years old, and already she's got a nose for news. It's 1934 and the Great Depression, and she can only think about one thing: selling a story to her hometown newspaper.

(Soundbite of movie, "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl")

Mr. WALLACE SHAWN (Actor): (as Mr. Gibson) Who is it?

Ms. ABIGAIL BRESLIN (Actress): (as Kit Kittredge) Margaret Mildred Kittredge.

(Soundbite banging)

Mr. SHAWN: (as Gibson) What do you want?

Ms. BRESLIN: (as Kit Kittredge) To be in print.

Mr. SHAWN: (as Gibson) Well, how do I say this nicely?

(Soundbite of door slamming)

Ms. BRESLIN: (as Kit Kittredge) But you haven't even read it.

BAKER: Kit's editor may not have read her story, but over 117 million books about American Girls have flown off the bookstore shelves in the past 23 years.

American Girl has nine historical dolls like Kit. Felicity is from colonial Williamsburg. Kaya's a Native American. Molly grew up during World War II. Each doll has six books in her series to describe her struggles during her particular era of U.S. history.

Ellen Brothers is the president of American Girl, and also one of the producers on the film.

Ms. ELLEN BROTHERS (President, American Girl): I think what American Girl is so good at doing is creating lasting moments for a girl and her family - her mother, her grandmother, her father - and really create an emotional connection with this brand.

BAKER: Emotional connection with a brand? That sounds like the total corporate sell. But I have to confess: I have an emotional connection with this brand. I'm 26 years old, and I've been an American Girl doll lover since I was nine. Of all my dozens of dolls, Kirsten - she's the pioneer American girl - remains my most beloved childhood treasure.

I can still tell you everything about her. She originally came from Sweden. Her rag doll's name is Sorry. She's a reminder of all the things I loved about my childhood, and something I want to be able to pass down to my child one day.

There were no American Girl stores when I was a kid. You had to order the dolls out of a catalogue and wait for the UPS truck to come. But now, at the American Girl story in Manhattan, you can buy your doll patent-leather Mary Janes, take her for tea, for a cooking lesson or to the hair salon for an up-do.

The girls there had no trouble explaining what they loved about their dolls. Here's 11-year-old Jessica Walls(ph), Nicole Knopf's(ph) eight, Jacqueline Beachum's(ph) nine, and 11-year-old Samantha Normandia(ph).

Ms. SAMANTHA NORMANDIA: Well, she has the same name as me, and she's really pretty.

Unidentified Child #1: You get to play with them and you get to dress them up.

Unidentified Child #2: She has funky stuff.

Unidentified Child #3: I kind of like playing with them more than, like, Barbie dolls because they're more real. It's like realistic.

BAKER: Girls like having a doll with a realistic identity, but how will it project on the big screen? Little Miss Sunshine herself, Abigail Breslin, embodies the wannabe kid reporter, Kit Kittredge, who writes about the impact the Depression has on her friends and neighbors.

(Soundbite of movie, "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl")

Ms. BRESLIN: (As Kit Kittredge) Frank, look. That's your bed.

Unidentified Child #4: What does that mean?

Unidentified Woman: Our furniture.

Unidentified Child #4: Foreclosure by order of the bank?

Unidentified Child #5: That means the bank's taking our house away.

Ms. BRESLIN: (As Kit Kittredge) Ruthie, it's not your fault. There's banks…

BAKER: The film's director, Patricia Rozema, says she wanted to take the feelings the girls already had for their dolls and build on them.

Ms. PATRICIA ROZEMA (Director, "Kit Kittredge, An American Girl"): Their hearts are as big as ours. Their feeling are strong. They respond as deeply, and possibly more to - because they're just not calloused yet.

BAKER: With 13 million dolls in tow, there's little doubt this will be the must-see for the girls this summer. But "American Girl" hopes to bring in more than just girls. Rozema says there's something in it for the boys, too.

Ms. ROZEMA: There's adventure and there's humor and there's danger and there's excitement and there's car crashes, even, if you're…

(Soundbite of laughter)

BAKER: If the random sampling of the one boy in the entire American Girl store in Manhattan counts.

Mr. DIETRICH RIETSEMA(ph): I don't really like American Girls. I'm not a fan.

BAKER: Not a fan is fine, but what if 10-year-old Dietrich Rietsema's sister wants to see the movie?

Mr. REITSEMA: If she goes, I think I'll go somewhere else with my dad.

BAKER: Director Patricia Rozema says if the boys can just get over the word girl in the title, they might even enjoy the film. For NPR News, I'm Jesse Baker.

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Stop the Presses: 'Kit Kittredge' Is Pure Kid Stuff

Precocious Kit Kittredge (Abigail Breslin) battles injustice during the Depression. Cylla von Tiedemann/New Line Cinema hide caption

toggle caption
Cylla von Tiedemann/New Line Cinema

Precocious Kit Kittredge (Abigail Breslin) battles injustice during the Depression.

Cylla von Tiedemann/New Line Cinema

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl

  • Director: Patricia Rozema
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 101 minutes

Rated G: Little Miss Sunshine playing with puppy dogs? About as wholesome as you can get.

Mr. Berk (Stanley Tucci) and Miss Bond (Joan Cusack) bring whimsy to the Kittredge home. Cylla von Tiedemann/New Line Cinema hide caption

toggle caption
Cylla von Tiedemann/New Line Cinema

Mr. Berk (Stanley Tucci) and Miss Bond (Joan Cusack) bring whimsy to the Kittredge home.

Cylla von Tiedemann/New Line Cinema

Clips from 'Kit'

'Mobile Library'

'A Penny a Word'

Aching to bust into print, aspiring reporter Kit Kittredge scores two major scoops: The American economic system is pitiless to losers, and the American social system is cruel to outsiders.

This could be controversial stuff, except that Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is set during the Great Depression. Plus, Kit is 10 years old — and literally a doll.

Impersonated here by Little Miss Sunshine star Abigail Breslin, Kit was born as one of the historical-period dolls marketed by the American Girl empire. Set in 1934 Cincinnati, the movie begins by chronicling the Kittredge family's fall from the middle class.

At first, Kit can help her friends whose parents have lost everything and adopt a dog whose owners can no longer feed her. Then the bank seizes the auto dealership run by her dad (Chris O'Donnell), and he hits the road looking for work.

Mom (Julia Ormond) starts taking in boarders, including traveling magician Mr. Berk (Stanley Tucci) and dotty librarian Miss Bond (Joan Cusack). As status-conscious as any child, Kit is mortified.

But she doesn't have time to dwell on her diminished circumstances, because she's introduced to people who have it even worse: the hobos, including two close to Kit's age, Will (Max Thieriot) and Countee (Willow Smith).

When inhabitants of the local hobo camp are defamed as thieves, and Will and Countee are singled out for accusation, Kit promptly investigates. More Nancy Drew than Barbara Walters, young Miss Kittredge doesn't just report the story, she also cracks the case, identifying the actual crooks.

Kit Kittredge was directed by Canadian filmmaker Patricia Rozema, who courted controversy with a revisionist Mansfield Park and such lesbian romances as When Night Is Falling. But she doesn't take any risks with the American Girl franchise, bringing everything down to grade-school level.

While the kids are engaging, most of the adult performers are bland and stiff — save for Cusack, who's so nutty it's almost disturbing. Her bizarre performance aside, this well-meaning escapade offers little for adults. Chaperones can just smile indulgently and hope that their American girl will turn out to be as smart, plucky and fair-minded as Kit Kittredge.