With Kit Kittredge: An American Girl finally opening in limited release on Wednesday, it seemed like a good time to take a look at other films girls in the same age demographic might also enjoy. As a mother of three daughters, I like to seek out films that have strong female characters. So many of the roles for females in Hollywood either fall into blatant stereotypes or position young girls and women as existing on this planet primarily for the pleasures of the male half of the species, and I don't want my girls growing up believing the images of women they're exposed to through the media. Of course, everything in life doesn't have to have a political agenda -- what fun would that be? So some of these are just films my own daughters very much enjoy, that the girl in your life might like also.
Here are seven great films for fans of American Girl books and movies ... let me know what others I've missed that you like; with only seven slots to work with, I had to leave out a lot of films I otherwise would have included ...
1. Nancy Drew -- I was, admittedly, a bit concerned when I heard a Nancy Drew movie was in the works, but I needn't have been concerned; Emma Roberts shines as the brainy girl detective, in a film that's both updated for the modern girl and cutely nostalgic. Roberts' take on Nancy Drew is smart and funny; she's sweetly naive about some things, dresses in vintage clothes she restores herself, and outsmarts adult law enforcement officers right and left. Nancy's a great role model for girls who have more than fashion and movie star gossip on their brains, and as an added bonus for parents concerned about the raciness of some movies that seem to be targeted at the tween and teen sets, Nancy Drew bares no cleavage, doesn't have a sexual relationship, and doesn't need any knight (or boy) in shining armor to rescue her.
2. Harriet the Spy -- Back before little Michelle Trachtenberg grew up, she starred in this adaptation of one of my favorite kids' books, Harriet the Spy. Harriet's a smart girl who doesn't quite see the world the way other kids do. She dreams of becoming a writer; her nanny, Ole Golly (Rosie O'Donnell, in an enjoyable performance) tells her that good writers observe their surroundings and write about them, so Harriet becomes a spy of her world, jotting down her thoughts, observations and feelings in her ever-present notebook. When Harriet writes some honest, but unpleasant things about her school friends, and they get their hands on her notebook, she has to make things right again or risk permanently losing her friends.
3. Annie -- Although there was a 1982 big-screen adaptation of Annie, starring Carol Burnett as the love-to-hate-her Mrs. Hannigan, Tim Curry as her brother Rooster, and Bernadette Peters as Lily St. Clair, I much prefer Rob Marshall's 1999 made-for-Disney television version, starring Kathy Bates as Mrs. Hannigan, with stage vets Alan Cumming and Kristin Chenoweth as Rooster and Lily. Marshall did a bang-up job with this adaptation, which paved the way for him to make Chicago three years later. Oddly, Alicia Morton, who shone in the title role as the lovable, spunky orphan, hasn't done anything on the big screen since Annie, though she has had some TV roles. Morton, who came to the lead role in Annie off three years on Broadway as Young Cosette/Young Eponine in Les Mis, has a fantastic singing voice and a great presence, so maybe she's going to stick to the stage rather than the big screen in the future.
4. Akeelah and the Bee -- Another "smart girl" flick, Akeelah and the Bee follows a young, urban girl (KeKe Palmer) with a tough life -- dead dad, emotionally absent mom, gang-banging older brother -- who tries to make it to the finals of the National Spelling Bee. Laurence Fishburne becomes her coach after she wins the school level bee in a bid to avoid detention, and Akeelah has to overcome her own fears and insecurities, as well as the distractions looming from her troubled home life, while competing against more experienced spellers from better schools and backgrounds to achieve her dream. This is a smart, touching film about a young girl learning that courage can only be found within herself, and its a great film for girls of all ages.
5. Mulan -- My favorite of the Disney films, Mulan has a fiery, tempestuous misfit of a heroine; Mulan's not content to be some docile, attentive wife, although she does visit the matchmaker to appease her parents. The song for this scene, "You'll Bring Honor to Us All," is funny and satiric, and always makes my 11-year-old roll her eyes as she imagines herself ever learning to speak only when spoken to or to perfectly pour tea to impress the future in-laws. The best parts of Mulan, though, happen when she steals her father's armor and sneaks off to take his place in the army in the war against the Huns, becomes a hero -- and then is revealed to be (GASP) a mere girl. Mulan is strong, tough, doesn't cower before any man, and though she does end up with the soldier of her dreams, it's on her own terms. This is one of the few Disney flicks I can watch over and over without getting into feminist rants, pointing out to my daughters that they shouldn't spend their lives waiting for some prince to come along and rescue them. Mulan is perfectly capable of rescuing herself, thankyouverymuch, and as far as animated chick role models go, she's one of the best.
6. The Parent Trap -- Yes, yes, I know Hayley Mills originated the roles of the twins, separated as infants, who are reunited at summer camp and put their heads together to find a way to reunite their family, but I actually prefer the Lindsay Lohan update to the original. Who would have known, watching Lohan in this film (and Freaky Friday, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, and Mean Girls) that she'd take the dismal downward spiral she has over the past couple years? Nonetheless, in The Parent Trap, Lohan is still blissfully pre-breakdown -- she's cute, with cherubic cheeks and a big smile; her acting marked her as a child star to watch, and the remake remained true to the spirit of the original, while updating nicely for the decades in between. This is one my kids never get tired of watching.
7. National Velvet -- Far and away my favorite classic kid-oriented film, National Velvet stars an almost freakishly beautiful and young Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet, who dreams of owning a horse -- and wins one, in a lottery draw. When her friendship with a down-on-his-luck horse trainer (Mickey Rooney, also looking unbelievably young and handsome, which reminds one of why he was such a star in his glory days) leads her to start training her horse, Pie, to jump, she ends up competing in the Nationals -- something girls were not allowed to do. Taylor is sublime in this film, all starry violet eyes, big dreams and understated spunkiness, and this is one older film that stands the test of time. Modern girls who love horses, or who just dream of doing anything they want -- especially when they're told, "No, you can't," will still find much to enjoy in this film.