It's fair to say that I am not the target audience for 'Kit Kittredge: An American Girl.' Based on the best-selling toy line of young girl dolls, this is the kind of movie that smacks of corporate synergy, a cynical exploitation of 8 year-old tween girls who the studio no doubt hopes will beg their parents to drag them to the theater and then go buy more American Girl products. On paper, that makes 'Kit Kittredge' the kind of film I instantly have a knee-jerk reaction against, and one I thought I'd have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the theater to ever see.
Turns out I was dragged kicking and screaming to the theater to see the film (the job of a baby-sitting uncle is never easy), and was shocked to discover how quickly i was won over by this rather delightful and charming sleeper. 'Kit Kittredge' defies the label of cinematic toy commercial, and instead proves to be a heartwarming, well-crafted and quite sly family film. Far superior to any other movie of this ilk, it is elevated by a literate script, fine period production values, a spunky heroine, and a memorable cast of three-dimensional characters. It's actually quite a shame that the words "American Girl" are anywhere in the title, for if they weren't, I might even argue that this is the best live-action children's film I've seen in years.
What's funny about the story of 'Kit Kittredge' is that it really has absolutely nothing to do with dolls or toys or, in fact, anything modern. It stars Oscar-nominee Abigail Breslin ('Little Miss Sunshine') as Kit, an impossibly idealistic and cheerful little girl living through the great depression. Though she's smart, she's intentionally kept in the dark by her parents (Chris O'Donnell and Julia Ormond) about the many hardships the family is facing. Kit's bubble will burst, however, when her father must leave to find work in another state. So Kit becomes determined to land a job as a pint-sized reporter at the big-city newspaper the Cincinnati Register in the hopes of returning the family to financial solvency.
The plot really kicks into gear when Kit invites a pair of hobos into her home in the hopes of shedding light on their plight. Without being heavy-handed, the film subversively places the hobos as stand-ins for any oppressed class of modern society, as Kit goes on the offensive and launches an organized campaign to confront social prejudices. Meanwhile, the arrival of a mysterious clan of boarders (including Stanley Tucci, Joan Cusack, and Jane Krakowski) threatens to undermine Kit's plan, as the hobos are soon framed for a series of local robberies. It will be up to Kit to uncover the real evildoers and save the day.
'Kit Kittredge' is adept at re-formulating familiar elements of many family film classics, from Nancy Drew to Miracle on 34th Street to early Shirley Temple, but without feeling derivative. It's almost shocking to find a Rated G film these days that's actually ambitious enough to hark back to classic filmmaking conventions while still speaking without condescension to both kids and adults. It's a very well-balanced narrative, with enough engaging young characters (Breslin is especially likable) and fun action situations to keep the little ones interested, yet still appeal to adults with a familial drama that is genuinely resonant. Though 'Kit Kittredge's alternate reality is undoubtedly heightened and nostalgic, the situations feel believable, and the warmth generated by Breslin, O'Donnell, and Ormond is palpably moving. Here's a family film where you care about the people in it, and not just the jokes they tell.
What is perhaps most refreshing about 'Kit Kittredge,' however, is that it doesn't attempt to pander to its audience with post-modern hipness or irony. As much as I can enjoy the self-referential tone of a 'Shrek,' the everything-but-the-pop-culture-kitchen-sink approach of modern family films is starting to border on desperation. 'Kit Kittredge' doesn't even try to be hip, and because of that, it achieves a timelessness that may give it a far longer shelf life than its many more successful contemporaries. There is some sort of irony in the fact that one of the most ambitious family films in ages is also the one that audiences almost wholly ignored upon its theatrical release -- and that's a true shame, because 'Kit Kittredge' is far better than the "American Girl" tag would suggest. Judge it purely on its own terms, and you might be surprised.
New Line/Warner presents 'Kit Kittredge' in 1080p/VC-1 video (1.85:1). It is quite a disappointment. I will admit to actually seeing 'Kit Kittredge' in the theater during its all-too-brief run this past summer, and it had a very nice and nostalgic visual style, and if a bit soft, still looked way better than this mediocre transfer. This is perhaps the flattest new release on Blu-ray I've seen in quite a while.
The film may have plenty of panache, but this transfer has little. Colors have been intentionally skewed to the point that they smear out, and fleshtones look painted-on and artificial. Primary colors are lost in the sepia-skewed haze, and the whole thing just looks plugged up and mucky. Though the source is pristine, blacks are a bit too bright, and contrast is weirdly dulled in the mid-range. There is almost zero depth to the image, and sharpness is wanting. There is little fine detail or texture apparent, and it was rare that I thought I was watching anything more than a standard-def DVD. The VC-1 encode is perfectly fine with no obvious artifacts (save for a slight bit of edge enhancement), but that is faint praise indeed.
Ditto for this disc's soundtrack. Warner continues their baffling trend of eschewing high-res audio on many of their new releases, and 'Kit Kittredge' receives only a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track (640kbps). Granted, the film's sound design is nothing to write home about, but I expected more than this.
Surround use is fair. There are occasional discrete effects, but even minor ambiance is lacking throughout (only the score gets a bit of effective bleed to the rears). This is no doubt a polished and professional mix, with fairly robust dynamic range and clean highs. However, low bass is relatively flat, and there is little real punch. Dialogue is the highlight, as it is well-recorded (even little Abigail Breslin is easily understandable) and nicely-balanced. But this is still little more than a serviceable and utterly standard Dolby Digital track.
'Kit Kittredge' was not the big box office hit the American Girl name apparently guaranteed, so New Line/Warner has shown little faith in the film's Blu-ray release. There are no real extras to speak of -- it's surprising the studio didn't at least give us a generic EPK or some deleted scenes.
'Kit Kittredge: An American Girl' is a far better movie than one based on a doll line has any reason to be. I dare say that even adult males may like it, as it offers a surprisingly engaging story, nice production values, fine performances and a sound moral message. This Blu-ray is quite a disappointment, however, with a lousy transfer, middling sound mix, and zero supplements. It's a real shame that this little sleeper hasn't received a better treatment from New Line/Warner -- 'Kit Kittredge' is a film truly worth discovering, even with such a tossed-off Blu-ray.