Summer family movies - and some are not

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl

G: 100 minutes

What happens to a happy-go-lucky 10-year-old girl when the bottom falls out of her world? When she looks around to see that things are changing for the worse all around her? If she’s an “American girl”, she follows the advice of her father: “Kit, don’t let it beat you.” That’s the motto of Kit Kittredge (Abigail Breslin), the heroine of the first American Girl film to hit the big screen. Previous films based on Samantha, Molly, and Felicity debuted on television, but this movie may be paving the way for more of the series to open at cinemas.

Kit’s family live in a picturesque middleclass suburb of Cincinnati, where she has a club in her tree house with her friends Ruthie Smithens (Madison Davenport) and Stirling Howard (Zach Mills). Kit’s father (Chris O’Donnell ) owns a car dealership and her mother (Julia Ormond) is a stay at home mother. Her older brother, whom we never see, has already left home to join the CCC, forgoing college to help out. Adults may see the handwriting on the wall when hobos Will Shepherd (Max Thierot) and Countee (Willow Smith) arrive at the Kittredge home willing to “work for food”, but Kit and her friends don’t realize something is amiss until her next door neighbour’s home is foreclosed, and they see them thrown out on the street. She is stunned to discover that she too is facing poverty when during a school service project, she sees her father eating at the local soup kitchen. He loses the car dealership and leaves for Chicago in search of work. Kit’s mother takes in a motley assortment of boarders to make ends meet, and Kit is moved out of her pretty bedroom into the attic.

Kit, an avid writer, finds solace by reporting on events around her, from the wallet theft she witnesses in town, to the hobo camp by the railroad tracks she visits in an effort to understand why so many people are in dire straights. She has to get to the bottom of the mystery called the Depression, and tries to offer her perspective in her first submission to the Cincinnati Register, announcing to the gruff editor Mr. Gibson (Wallace Shaun) “I want to be in print!” Kit’s story on the hobo camp is roundly rebuffed as too controversial; public opinion still points fingers at the hobos as lazy, undeserving troublemakers. Kit knows in her heart that her friends Will and Countee are honest, and soon she has to use her best investigative journalism skills to prove this.

Authentic costumes, sets and excellent casting make this period film work; the story line and characters are engaging if stereotyped, and the packed house on opening day gave the film a hearty round of applause. The house lights revealed tweens dressed up, and carrying their American Girl dolls. This mother-daughter event was obviously the highlight of their summer. One mother shared her approval of the “good family values” she saw reflected in the film. Her 11-year-old daughter sometimes asks difficult questions about some of the music she hears, but with an American Girl movie, she said, “a mom can just enjoy the film”.

Kit is respectful to authority figures like her teachers and her parents, yet shows just enough spunk not to back down to Mr. Gibson’s growling, nor be intimidated by some of her mother’s rougher tenants. The film’s themes of kindness to the poor, the importance of loyalty, and the fact that pain of separation of families is worse than economic troubles, warm the heart of this mother of three girls. There was only one thing missing, in the final scene at the Thanksgiving table: though a spirit of gratitude was apparent, no one said grace. The conservative families I saw shopping at the American Girl store in New York would have approved heartily if a simple prayer was said. Maybe next time.

Nothing offensive, and difficult themes are dealt with gently. Enthusiastically recommended for all audiences, even boys should give this charming film a chance.

***** 

Wall-E

G: 97 minutes

As the film opens, a dismal landscape of ruined buildings and skyscrapers made of compacted trash, clash with the catchy song, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes”, tells us that there is more to Wall-E than lifeless devastation.

Wall-E is a small robot with eyes that look like binoculars, a square body which compacts trash, and an unlikely attitude of optimism. It’s hard to figure why this little machine is so cheerful, but for some reason, it’s contagious. Each evening as wild dust storms overtake the bleak terrain, Wall-E, snug in his trailer, watches the video with the romantic song, “It Only Takes a Moment” from the movie Hello Dolly. Wall-E is lonesome. Left behind to clean up the mess on earth by humans who boarded a luxury spacecraft for a five year space cruise 700 years ago, Wall-E is the only cleanup machine left on the job. Not only does he work day after day compacting trash into blocks, but he collects items of interest: a Rubik’s cube, a rubber ducky, a fork-spoon, and his proudest new discovery, a real live plant.

This plant seems to be the only living thing left on the planet, and soon a sleek white robot named Eve is dropped down to earth from her space ship. Eve soon captures Wall-E’s heart, and he tries to befriend her in an endearing way, as he dodges her explosive defenses. Wall-E proudly shows Eve his collection, she zeros in on the plant, snatches it, and goes into a coma-like state, although not before signalling to the Mother Ship. Wall-E sadly continues to court the unresponsive robot, until he hitches a wild ride on her ship to the luxury space craft Axiom where the humans are. Struggling to keep up with his friend, the romantic little robot soon has a big impact on the humans aboard.

The irrepressible Wall-E who walks to the beat of a different drummer has won the hearts of the critics, and audiences despite the fact that there is almost no dialogue in the first hour of the film. Pixar has outdone itself in character development, and viewers strongly relate to the peculiar little robot who’s longing for love in a wasteland. The soundtrack effectively juxtaposes the tenderness of Wall-E’s “humanity” and the ruins of civilization. The 1960s song, “It Only Takes a Moment”, has always been one of my favorite show tunes, showing how unabashed romanticism ennobles relationships contrasting sharply with the barrenness of today’s hook-up culture.

Younger children may not understand the plot, and some scenes may frighten them. Older children, adolescents, and adults will love this outer space adventure in which love triumphs over selfish materialism.

***** 

Get Smart

PG-13: 110mins

Maxwell Smart (Steve Carrell) is a pencil pushing bureaucrat in CONTROL, a US government spy agency, whose moment has finally arrived. After eight attempts to pass the field agent’s exam, he eagerly awaits the good news that he has passed, and is finally given an assignment. To his disappointment, the Chief (Alan Arkin) says that headquarters needs Max’s meticulous though boring reports on the Russian terrorist agency KAOS, and can’t spare him. To make matters worse, macho Agent 23(Dwayne Johnson), struts in from his latest mission abroad, garnering the affection of the blonde receptionist.
Max leaves of the office dejectedly, feeling that all is lost. His frustration is short lived, however, for headquarters is attacked by KAOS and all the field agents’ identities are compromised, providing an opportunity for the rookie. He is sent to Russia to intercept a nuclear bomb plot to blow up the US. Sophisticated Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) isn’t thrilled to be paired with the bumbling Max, a point she makes by ignoring him on their flight to Russia. Max, thanks to his techno-geek friends Bruce (Masi Oka) and Lloyd (David Koechner) who fitted up a Swiss army knife complete with flamethrower and mini cross-bow, shows it off in an effort to impress 99, and the pair’s famous chemistry begins.

Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of sultry yet hard-hitting Agent 99 is first-rate, and Steve Carrell is the consummate Maxwell Smart; brainy yet klutzy. The film has enough classic spy action, evil enemies, and humor to keep the audience engaged. A spirited tango competition at a Russian party and testy banter between the two, are reminiscent of the 1960’s TV show. Sadly, we are soon reminded that we are not in the 1960s anymore. The humour gets progressively raunchy; the sexual elements are too blatant to go over the heads of anyone; there is a male to male kiss, fondling, and simulated homosexual acts. There was no nudity beyond bare buttocks, but has Hollywood lost all subtlety? Director Peter Segal apparently tried to cover for the lifeless dialogue in the screenplay with overdone sexual content. To say times have changed since the sixties is no excuse. Why not wow the audience with spectacular special effects, keep the slapstick gags, and leave out the smut?

There were several adolescent boys in the audience who were obviously bored; just what audience was Segal aiming for? If this was a film for adults, and the sexual content obviously makes it so, the film should have aimed for an R rating so families would know enough to get smart and stay home. Wait for a TV showing of this film where you can enjoy the action and humor, and the offensive language and overt sexual references are deleted.

Not recommended.

Leticia Velasquez is a regular MercatorNet film reviewer. She lives in New York.

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